Tuesday, August 10, 2010

So...any regrets?

Knowing that one’s caused the death of someone else is a heavy, sometimes truly awful burden. It’s rare that a killer feels absolutely nothing about having taken a life, because killing is such a serious thing to do, and seems for most of us so alien to our nature. So how do killers feel about being murderers? Do they feel guilt? Fear? Grim satisfaction? Relief? In real life, a murderer might feel any one of these ways, or even a combination, depending on why the murder has been committed. And if crime fiction is any indication, the way the murderer feels about the killing depends a lot on why the murder was committed and what kind of people the victim and murderer are.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas), we meet old Simeon Lee, a wealthy retired mining tycoon who’s tyrannized his family for years. He was shamelessly unfaithful to his wife, has mentally abused his children and in many other ways, has alienated everyone. One Christmas, Lee invites all the members of his family to spend Christmas at the family home. No-one wants to accept the invitation, but no-one dares refuse it, because Lee is a very wealthy man who carries grudges indefinitely. All of the family members duly arrive for the holiday, and it’s not long before all sorts of conflicts and personal animosities arise. On Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby with a friend, and is asked to help investigate. He finds that nearly everyone in the family had a good reason to murder Lee. Poirot gets to know all of the family members, as well as a good deal of information about Lee and his past, and in the end, he’s able to find out which of Lee’s relations murdered him. Lee was such a hateful person that the killer says,

”God rot his soul in Hell! I’m glad I did it!”

In this case, even though the killer is quite well aware of what has happened, there is no sense of guilt about the murder. It’s not so much that the killer is conscienceless. Rather, it’s that the victim was so unpleasant.

Sometimes, murderers feel that what they’ve done is justified because, if you will, there are larger forces at stake. For instance, in Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, Dr. Calvin Doohan of the World Health Organization (WHO) gets involved in the investigation of an outbreak of deaths related to a virulent form of influenza. Doohan slowly discovers that the deaths were deliberate, and bit by bit, gets closer to finding out who’s been responsible for the outbreak. When he confronts the killer, he asks why the that person has committed what Doohan considers mass murder. The murderer says, among other things,

“We were at war, Doctor…And in a war, you have to expect casualties…we know damn well the world’s a jungle.”

This murderer has certain regrets about some of the deaths that have occurred, but basically believes that the end goal justified most of the deaths. Even at the very end of the novel, the person behind the deaths doesn’t really feel guilt.

Many murderers, though, do feel tremendous guilt when they know they’ve killed, even if they thought there was no other choice, or if they’ve felt driven to kill. For instance, in Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, successful designer Sheila Grey is shot one night in her apartment. The first and most obvious suspect in her death is the very wealthy Ashton McKell, who lives in the same apartment building and with whom it seems that Sheila has been having an affair. Things aren’t that simple, though, and McKell is cleared of the murder. Then, it looks as though McKell’s wife, Lutetia might have been responsible for the killing. Then, McKell’s s son, Dane, who’d fallen in love with Sheila, is suspected. The McKells aren’t the only suspects, either. Inspector Richard Queen, who’s assigned to the case, works with his son Ellery to untangle the strange network of relationships in Sheila Grey’s life and uncover the real murderer. After a few false starts, Ellery Queen finally gets the vital clue that leads him to the killer. When that killer is identified, we can immediately see a surge of remorse:

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, there’s something wrong inside me, there always has been…Everything went wrong."

We can see horror and awareness of what killing does to one in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who’s murdered while she’s on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. The most likely suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort. Jacqueline had motive, too; it turns out that Linnet had married Jacqueline’s fiancé, Simon Doyle, and since then, Jacqueline’s been following the couple everywhere, including the honeymoon cruise. The only problem with that theory, though, is that Jacqueline de Bellefort couldn’t have committed the crime. Her movements at the time of the crime are carefully accounted for, and there’s no way that she could have shot her former friend. So Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s on the same cruise, have to look elsewhere for the killer. In the end, Poirot finds out who’s responsible for Linnet’s death and for two other murders that occur during the cruise. The killer says:

“It’s so dreadfully easy – killing people. And you begin to feel that it doesn’t matter…that it’s only you that matters! It’s dangerous, that.”

