In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, for instance, Sherlock Holmes makes it clear that he doesn’t think that a person who kills inevitably kills again. In that story, Sir Eustace Brackenstall is killed in what looks like a robbery gone wrong. The notorious Randall gang has been at work in the area, and it’s believed that they’re responsible. Inspector Stanley Hopkins calls Holmes in and before long, it’s clear that the Randall gang wasn’t anywhere near the Brackenstall home on the night of the murder. Holmes puts the clues together and discovers that Brackenstall’s death had nothing to do with theft and everything to do with his and his wife’s past. When Holmes catches the killer, he persuades the culprit to tell him everything that happened. Afterwards, Holmes says:
“I was only testing you and you ring true every time….Come back… in a year and may…future… justify us in the judgment which we have pronounced this night.”
In this case (although certainly not in all of his cases), Holmes is convinced that the killer will not strike again.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot seems to be of two minds when it comes to the question of whether or not a killer is bound to kill again. On one hand, as he himself says, he does not approve of murder. In several novels, he warns one or another character that a killer who has once killed will kill again. For example, in Cards on the Table, Poirot and three other sleuths are invited to dinner by the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Shaitana also invites four other guests, all of them people who’ve killed and gotten away with their crimes. When Poirot is first invited, he warns Shaitana:
“In my opinion, a really successful murderer ought to be granted a pension out of the public funds and asked out to dinner.” [Shaitana]…
“I am not as insensitive to art in crime as you think. I can admire the perfect murderer; I can also admire a tiger – that splendid tawny striped beast. But I will admire him from outside his cage. I will not go inside. That is to say, not unless it is my duty to do so. For you see, Mr. Shaitana, the tiger might spring.”…
“I see. And the murderer?”
Shaitana chooses not to heed Poirot’s warning, and he’s stabbed on the night of the dinner. Poirot and the three other sleuths investigate the four suspects and in the end, Poirot figures out which suspect killed Shaitana.
On the other hand, Poirot has been known to give a killer what you might call “the benefit of the doubt.” I won’t give away spoilers, but there is at least one novel in which he lets the killer go.
Ngaio Marsh discusses this question in Tied Up in Tinsel. Hilary Bill-Tasman has commissioned painter Agatha Troy to do a portrait of him over the Christmas holiday. So she’s present when another guest, Hilary’s uncle Fleaton “Uncle Flea” Forrester plans to dress up as a Druid for Christmas Eve and distribute gifts to the local children. Just before his scheduled appearance, though, Uncle Flea has what he calls one of his Turns, and is too ill to participate in the festivities. His servant, Alfred Moult, takes his place and at first, all goes well. Then, Moult disappears and is later found dead. The most likely suspects are the members of Bill-Tasman’s staff, all of whom are “oncers.” This means they’ve committed a murder, but are not regarded as likely to kill again. Bill-Tasman’s hired them because of his belief that they’ve reformed. Troy and Bill-Tasman persuade Troy’s husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, to investigate Moult’s disappearance and some unpleasant practical jokes that have been going on, so Alleyn travels to Bill-Tasman’s country home. He finds that the staff has been acting suspiciously, and tries to get the truth from them. Here’s the explanation that one staff member gives to explain why they are innocent:
“For us, each of us, it [the murder each committed] was what you might call an isolated act. Like a single outbreak – an abscess that doesn’t’ spread. Comes to a head and bursts and then that’s it. It’s out of the system. We’re no more likely to go violent than anyone else. Less. We know what it’s like afterwards. We’re oncers.”
Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti is as determined as any sleuth to bring killers to justice. And yet in at least one case, he knows that the killer is not likely to kill again. In About Face, Brunetti is working with Maggior Filippo Guarino on the murder of Stefano Ranzato, the owner of a trucking company that was being investigated for illegal transport of toxic materials. Brunetti discovers that this murder may be related to a request he’s gotten from Franca Marinello, a woman he met at a dinner party at the home of his parents-in-law. She asks Brunetti to find out why her husband’s computer records and finances are being investigated. As Brunetti gets the facts about that case and the Ranzato case, he finds that, indeed, the two incidents are related. Then, Antonio Terrasini, an alleged gangster with a shady reputation, is shot one night at a casino. Brunetti witnesses the event, and he knows who shot Terrasini. What’s interesting is that neither he nor his boss, Vice-Questore Patta, is inclined to prosecute the case. They both know that this killer is not likely to strike again.
On the other hand, here’s the view of Jack McGuane, who features in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. McGuane and his wife Melissa are devastated to learn that Garret Moreland, the biological father of their adopted daughter Angelina wants to assert his parental rights. Since he never legally waived them, he’s entitled. McGuane suspects Moreland’s motives, but Moreland’s father is a powerful judge and the law is on his side. The McGuanes are given twenty-one days in which to relinquish custody of Angelina. McGaune decides to do whatever it takes to keep his daughter, and “whatever it takes” becomes much more than he could have imagined. This is what McGaune says about the question of killing again:
“I know anyone is capable of anything, including me. It’s a fine line between good and evil….once you cross it, bad acts become more effortless to commit because the moral restraints have loosened, and justifications cushion the implications of the crime.”
This isn’t entirely a settled question, and perhaps that’s what makes it an interesting one. What do you think? Once someone has killed, is another murder inevitable?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's The Stranger.