Wednesday, October 6, 2010

And the Silicon Chip Inside Her Head Got Switched to Overload*

An interesting post by Martin Edwards got me thinking about the way crime fiction depicts people’s motives for murder. To put it a bit simplistically, you could argue that there are two kinds of murder motives in crime fiction. One kind is what you might call external; greed, blackmail, fear, self-defense and sudden jealousy are examples of that kind of motive. There are also what you might call internal motives; in those murders, it’s something about the psychology of the murderer that drives her or him to kill. We see plenty of both kinds of motives in crime fiction, but as we’ve learned more about the human mind, we’ve also seen an increased interest in the kind of psychological makeup that creates a killer. So it wouldn’t be surprising if, as Martin suggests, we also see more attention paid to internal motives in today’s crime fiction.

Many people think of Golden Age crime fiction as focusing on those external kinds of motives and a lot of it did. But even some Golden Age writers also sometimes wrote about killers whose motives were more internal. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Hercule Poirot is invited to a cocktail party at the home of Sir Charles Cartwright. During the party, one of the guests, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. At first, there seems no reason for murdering Babbington; he wasn’t wealthy and as far as anyone knows, had no enemies. Then, another, very similar murder occurs. This time, the victim is Sir Bartholomew “Tollie” Strange. Several of the same guests attended both parties, and it now seems clear that the two deaths are related. Poirot works with Sir Charles and with Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore, who attended both parties, to find out who committed the murderers. It turns out that the murderer’s motive is an internal, psychological one; once Poirot figures out how the murderer’s mind works, he’s able to figure out why Babbington and Strange were killed.

In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we meet Howard Van Horn, the son of wealthy manufacturing tycoon Diedrich Van Horn. He’s been troubled by a recent series of blackouts which are cause for concern in and of themselves. Van Horn’s concern turns to real fear when he wakes up from a blackout one day covered in blood. Convinced that he’s committed some terrible crime, Van Horn seeks out his old college friend Ellery Queen and asks for his help. Queen agrees to help find out what’s behind the blackouts and whether Van Horn may have committed a crime. The search for the truth leads to Van Horn’s home in Wrightsville, a small New England town, so Queen and Van Horn visit the family home. While they’re there, Howard Van Horn has another frightening blackout. During the blackout, his stepmother, Sally Van Horn, is murdered. It looks very much as though Howard Van Horn has committed the murder; even he himself comes to believe he’s guilty. But Queen isn’t so sure. So he investigates the crime and finds out the truth. In this case, the murder has everything to do with the killer’s inner psychology and in fact, the way the mind works is a strong theme in this novel.

In recent years, internal kinds of motives have become quite popular in crime fiction. For example, Ruth Rendell’s novels, those under her own name and those written as Barbara Vine, frequently feature psychological themes. For instance, 13 Steps Down is the story of Mix Cellini, who makes a living repairing exercise equipment. Cellini takes a flat in the home of Gwendolyn Chawcer, who has deep psychological scars from her tyrannical father. Cellini, who has his own share of neuroses and phobias, doesn’t much care for his landlady, and the feeling is mutual. But the two develop a business relationship. In the course of his work, Cellini meets Merissa Nash, a beautiful supermodel, with whom he becomes obsessed. Over time, this obsession begins to take control of Cellini. So does his obsession with the life of Dr. Richard Christie, a notorious serial killer. As time goes by, Cellini’s life comes more and more to resemble Christie’s – with horrible results.

In P.D. James’ A Taste for Death, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate the twin murders of Minister of the Crown Sir Paul Berowne, and Harry Mack, a local tramp. When the bodies are first discovered in a local church, it looks as though it might be a case of murder//suicide, although there isn’t clear-cut evidence. When the forensic details are carefully examined, though, it turns out that it’s really a case of double murder. Now, Dalgliesh and the team look into Berowne’s life to see who would have wanted to kill both him and Harry Mack. The investigation leads to all sorts of tangled family relationships and hidden secrets. In the end, Dalgliesh and his colleagues find that the killer’s motives were very much internal. It wasn’t a matter of greed, fear, power, or some of the other more external motives. Rather, the deaths have everything to do with the killer’s internal psychology.

Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark also features a killer whose motives for murder are as much internal as anything else. In that novel, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are assigned the case of Ryszard Malik, who’s been found shot in the head and groin. The killer’s done a professional job of it, too, leaving very few clues. So the investigation team doesn’t have much to start with. Then another murder occurs, and then another. It’s now clear that the murderer is going to strike again, and that Van Veeteren and his colleagues will have to find out how the victims are related if they’re going to track down the killer. From the beginning of the novel, we know who the killer is. As the novel unfolds, we get an “insider’s view” of the killer’s thinking, and we get to see the internal reasons the killer has for the murders.