Many killers try to diffuse that horror and remorse by justifying what they’ve done, but some of them admit that they are responsible for their actions. In a way, that’s rather refreshing. For instance, in K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page, Rockford Police Chief Mario Balzic investigates the murder of Janet Pisula, a quiet student at the local community college. No-one knew her very well, and at first, there just doesn’t seem to be any reason for murdering her. In fact, it’s hard for Balzic and his team to find out much about Janet, because she simply didn’t make that much of an impression on people. In the end, though, Balzic puts the pieces together and finds out who killed Janet Pisula and why. When he confronts the murder, the murderer says that there could be all sorts of lies about how it was everybody else’s fault, but in the end,

“I killed that girl all by myself. I killed her ‘cause she was me.”

We also see that sense of responsibility in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. In that novel, Jack and Melissa McGaune are horrified when they find out that the eighteen-year-old biological father of their beloved adopted daughter is asserting his parental rights. The McGaunes have been given twenty-one days to surrender their daughter Angelina to the court. Jack McGaune in particular can’t imagine why Angelina’s biological father would suddenly be so interested in Angelina, since he’d evidenced no concern for her previously. So he decides to do whatever it takes to keep Angelina. As the time gets closer and closer, McGuane finds himself more and more desperate, and ends up doing things he could never have imagined. In fact, at the end of the novel, here’s what McGuane says:

“I know anyone is capable of anything, including me. It’s a fine line between good and evil and, given the situation, the line moves…It moved for me, but I still managed to cross it – repeatedly.”

Depending on the circumstances, a person who has killed could really feel any number of things; remorse and guilt, relief, pride, and horror are just a few possible reactions. If the reaction is logical, given the characters and the crime, then the story rings true. What’s your view? Are there reactions to being a murderer that just don’t ring true for you? Or do you allow for just about any reaction?

On Another Note...

Thanks very much to those of you who've been so supportive of the new In The Spotlight feature here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. For those who would like to follow along, here are the next three books I'm planning to put in the spotlight:

Monday 16 August/Tuesday 17 August - Roseanna - Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö

Monday 23 August/Tuesday 24 August - A Morning for Flamingos - James Lee Burke

Monday 30 August/Tuesday 31 August - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith.

Hope you'll enjoy!


  1. Ooh, it all comes down to motive, doesn't it? And that is always a dilemma when writing a crime story: have I provided sufficient motive for my killer? What is grounds for murder for one would barely register for some others. I really believe that a good writer - regardless of genre - is part psychologist, don't you?
    And here is a true story. My mother accidentally killed her young brother when she was a toddler. She was sitting at a table on her eldest sister's knee and pulled a pan of boiling water off the table and onto her baby brother, crawling on the floor below. Would you feel guilt about this? I certainly would but Mum? Not a bit. It takes all sorts.

  2. Nettie - You put that quite well. It really does come down to a believable motive. What would drive a particular person to kill, and how would that person feel, knowing s/he's taken a life. I hadn't really thought about it before, but you do make an excellent point. Novelists really do have to be part psychologist. Characters and the way they act just have to be authentic.

    When I read your story about your Mum, I asked myself how I would feel if I'd done that. I would probably feel wretched - always. As you say, everyone's different and it does take all kinds.

  3. I think I *can* believe any reaction to murdering, if it's well-written. After all, we can't really get inside the brain of a murderer (and I don't want to), but I'm sure there are lots of different reasons why they get to the point of murder.

  4. Elizabeth - Oh, that's the main point - if it's well-written. If a character is well-drawn, we can imagine how that person might feel guilty, proud, frightened, or any one of a number of reactions to having killed. In my opinion, the murderer's reaction has to "fit" with her or his character and her or his motive.

  5. I think we need to be able to get inside their brain on some level. Otherwise there is just a victim and the authorities. To me the villain is the most interesting character.

