Friday, September 17, 2010

Which Came First?

One of the questions that intrigues people about crime is what turns a person into a criminal. Are murderers “bad seeds” to begin with or is it their environment that turns people into killers? Of course, this is an awfully complex question, and there isn’t one answer to it, probably because there are all kinds of killers, and they murder for a wide variety of reasons. Many people even argue that the forces that drive a person to kill are both “nature” and “nurture.” Maybe it’s because this question is so complex (because, after all, people are complex) that we see so many answers to it in crime fiction. Some fictional criminals seem to be “bad seeds.” Others are driven to kill by circumstances. Others don’t fall easily into either category, and that can make them all the more interesting as murderers.

Some of the murderers in Agatha Christie’s novels seem to have been born with the inclination to kill, or at least to commit crime. For instance, in
Dead Man’s Folly, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is excited when she is chosen to play the role of the victim in a Murder Hunt (a sort of scavenger hunt) at a fête to be held at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Hercule Poirot is attending the fête so that he can present the prizes to the winners of the Murder Hunt competition. Tragedy strikes when Marlene is found strangled, and Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who killed Marlene Tucker and why. At first, there seems no motive for the murder, since she had no fortune and no enemies. But as Poirot gets to know the Stubbs household and the Tucker family, he uncovers all sorts of hidden secrets. It turns out that Marlene found out one of those secrets, and paid for it, as they say, with her life. When Poirot solves the crime, this is what one of the characters says about the killer:

“I have always known…Even as a child, ___frightened me…Ruthless…without pity…and without conscience…”

In Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Poirot’s secretary, Miss Lemon, asks him to investigate some mysterious thefts and other occurrences at the hostel that her sister manages. Poirot agrees and visits the hostel. On the night of his visit, one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits that she’s been responsible for the thefts, and everyone thinks the matter is solved. But two nights later, Celia suddenly dies in an apparent suicide. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, though, and Poirot begins to investigate the death and its connection to the other events at the hostel. He finds that Celia was murdered because she knew too much about someone at the hostel. He also finds that the murderer has killed before. In fact, someone who has known the killer for a long time was aware of this propensity for crime, and left a letter to that effect. The letter stated that the killer had, “always been unsatisfactory,” and might take another life. In the end, that’s what happened. This killer, too, turns out to have been “born that way,” so to speak. There are a lot of other examples, too, both in real life and in crime fiction, of killers who seem to have been born with the propensity to kill.

There are other killers who have become murderers at least in part because of their environments.
For example, in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Officer Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police investigates the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s moved to the reservation. At the same time, he’s investigating the disappearance of Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teenager who’s a distant kinswoman of Gorman. Chee believes the two cases are related, and as it turns out, he’s right. As he searches for Gorman’s killer, and for Margaret Billy Sosi, Chee goes up against a murderer who, you could argue, is very much the product of environment. As the story progresses, we learn about the killer’s background, and it’s quite easy to see how someone raised in that background might have turned out to be a killer. We don’t end up having any sympathy for the killer, really, but we do understand how environment created this murderer.

The same is true in Colin Dexter’s
The Daughters of Cain, in which Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murders of former Oxford don Felix McClure and his former scout Ted Brooks. As Morse and Lewis find out more about McClure’s life and that of Brooks, they see how those lives intersected with each other and with those of other characters in the book, including the murderer. When we find out who committed the crimes, we see how environment as much as anything else played a role in shaping, if you will, the killer. In this case, we feel sympathy for the murderer, and we can see exactly how and why the murderer’s background played its part in the killings.

Many cases of murder, of course, aren’t as simple as “nature” or “nurture.” Very often we see a blend of those factors that ends up being deadly. For instance, in Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence, private investigator Jade de Jong returns to her native Johannesburg after a ten-year absence. When she arrives, her father’s former police partner David Patel asks her to help investigate the brutal murder of Annette Botha. As the two begin looking into that case, another murder occurs. And then another. The murders don’t seem to be related, but as de Jong and Patel discover, they are. Throughout the novel, we also get to know the killer. Through flashbacks, we find out about the murderer’s background, and we get a look “inside the killer’s head.” In this case, it’s not easy to tell exactly what “created” this killer. On one hand we see clearly the effects of background. But on the other, it’s just as obvious that the killer might not have “turned out,” even in a different environment.

That’s also true of the killer in Simon Beckett’s
Whispers of the Dead. In that novel, forensic anthropologist David Hunter visits Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory and is soon caught up in the investigation of several brutal killings. As he and the team he works with look into the murders, it’s clear that there’s a serial killer at work. Parts of the novel are told from the killer’s perspective, and as we learn this perspective, we see how both nature and nurture have worked to create the murderer. Again, it’s really difficult to say here which, exactly, has the greater effect.

