Saturday, June 12, 2010

There's Someone in My Head, But It's Not Me*

“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.


  1. Arguably "Death Comes at the End" was one of Christie's that featured an insane killer.

    As always a great post.

  2. Al - Solid point, and thanks for bringing that one up. Folks, if you haven't read that one, it's an interesting foray Christie took into historical mystery. Worth a read...

  3. I confess to being a little squeamish when it comes to violence in novels, so I do approach novels with a psychopathic theme with caution. In saying that, I will tackle them if they have received a good review.

    I think the most successful novels of this type are the ones that play on tension as opposed to violence. The ones where you almost can't bear to read on because of the implied threat, rather than those that rely on splatter.

  4. I'm not a fan of the crazy killer. I prefer them to have solid reasoning behind their actions (even if I disagree with their reasoning).
    Thanks for sharing another excellent post.

  5. Vanda - I'm a little squeamish, myself, so like you, I'm a little cautious about novels that feature psychopaths. So I don't read a lot of them. The ones I do read tend to be more suspenseful than gruesome.

    You make a good point, too, about tension. It's really that tension that keeps readers turning pages, and in my opinion, it takes quite a lot of talent to build the tension and suspense without creating a gore-fest.

    Cassandra - Thanks for your kind words : ). I like my murders to make sense, too. But I also think that most murderers have what they think is a good, logical reason for killing. Crazy killers' reasoning is different, but it exists. That said, though, it takes real talent to create a crazy killer whose reasoning we can understand, if not accept. And most of them don't achieve that.

  6. If done correctly, these stories filled with gruesome details can make for a good read as strange as that sounds. To me, when reading this type book I except a fair amount of gruesome details. However, if the author goes overboard with those details, then the story is lost. Great post and some interesting new books for me to check out. Thanks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. "An overwhelmingly important reason to kill".
    That reminded me of the time many aeons ago when I worked in New Malden, near Kingston upon Thames.
    One weekend two women were murdered in separate incidents, and the local police constable came in and told me that he had surpassed Maigret in his swift conclusion of his investigations. He had arrested the respective husbands and solved both cases in 24 hours!
    I like my crime fiction to bear resemblance to real life and most murders are committed by spouses, friends, ex-lovers, business partners or rivals. The genuinely psychopathic killer is a rarity and random killing is sometimes used as a cover for the real motive such as in the ABC Murders or The Laughing Policeman. Even the recent tragic "random" shootings in Cumbria turned out to have a motive in some of the killings.

  8. I don't like psychopath murderers on the whole - I mean in books though undoubtedly in life as well! I do like the investigator, detective person to use psychology in her reasoning of who might have done it though. perhaps that is because I am a therapist. Not sure...

  9. Like Vanda, I want to be sure the novel is not *too* scary, but then I am a crime fiction fan, not really a thriller fan. Reading is a sort of escapism so please don´t make it too real for me :D

  10. I am not fond of this sort of book. It seems too easy, too predictable, too scary and too high of a body count.

  11. Mason - I think you hit on something important. If the author goes, as you say, overboard - adds so much gruesome detail that the story is lost - then the plot falls flat and the story loses its appeal. It becomes just a bloodbath then.

    Norman - Wow - 24 hours? That is impressive. I think you're right, that most crime is committed by spouses, friends, co-workers, etc.. They aren't committed by, as you say, truly psychopathic killers. In that sense, I see your point about crime fiction resembling true life. I actually prefer that sort of crime fiction, myself. And thanks for sharing the latest in those sad Cumbria killings. I rather thought there might be something other than randomness in those murders. As you so wisely point out, there usually is.

    Jan - Oh, that's interesting! I suppose one's profession would naturally affect the kind of reading one likes to do, and characters one likes, etc.. I actually like stories, too, where the sleuth uses psychology to solve the crime. Cigarette butts, footprints and even DNA only go so far...

    Dorte - Oh, I'm with you. I want to read for pleasure and for the intellectual exercise, if you will, of solving the crime. Being truly frightened because of how real the story is can push things too far for me, too.

    Patti - Beautifully said! It is extraordinarily easy for this kind of book to become "cookie cutter" in terms of plotting. And yes, a weirdly high body count and lashings of blood can be frightening for no good reason. There are some fine examples of this sort of novel, but arguably, they're few and far between.

  12. Your posts are always exceptional Margot, but this one is even more so due to the personal insights I've garnered from it. I was drawn into murder mysteries by Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot with their "logical and scientific" crime detection. I devoured all the Nero Wolfe stories. My reading branched into the "humorous" detective novels with Janet Evanovich and Carl Hiaasen. However, I could never explain, to others or myself, why I found John Sanford's Prey Series so compelling. This series is full of psychopaths committing horrendously violent crimes. To borrow from Arlo Guthrie, Sandford's Lucas Davenport seemed to always be seeking a murderer who had "blood and gore and guts and veins in his teeth." I know that this type of murderer is unappealing to me, so why would I always lose sleep reading Sanford's latest?

    Vanda Symon's comment and your reply provided the answer for me: the tension. Whether Lucas Davenport is searching for a brutal psychopath--which is often the case--or a dispassionate professional assassin, Sanford's books are fraught with tension. Thanks for providing me with some personal insight and, of course, thanks for your great, great, posts!

  13. Bob - How very kind of you : ). It's really nice of you to take the time to say such kind things. I understand exactly what you mean, too, about why we are drawn to particular series. Lots of times I think you're right - it's tension. In well-written series, the author builds tension effectively so that the reader can't help but turn pages. And sometimes, the author does this quite subtly, so that the reader doesn't even really know why s/he can't put a book down or resist the next novel in the series. You really make an interesting point here!