  6. Patti - No doubt about it; if the criminal is boring, the book falls flat, even if the victim and the sleuth have some sparkle. It really is important to have a sense of the way the culprit is thinking, and that includes how s/he feels about having killed.

  7. I can't wait to read your thoughts about No.1... on Aug. 30th. Though I read it a long time ago, I will never forget McCall Smith's beautiful description of Botswana.

  8. Suzanne - I agree, McCall Smith gives a wonderful, evocative description of Botswana and of the people who live there. I'm glad you're looking forward to that book being in the spotlight : ).

  9. I think it's important for a writer to make sure the reader knows why a killer does it. Really understand the psychology behind the act. It adds another dimension to the story.

    Also, look forward to your Monday posts. I haven't read any of those books so I want to know what books are out there to read.


  10. Clarissa - Thanks : ); I'm glad you like In The Spotlight. Didn't Rayna have a great idea?!

    And I agree with you; readers really do need to understand what's going on in the killer's mind, and how s/he thinks about the killing. Why did it happen? How does it affect the killer? It runs the risk of overburdening the story but if it's done well then yes, it really does add an interesting dimension to the story.

  11. Thank you once again, Margot, for a very insightful post! I can very well imagine the antagonist in my story saying “I know anyone is capable of anything, including me. It’s a fine line between good and evil and, given the situation, the line moves…It moved for me, but I still managed to cross it – repeatedly.”

    About The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: I read the book a couple of months ago and now there's a TV-series (from HBO starring Jill Scott as Mma Precious Ramotswe) on every Saturday.



    A bit different than Midsomer Murders or Inspector Morse :).

  12. Margot regarding The Spotlight I have only read Roseanna, but it might be a good opportunity to catch up with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency if I can get it on time.

  13. Christine - Thanks for the kind words : ). And thanks for those links to the television series. I had heard that that series was on, but had never watched it. That's one of the things I like about the book series; it's really not your "typical" detective series, if there is such a thing. Mma. Ramotswe is a unique kind of sleuth.

    And I look forward to reading your work; it always interests me so much to learn what makes a person cross that lane and take a life, perhaps even more than once.

    Jose Ignacio - I'll look forward to your comments on Roseanna, and I think you will like The No. 1..... It's a different sort of series with a different sort of setting and characters. I've become quite the fan, so I hope you'll enjoy it , too.

  14. Looking forward to the Spotlight features. Three excellent books.

  15. John - Thank you : ). I think those books are terrific, too.

  16. Margot, after reading all these comments I wonder if a book where the murderer appeared motiveless to the reader would be acceptable? We were never told why Lecter was the way he was until the very last book, Hannibal Rising (a book I hated). It certainly didn't stop me enjoying Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. What does everyone think?

  17. Nettie - Oh, that's such a good, good question! Can we get absorbed in - even really enjoy - a novel where the murderer doesn't have a motive - or doesn't seem to. Hmm... well, you're right about Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. We aren't told his motive in that novel. And there are crime novels I've read and liked where the killer murdered someone accidentally. It's still a killing and a crime, but not one with what you'd call a motive. Hmm.... I think it's possible if it's well-written. I just think those are hard to pull off. What do the rest of you think?

  18. First: I am looking forward to your spotlight on Roseanna - a wonderful classic!

    And motives for murder: well, now and then I think they are a bit flimsy, but as I am so keen on crime, I am usually ready to accept one or two minor flaws. Just like I accept the premise that everybody can kill in fiction, but not in real life.

  19. Dorte - Agreed; Roseanna is definitely a crime fiction classic!

    I also agree that it's much easier to accept a somewhat flimsy motive for murder, or a rather unbelievable reaction to having murdered, in a novel, especially if the novel is otherwise very well written. In real life, though, we want things to make sense. We want people to act believably. Of course, I've also read novels where the reason I didn't like the novel was that the motive for murder was just too hard to believe, or the killer just acted in too unlikely a way.