And then there’s the killer in Håkan Nesser’s
Woman With Birthmark. In that novel, Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called to the scene of the death of Ryszard Malik, who’s been shot in the head and the groin at close range. There are very few clues to the killer, so the police have to start, as it were, from scratch. Then another, similar murder occurs, and another. Soon it’s clear that the murderer is likely to strike again. So Van Veeteren and his team are not only trying to catch the killer, but they’re also trying to prevent others from becoming victims. In this novel, we know who the killer is right from the beginning. In some ways, it’s quite obvious that the killer’s background led directly to murders. In that sense, the killer is the product of environment. On the other hand, in personal note, the killer writes,

“In addition [to the circumstances of environment], I have the urge to kill inside me.

In this novel, too, it’s not so easy to figure out whether the killer is a product of nature or nurture. So what do you think? Are killers made from nature? Nurture? Both? Is it a "chicken-and-egg" question?


  1. When I use a Sherlock Holmes story in one of my classes, we often laugh a bit at their firm ideas about ´nature´, and that the criminal always looks ferocious, wild, etc. (If only it were so simple). But in real life, with the exception of psychopaths, I am sure it is possible to have a fairly normal and happy childhood and turn to murder later in life. And I think most modern crime stories would either share that view or at least a view that it is a mixture of social circumstances and inheritance.

  2. The "blood will out"-theme is an interesting one! I saw one of the new Marple's that focused on that - "They Do It With Mirrors", I think it was.

  3. Dorte - You are right about the Sherlock Holmes stories. I think that was a popular view in that era and it's in some of the other authors' work of the time, too. Of course, if it were that easy to figure out who the "bad guy" is, where would crime fiction writers be? ;-).

    I agree with you, though, that it is perfectly possible to have loving parents, a good home, a solid education and so forth and still become a criminal. There area lot of stories (real-life stories, I mean) of people like that. One feels so terrible for the parents in those cases (or at least I do). And yes, I think modern writers (and psychologists) would probably in general agree that it's perfectly possible to have mixture of inheritance and environment.

    Alexandra - I agree; the question of nature/nurture really is an interesting one. I didn't see the televised They Do it with Mirrors, but that is a theme in the novel. It's actually a theme in Mrs. McGinty's Dead, too.

  4. I just wanted to comment and let you know I'll be back to read it. I have to go out for awhile and I hate reading your post in a hurry.

    I love your photo. At first I thought you were going after the chick with a knife.

    Be back soon.


  5. Clarissa - Thanks for the kind words about the 'photo. No, I would never have a 'photo that threatened or hurt animals. And no worries about stopping back later. I'm flattered you come by and comment at all :-).

  6. I think people sometimes would never consider murder but become a murderer because of fear of a future event. For instance, in Elizabeth George's A Great Deliverance, a father was murdered to protect another person and fear of a future event. Also, people don't consider murder until one of their own family is murdered and as revenge...


  7. Clarissa - You certainly have a point that circumstances of life can drive a person to the point where s/he thinks that committing a murder is the only way out, so to speak. A Great Deliverance is one example of that, and there are many, many others. In those situations, you could certainly say that murderers are made, not born.

  8. I think it's both, Margot. I've no doubt some real-life killers are a product of their environment, yet some kids are strong enough to overcome their backgrounds and live productive lives. On the other hand, some pretty fortunate and well-treated kids have gone bonkers later in life. It's why writers write about murder, I think. Trying to figure it all out.


  9. Patricia - You put that quite well, I think. There are too many examples of people who "make it," even with a tough environment, and who don't, even with a loving environment, to believe that it's all environment. Of course, there are plenty of cases where a murderer really is a productive of her or his environment, too. And I hadn't thought about it, but you've got a point that that may be why writers find murder interesting: it's fascinating to try to make sense of it all.

  10. Environment is a factor in producing a killer, but I don't think it makes a person a killer. For some, I think the killer uses their environment as an excuse for what they do. For others, their environment may create a circumstance for them to kill but usually that would only be to defend themselves and not kill to be killing. And sometimes I think that a killer is just born with that gene (for lack of a better term). For some killers there seems to be no reason that they turned to killing. Very thought provoking post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Mason - Thanks :-). There certainly seem to be killers who come from loving homes, solid backgrounds, etc., whose environment would not be likely to have caused them to kill. You make an interesting point, too, that sometimes, environmental factors do cause circumstances that would drive someone to kill in self-defense or defense of a loved one. And I hadn't thought of the killer using a background as a defense, but that does makes sense. I know that happens in real life.

  12. I saw your blog mentioned on Dorte's site and thought I'd stop by to say hello. Nice to meet you, I've enjoyed visiting.

  13. Petty - Welcome :-). Thank you for visiting; it's very kind of you, and it's a pleasure to "meet" you, too.

  14. An interesting question for me would be is there anyone who would not kill in certain circumstances--not just to save your own life but for other reasons.

  15. Patt - That really is an interesting question. In fact, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot asks that in several novels. I think there are circumstances under which people who never thought they would kill would do so...