“You’d have to be crazy to kill someone.” That’s a popular assumption about murder. Part of the reason we want to think that may be that we don’t want to imagine a “normal” person committing murder; that, in itself, is awfully disturbing. The reality is, of course, that most murders are committed by sane people who have what they believe is an overwhelmingly important reason to kill. Still, the image of the insane killer is a popular one, and plenty of crime fiction focuses on that sort of murderer. When it’s done well, this sort of crime fiction gives us an eerily fascinating look at the mind of someone who’s gone “around the bend.” That can be engrossing, even haunting. The problem with such crime fiction is that it can be very difficult to do well. First, it’s very difficult to make such a novel original, and avoid a cliché plot and “cardboard” characters. Also, it’s a real challenge to make characters in such a novel appealing, or at least compelling. After all, an insane murderer isn’t exactly a sympathetic character. Finally, many people are put off by gore and too much violence. It’s hard to tell the story of a psychotic killer without getting gory. Despite these challenges, though, a great deal of crime fiction is focused on murderers whom most of us would classify as insane.
Agatha Christie’s novels don’t usually focus on a killer who’s insane, although in several novels, the murder being investigated is at first blamed on a wandering lunatic who’s escaped from an insane asylum. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling murder of Marlene Tucker, a young teenager who’s killed during a large fête. At first, no-one can imagine a reason for a sane person’s killing this girl, who didn’t have enemies and certainly wasn’t wealthy. At one point, the girl’s father blames her killing on a maniac, claiming they
“…look the same as you or me…”
Of course, in true Christie style, there’s more to solving Marlene Tucker’s murder than finding a wandering lunatic.
In one of Christie’s novels, Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Poirot investigates the poisoning death of beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington. He’s one of several guests invited to a cocktail party at the home of Sir Charles Cartwright, a famous actor. During the party, Babbington suddenly dies. At first, no-one can imagine a reason why this kindly clergyman with no fortune and no enemies should have been killed. Then, at another party, another death occurs in a very similar way to Babbington’s death. To some of the people who were at the first cocktail party, it seems clear that the two deaths are connected, and that’s the way Poirot investigates them. In the end, and after another death, Poirot finds out how the deaths are connected. In this case, the killer is what you’d call mad, but has been able to “hide” behind a façade of normal behavior. You might say that’s the twist in this story, since it’s not until Poirot puts the pieces together that we really know who’s covering up madness.
Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is a fascinating firsthand look at the way a psychotic killer thinks. That’s the story of Lou Ford, deputy sheriff of the town of Central City, Texas. Most people think of Ford as a pleasant if somewhat dull lawman, but he’s actually hiding a terrible secret he calls “the sickness.” When Ford was younger, he was involved in a horrible incident that, for him, was the start of “the sickness.” That “sickness” comes back with a vengeance as Ford gets involved in the investigation of a brutal beating, a murder, and later, other murders. Saying more about this novel would probably give away too much; suffice it to say that it’s a compelling look at murderous insanity.
More recently, there’ve been several novels that feature a killer who’s insane. Some of these novels have been very highly regarded. For example, Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs is the story of Clarice Starling, a candidate for the position of a special agent with the FBI. The FBI is investigating the case of a brutal killer they’ve nicknamed “Buffalo Bill.” He was at one time the patient of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist who’s now a resident at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The FBI needs Lecter’s help in tracking down “Buffalo Bill,” so Starling is sent to interview Lecter. Lecter is willing to help, but on one condition: for every piece of information he gives Starling, she has to reveal a personal secret. In their interactions, and in the search for “Buffalo Bill,” we get an “inside look” at the way the deranged mind works, and that adds to the pace, tension and suspense of this novel.
In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, we meet Raynard Waits. He’s a brutal killer who’s been arrested for two gruesome murders, and found with grisly evidence of his crimes. Bosch, who’s working in the Open-Unsolved Unit for the L.A.P.D., gets the word that Waits may be willing to trade a confession for other murders in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. One of those cases is the disappearance and presumed murder of Marie Gesto, a young woman who walked out of a Hollywood supermarket and never made it home. Bosch himself investigated the Gesto case years earlier, and was never able to find the killer. He had a likely suspect in mind, but was never able to prove the case. So when Waits agrees to confess, Bosch has to re-think his theory of the case. Then, he finds that there was evidence at the time of the Gesto case that could have helped him find the real killer. Now, not only does Bosch have to look into the Waits killings to verify what Waits alleges, but he also has to face his own failure to prevent a group of murders that have occurred since Marie Gesto’s death.
We meet another deranged killer in Jeffery Deaver’s The Sleeping Doll. In that novel, California Bureau of Investigation interrogation expert Kathryn Dance is assigned to interview Daniel Pell, a convicted killer who’s the leader of a Manson-like cult “family.” Pell is in prison for the brutal murders of almost all of the members of the wealthy Croyten family. The only one who escaped Pell’s rampage was the youngest Croyten, Theresa. Dance needs Pell’s help in solving two other, more recent, brutal murders. So she visits him in prison to find out if he’s connected to the newer killings. Pell gets the better of Dance, though, and escapes. Then, more murders occur, and it seems that Pell and his group are on another killing spree, determined to get revenge on everyone who’s ever gotten in Pell’s way. Now, Dance and her team have to stop Pell and his group before they strike again.
In Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead, forensic anthropologist David Hunter is on the trail of a brutal killer who has a peculiar kind of madness. Hunter is visiting Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory when he’s drawn into a macabre investigation. A decomposed body has been discovered at a cabin not far from the lab. As the lab team begins its investigation, another body is discovered, and then another. Before long, it’s obvious that a serial killer has been at work, and Hunter and his team have to track the killer down before there’s another murder even closer to home for Hunter. In this story, it’s not until Hunter figures out what the killer’s particular obsession is that he’s able to really put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Crime fiction that focuses on psychopathic killers is risky, both for the writer and for the reader. On one hand, this kind of killer can add a compelling layer of suspense, interest and action to a plot. And many people really are fascinated by the way the deranged mind works. On the other, it’s very, very easy for such a novel to degenerate into a clichéd, gratuitously violent bloodbath. That’s one reason, as a matter of fact, that many people avoid such novels. What’s your view? Do you read novels with the “psychopathic” theme? If so, which ones have you thought well-done?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Brain Damage.