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!