There’s a fascinating study of the internal, psychological motive for murder in Thomas H. Cook’s The Cloud of Unknowing. That’s the story of David Sears and his sister, Diana and their family. David and Diana are the children of a severely schizophrenic father who traumatized each of them in a different way. They’ve both got what one could call normal lives, though. David has married and has a daughter. Diana, too, has married and had a son. The only cloud in the proverbial sky is that Diana’s son Jason seems to have inherited his grandfather’s schizophrenia. Everything changes one day when Jason drowns in a nearby pond while his father, Mark was supposed to be looking after him. The death is ruled an accidental drowning, but Diana begins to send David all sorts of cryptic messages that Mark may have killed Jason. He’d never come to terms with Jason’s mental illness, and Diana believes he may be responsible for Jason’s death. She has no real proof, though. Still, David begins to feel she may have been right about Mark. Then, Diana begins to behave strangely, and David starts seeing his sister display the same signs of schizophrenia that their father had. Now, David isn’t sure what to believe about Diana, Mark, and Jason.

Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool also deals with the internal, psychological reasons people have for committing murder. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. As they look into the case, they find that it may be connected with two more recent deaths, that of book collector George Saffell and of successful attorney Stuart Wagg. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett and her team are able to discover the link among the cases. It turns out that these murders all had a very psychological motive.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any of the many crime fiction novels that focus on serial killers. There are certanily many excellent psychological thrillers by writers such as Val McDermid, Vanda Symon, Rob Kitchin and Jeffery Deaver that feature serial killers, and they, too, examine those killers’ internal motives.

Of course, lots of modern mysteries focus on external motives such as greed, fear, anger and so on. Those external motives can be quite believable. But it makes sense that the more we learn about human thinking, the more interesting internal motives for murder can be. Which novels have you enjoyed that focus on this kind of motive?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Boomtown Rats' I Don't Like Mondays.


  1. You know, I've never really thought of it that way before but it's true. It really is an internal and external issue. And, I'm often more atracted to the internal issues than the external. I think that's why I read Val McDermid, Rendall, James and Edwards. I want to know what goes on in the minds of those who kill.


  2. Clarissa - I like to think about what makes killers "tick," too. I think people who write murder mysteries tend to be interested in why people take lives, even if they don't write psychological mysteries. It's a fascinating topic (at least to me).

  3. Insightful post, Margot -- I'd never thought of it this way. My immediate reaction was that I like the external motive ones more, and upon reflection I realized that's why I don't generally like the serial killer stories that much. Reading about someone's sick psychology just isn't as appealing to me. So thanks for making me think that through.

  4. Karen - Thanks :-). One of the things I really like about crime fiction is that there's such a wide variety of it. There are lots of novels that feature internal kinds of motives, and lots, too, that feature external ones. So there's something for just about everyone. And I always think it's fascinating to learn about people's different tastes.

  5. Sometimes it is hard to understand why a person does what he does. In One Two Buckle my Shoe, for instance, is the driver internal or external. On the face of it, external (power, greed, glory), but at another level, it is internal because the person is driven to act that way because of who he is.

    Fascinating post.

  6. Rayna - Oh you raise a very interesting point! Sometimes, it isn't just one kind of drive that leads a person to kill. It is that person's internal psychology, but it is also an external motivator such as greed or power. That's certainly true in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, and it's true in other novels as well.

  7. I've always been fascinated by what drives people over the edge to murder. Sometimes, obviously, it's something really big (frequently those are more on the external end of things), but then there are the little frustrations and the psychological issues that can just as successfully drive someone to murder. Sometimes, the reasons seem almost least recent ones in our local paper seem that way!

  8. Elizabeth - I know just what you mean. Those internal psychological reasons can build and build to the point where a person does "snap." As you say, the reasons may seem petty on the outside, but to the killer, they are not. I've always thought that it was really interesting, too, to think about what pushes people over that "cliff." I think it's different things for different people, too, actually.

  9. What a fascinating point you've made, Margot and one I've never thought of in exactly those terms. I should think that for some, the external motives for murder will only get acted upon if the internal tendency is already present. After all, there aren't many of us who would look at a situation and think murder is a viable solution. Well, we might think that, but we wouldn't actually do it. Well...I'll be quiet now.

  10. Elspeth - Thanks :-). That's such an interesting way of thinking! A person's psychology probably really does play a very important role in whether she or he commits a murder given a provocation. There's a big difference between thinking, "I'd like to kill_____, and actually doing it." For most of us, there is an inner brake, if you will, that prevents murder. Quite a well-taken point for me to ponder - thanks...

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