Tuesday, July 6, 2010

I Told You I Was Trouble*

Some people have a great deal of insight into their own and others’ characters. They’re able to sense their own or others’ tendencies, and can often give very intuitive information about themselves and others. In crime fiction, it’s interesting how often killers are aware (or become aware) of their own propensity to take a life. Even when they aren’t murderers, characters with this kind of insight can often give the sleuth extremely useful information.

We meet a character like that in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner). In that novel, famous American actress Jane Wilkinson asks Poirot to help her get rid of her husband. She tells Poirot that she wants to marry again, but that her husband won’t grant her a divorce. Very reluctantly, Poirot agrees. When he and Captain Hastings visit Jane’s husband, 4th Baron Edgware, both are surprised to find that Edgware has no objection to the divorce, and in fact, wrote to tell his wife of the fact. Confused by this turn of events, Poirot and Hastings leave. The next morning, Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp tells Poirot that Lord Edgware’s been stabbed to death and that his wife is the prime suspect. It’s soon clear, though, that she has an alibi for the murder; she was seen by several people at a dinner party in another part of London at the time Edgware was killed. Even the host is prepared to swear to her presence. So Poirot and Hastings have a complicated case to solve with several threads. What’s interesting is one particular character’s reaction to the murder. That character actually warns Poirot about the person who turns out to be the murderer. In fact, in ways, that character has more insight into the murderer than anyone else, especially at first.

It's especially interesting when the killer is aware of his or her own inclination to kill. In Christie's Death on the Nile, for instance, Poirot investigates the shooting death of beautiful, wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle while she’s on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. The first and most obvious suspect is Linnet’s former friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, who’s on the same cruise. Linnet’s new husband is Simon Doyle, Jacqueline’s former fiancé; since the marriage, Jacqueline seems to be obsessed with the new couple, and follows them wherever they go. The only problem with that theory is that Jacqueline de Bellefort has an ironclad alibi for the time of the murder. On the night of the murder, she got into an argument with Simon and accidentally shot him in the leg. Realizing what she’d done, she had hysterics and spent the night in a drugged sleep under the watchful eye of a nurse who’s also on the cruise. So she can’t be guilty. Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also on the cruise, begin to investigate the murder and find that more than one person had a motive to murder Linnet Doyle. During the course of the investigation there’s another death, and then another. In the end, Poirot figures out the truth about the murders, and has an interesting conversation with the murderer. The killer has enough self-knowledge to say,

“I might do it again…I’m not a safe person any longer. I can feel that myself.”

That same awareness comes to a killer in Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. General Fentiman, an elderly member of Lord Peter Wimsey’s club, is found dead in his chair one morning. Fentiman’s only living relation was his wealthy sister, Lady Dormer, who’s also just died. According to the terms of her will, if Lady Dormer died first, her considerable fortune would pass to a distant cousin. If her brother, the General, died first, the money would go to his grandson. So it becomes extremely important to establish whether brother or sister died first. As Wimsey’s investigating this question, he also finds out that the General was poisoned. Now, he not only has to establish times of death, but also the identity of the General’s murderer. The killer knows full well the consequences of the murder, and when Wimsey makes it clear that he, too, knows what’s happened, the murderer takes a drastic measure. It’s an interesting case of becoming aware of what it is to be a killer.

In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, we also meet a very self-aware killer. Lou Ford is a deputy sheriff in Central City, Texas. On the surface, he’s a pleasant, if not exactly overly bright, man. Inside, though, he’s got a terrible sickness and he knows it. In fact, he refers to “the sickness” he’s had ever since his teenage years. After a traumatic incident at that time, Ford had managed to stay “hidden,” but when a brutal beating and then a murder occurs, “the sickness” also returns. Slowly, the people around Ford begin to realize what he has always known about himself. In fact, this is a fascinating look at a very self-aware person.

The killer in Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma is also quite well aware of that tendency to kill. In that novel, the lucky Watson family has won an all-expenses paid trip to New York City’s exclusive Hotel Beaumont. The prize includes a shopping spree, Major League Baseball tickets, and more. The Watsons duly arrive and are settled into their posh suite on the fourteenth floor. Then one morning, beautiful twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson disappears. Her body is later found stuffed into a trash can, and hotel Manager Pierre Chambrun is determined to find out who killed her. He works with the police and with the hotel’s public relations manager Mark Haskell to track down the killer. When Chambrun discovers who the killer is, we see that the killer is fully aware of being a killer, and isn’t afraid to continue killing. It’s an interesting and somewhat chilling look at a killer who’s not afraid of that identity.

Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk is an interesting study of a killer who develops that self-awareness. In that novel, Edward Armstrong is a noted neuroscientist who’s lured to work for a breakout biotechnology company, Genetrix. He and his team are contracted to develop a new anti-depression medication based on research he’s been doing. Then, Armstrong meets and falls in love with Kimberly Stewart, a Boston-area nurse. Through his relationship with Kimberly, Amrstrong finds an ergot growing in the basement of a house Kimberly’s renovating. The ergot has psychotropic properties, and Armstrong and his team think that they’ve stumbled on a breakthrough. In order to speed the process of research and development, the team members test the drug on themselves – with frightening results. This novel is arguably not Cook’s best; however, there are some engrossing points in the novel where the team members become aware of the consequences of their testing. In the end, the steps that two of the team members take are a clear illustration of how a killer can become aware of how dangerous he or she is.

In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, we meet a truly chilling killer who’s quite well-aware of what he is. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist who’s also criminally insane. He’s been sent to the Baltimore State Hospital For the Criminally Insane, which is where FBI trainee Clarice Starling meets him. She’s been sent to interview Lecter and get his help in catching a serial killer that the FBI has nicknamed “Buffalo Bill -” a killer who used to be one of Lecter’s patients. Lecter agrees to help, but on one condition: for every piece of information he provides, Starling has to reveal a personal secret. Throughout the course of the novel, we see clearly how Lecter has come to terms with his identity as a killer, and the picture he shows us of that razor’s edge between sanity and insanity is haunting.

Very often spies and assassins are fully aware of their propensity to kill. Certainly Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon is. He’s an assassin who works for a top-secret Israeli Intelligence organization called The Office. An art restorer by profession, he’s called into service when the organization needs his specialized skills. Allon justifies the murders he commits – or more accurately, they are justified for him. Still, he’s fully aware that he’s a killer.

There are, of course, all kinds of killers; some have a great deal of insight into who they are as murderers. Others don’t. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed where the killer shows that kind of insight?

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good.


  1. I am always amazed by your post. There are several books here that you have definitely peaked my interest in. Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter is a prime example of a killer having insight into who they are and what they are. I'm sorry to say I've never read any of Agatha Christie's novels (only seen the movies) but I thoroughly enjoy your take on them.

  2. Mason - How kind of you! Thank you : ). You are right about Hannibal Lecter; he knows precisely what and whom he is, and really, he makes no apologies for it. I think that's part of what makes him so deliciously creepy.

  3. I think it's really chilling when these killers admit to their propensity for killing. To me it highlights how *different* they are...in a very disturbing way.

  4. Elizabeth - I know! Isn't it really eerie when killers are that aware of what they are? It does send a shiver up the spine when we realize just how unusual and, well, you're right, disturbing they are.

  5. Hannibal Lector is a marvelous example of how thin the line is between genius and insanity. When killers are gifted with self-knowledge it can make for a chilling and thrilling read. It also can make the most horrific monster somewhat more sympathetic - I know when I watched (through my fingers for some scenes) Silence of the Lambs I was rooting for Lector to get away. Of course, never ever underestimate the brilliance of Sir Anthony Hopkins...

  6. Elspeth - You are so right about Sir Anthony Hopkins! He is incredibly talented. It is interesting how we can have sympathy for the killer under certain circumstances. One of them is definitely when we see how fine the line is between criminals and the rest of us...

  7. I like a wide array of killers. Some are methodical. Some have split personalities and do not realize they are a killer. Some discover their dark secret along the way. I love Dexter, a killer who kills killers. Very cool.

    Stephen Tremp

  8. Stephen - I hadn't thought of Dexter when I wrote this post, but you're absolutely right. He certainly is aware that he's a killer, and he's had to incorporate that into his identity. Interesting, too, that you mention killers who aren't aware at first that they are killers. I think that takes particularly deft writing, because otherwise, it's too easy to slip into a formulaic plot. Still, it's really intriguing...

  9. I love assassin stories. I think it's interesting that a person can go out and kill without thinking something is wrong with it and then do it again and again. I also find serial killers who feel justified to kill intriguing. What makes them tick?

  10. Clarissa - Good question! I've often wondered what it is that pushes a person over the edge to the point that s/he thinks killing is acceptable - even necessary. It's easier for me to understand so-called "crimes of passion." Killing in the heat of strong emotion is at least comprehensible. But killing for its own sake? And thinking nothing is wrong with it? I wonder about that, too...