Wednesday, June 2, 2010

It's All in How You Look at Things...

When people commit crimes, they usually do so for a reason. That motive could be private or public, but to the murderer, the motive is compelling enough to commit the crime. We may not agree with the motive; we may not even understand the motive, really. To the killer, though, the motive is strong enough to take someone’s life. So when police and other detectives investigate a case, they need to take the murderer’s perspective. For instance, you might not think that it’s worth killing someone for a small amount of money. But if someone is absolutely desperate, a small amount of money can make a big difference – enough of a difference to kill. The same goes for lots of other motives, too, and that’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. In fact, it’s often not until the sleuth really understands the criminal’s perspective that she or he can solve the crime.

That’s one reason why Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot doesn’t depend exclusively on physical clues to crime, such as footprints, cigarette ashes and so on. Instead, he looks at the psychology of crime. He tries to understand the ways in which people think, and the perspectives they take. It’s often then that he’s able to look at a crime in the way the killer does, instead of the way the killer wants him to think. For instance in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Poirot is a guest at a cocktail party at the home of Sir Charles Cartwright, a famous actor. During the party, another guest, loved and respected clergyman Stephen Babbington dies suddenly from what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. One of the most difficult aspects of the case, even for Poirot, is that there seems to be absolutely no reason to kill Babbington. He had no fortune to leave, he didn’t have any proverbial skeletons in the closet, and he was much beloved by his congregants. Then, another death occurs, very similar to Babbington’s. Now it’s clearer than ever that Babbington was murdered, and Poirot begins to connect the two deaths. He still can’t see exactly why Babbington was murdered, though – not until he looks at the death from the killer’s perspective. Once Poirot realizes what the killer hoped to gain by Babbington’s death, he’s able to identify the killer.

We see a similar “perspective-taking” in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). In that novel, wealthy Richard Abernethie dies suddenly (although not completely unexpectedly). His family gathers for the funeral and later, the reading of the will. During the gathering, Abernethie’s sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that her brother was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her, and even Cora retracts what she said. But privately, everyone begins to wonder whether she was right. After all, Abernethie was a very wealthy man, and all of his relations are eager for their share of his fortune; the motive for murdering Abernethie is fairly logical. Then, the next day, Cora herself is brutally murdered. Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, is now certain that Cora Lansquenet was right, and that Richard Abernethie was murdered. He visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate the case. At first, the motive for both murders seems clear: Abernethie was murdered for his money, and Cora Lansquenet because she knew too much. It’s not that simple, though, and it’s not until Poirot is able to take the perspective of the murderer that he gets to the real motive, and is able to identify the killer. In fact, when he does identify the killer, another character even says (to the killer):

“You killed her – in that brutal way – for [the motive]?”

Poirot, who understands the motive, explains it a bit further, and in the end, the killer is even, in a way, grateful to him for understanding it.

There’s an interesting study of having to take the murderer’s perspective in Rita Mae Brown’s Murder at Monticello. In that novel, archeologist Kimball Haynes is the leader of a team that’s excavating some newly-found ruins on the property of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. An old slave cottage has been discovered, and in the cottage, the skeleton of a long-dead local man. The team is very excited to make this local connection – until it’s discovered that the man may have been involved with one of Jefferson’s slaves. In the midst of this controversy, Kimball Haynes is shot. Now, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth, tries to find out who wanted Haynes killed and why. It’s not until she’s able to really take the perspective of the killer that Harry is able to figure out why, to that murderer, Kimball Haynes had to die.

In Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, there’s a particularly fascinating (and disturbing) treatment of the murderer’s perspective. In that novel, we know right away – in fact, from the first sentence – who’s killed the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family. Their housekeeper, Eunice Parchman commits the murders of George Coverdale, his wife, Jacqueline, his daughter, Melinda, and his stepson, Giles. The question here isn’t who committed the murders, but what the killer’s perspective was. The Coverdales aren’t cruel, so the motive isn’t revenge, really. They’re well-off, but Parchman doesn’t murder them for the sake of what’s in anyone’s will. Rather, it’s her perspective on herself, the Coverdales, and the fact that she’s illiterate that drive her to kill. To Eunice Parchman, murdering the Coverdales is, in its way, a completely logical thing to do. That’s in part what makes this book so absorbing.

Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool focuses on the way that the sleuth needs to take the killer’s perspective. Book collector George Saffell is killed and his beloved collection of books is destroyed in a fire. The Cumbria Constabulary is investigating that fire at the same time as DCI Hannah Scarlett is investigating the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. At first, there doesn’t seem any connection between the deaths, and neither victim seemed to have made the kind of enemies that would commit murder. There doesn’t seem to be a greed motive, either. Then, attorney Stuart Wagg disappears, and his body is later found stuffed in a well. Scarlett is sure that the three deaths are connected, and she and her friend, Fern Larter, also with the Cumbria Constabulary, begin to look into the deaths as a connected set of events. It’s not really until Scarlett understands the perspective of the murderer, though, that she’s able to discover why those three people were killed – and by whom.

Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, is also a really interesting look at taking the perspective of a murderer. That’s the story of Horace, a banker who’s always lived his life very quietly without the least hint of scandal. From childhood, he’s always lived a very quiet, sheltered life, interested only in numbers and in his beloved hobby – figuring out ciphers. For years, his life goes on quietly, and he gets a job in an old, well-established, ultra-respectable bank. He slowly moves “up the ladder” at the bank and is doing well. Then, one day, he’s at his boss’ home when he meets his boss’ daughter. The two get on well and before long, they’re married. However, instead of making his life better, Horace’s new wife changes everything about it, and proceeds to make him miserable. He’s more and more unhappy with her every day. The breaking point comes when he comes home from work one day to find that she’s burned all of his beloved ciphers because she thought they were just old papers. Now Horace is truly upset – so upset that he can think of only one solution. He lures his wife out to the balcony of their apartment and pushes her over. It’s not long before he’s caught, and what’s very interesting is the conversation he has about the death with the police officer who arrests him. The police officer asks him,

“Why didn’t you just leave her?”

Horace knows that this police officer will never understand his point of view, so he struggles to explain:

“Leave her? And risk the horrid scandal of a divorce?”

Very often, the sleuth needs to understand the killer’s perspective if the motive for a murder is going to make sense. That’s arguably because most of us wouldn’t consider committing a murder, so murders just don’t make sense. But to the killer, they do. Which novels have you enjoyed where understanding the killer’s perspective is essential to understanding the crime?


  1. That's one reason I love Val McDermid's books. She writes psychological thrillers and her MC is a psychiatrist. He tries to get into the head of the psychopathic serial killers. Love them.


  2. Another great post, and I have to agree with Clarissa on McDermid's books, love the way the MC often shares the same shortcomings as the killer, which helps him to understand the motives.

  3. Clarissa - You are right about Val McDermid. I, too, like the fact that her protag is able to figure out what's going on inside the killer's mind. That's what I also so much like about Michael Robotham's Joe O'Laughlin. He, too, is a psychiatrist, and he's also able to figure out how a killer's mind operates. We see that in Shatter among other novels, and it shows us how the killer thinks.

    Charmaine - Why, thank you : ). And you've raised an interesting point. When the sleuth shares some characteristics with a killer, it does give him or her insight into that killer. McDermid does that well. Hmmm...methinks there's another blog post in there... : ). Thanks for the inspiration : ).

  4. Rendell is one of my favorite writers and I really enjoyed "Judgment." I found the book chilling, but--as you mentioned--so absorbing. I think most psychological thrillers you have to want to get some insight on what makes the killer tick.'s just meaningless violence.

  5. You've hit on my favourite aspect of mystery writing, Margot - the WHY. I've always been drawn to that question rather than the Who and the How. (although Who is obviously important). I'm sure this is why I devour Elizabeth George's novels - her latest is spectacular. I'm hoping mine gives readers a chance to step inside my characters brains and experience the events through their eyes and skins and (hopefully) understand WHY one of them decided murder was the logical option.

  6. A Judgment is also a favourite of mine. I think it is so important for a crime writer to vary the motives.

    I remember a film(no names so I won´t spoil it) where an old woman dies. Her ´best friend´ killed her for a rather small sum of money which she needed to fulfil an old dream. It made a huge impression on me, and the actors played the roles so convincingly that I had to buy it.

  7. Elizabeth - Isn't Judgement... a truly chilling book? It is engaging, but it is so eerie, too. You're right, too. If you don't have a sense of why the killer kills, then the murder is all for nothing. That can so easily disintigrate into violence, and for me, that's not mystery - that's gore.

    Elspeth - Oh, the "why" is truly the most intereresting part of a mystery. Thinking about what makes a killer feel that there simply is no choice but to take a life is such a fascinating mental trip. And every time you mention your book, I get more and more eager to read it. I'm sure that it'll be fantastic.

    Dorte - Oh, that movie sounds deliciously creepy. It's those motives that make little sense to most of us, but every bit of sense to the killer that are so intriguing! And there's nothing like high-quality acting to make a film unforgettable.

  8. How in the world do you come up with these well-researched topics almost every day. Wow, as I've said before.

  9. Patti - Thanks : ). You are very much too kind.

  10. I agree with Patti. Wow is definitely the word!

  11. I fully endorsed Patti and Martin. Wow.

  12. Martin and Jose Ignacio - My sincere thanks to both of you, especially coming from two gentlemen whose blogs are so superior. I appreciate the kind words : ).

  13. I agree with everyone, this is a great blog! Nobody can match your broad range of topics and "example books" you discuss, Margot. Wonderful.

    I agree with most of the point that it is satisfying when the detective has to get into the mind of the criminal in order to understand motivation and so on. Where I part company with this approach is when inhabiting that mind is an excuse for the author to provide sick fantasies and "memories" of horrible crimes, often involving torture and demeaning of women and other helpless victims. Although I am an admirer of Val McDermid and think many of her books excellent, for me she has crossed this line a few times. Many "serial killer" novels do this, repeatedly treating the reader to short chapters of the criminal dwelling lovingly on awful acts, or memories of his (or her) ghastly childhood in which his mother did terrible things to him, etc. Usually, these do not help the reader to work out who the criminal is, because the denouement is usually that there are half a dozen suspects and the "evil minded one" turns out to be one of these at random, almost. A nasty combination of tedium and unpleasantness!

  14. Maxine - Thank you : ). That's awfully kind of you.

    I know what you mean about that line between "getting into the head" of the murderer in an interesting way, and using that as a platform, so to speak, to explore all sorts of gore that doesn't necessarily add anything to the plot. For me, one of the real keys has to be a strong plot; if the plot isn't well-constructed, then it's reduced to a nasty-fest.