Friday, December 3, 2010

Though You Drown in Good Intentions, You Will Never Quench the Fire*

Most of us couldn’t imagine killing someone, except perhaps in self-defense or to protect a loved one. Taking a life is a drastic thing to do, and it can have a devastating effect on the person who kills. In fact, there’s a belief that “once a killer, always a killer.” That is, once a person has taken a life, she or he is likely to kill again. But is that really true? Does it really follow that someone who’s murdered will do so again? As we can see from crime fiction, that one’s not an easy question.

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?”

“Might murder.”

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.


  1. I hope it's true as it's the only thing that stopped me from killing my old boss. OK maybe not the only thing but close to it. He was a horrid bully of a man who treated all the staff very badly and I used to cheer myself up by imagining various grim, painful deaths for him (all those years of crime fiction reading came in handy I can tell you). I was discussing and refining a particularly gruesome plan for his demise with a colleague one day (I was not alone in my pass time of imagining the boss' death) and he said "they say it gets easier after the first one - if we killed him do you think it would open the floodgates and we'd start killing all the people who are only mildly annoying?" It did give me pause to think that every time I got annoyed by someone talking during a movie at the cinema (which is every time I go to the movies) I'd be knocking them off and the dead bodies around me would start to become noticeable. In the end I got a different job which didn't have quite the satisfaction as the boss' painful death would have done but was probably the right choice ;)

  2. Bernadette - I laughed out loud when I read your post. Not that I am glad you had an ogre for a boss, but in sympathy. I've had bosses like that, too. Like you, I've found crime fiction most handy in dealing with that sort of problem. Reading crime fiction gives one all sorts of creative ideas for taking grim vengeance. And when one writes mysteries, there are even more options for imagined vengeance.

    Of course, as you say, if it's true that killing one person makes one more likely to kill others, that spells danger for a lot of people. People who talk in the cinema, cut one off in traffic because they're yammering on their mobiles, park over two parking spaces, don't pick up after their dogs, and the list goes on. I hesitate to think of the consequences. So perhaps we should just agree not to cross the line even once. ;-).

  3. I don't think another murder would be inevitable, but I do think it might not be as hard for the killer to justify the second time around. Depending on the circumstance, the killer might begin to believe they are in the right in what they are doing whether they are or not. Another interesting post, leaving one to ponder the possibilities.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Thank you :-) That's exactly what makes it so intriguing; a murderer could, indeed, find it easier to justify a second murder once s/he's already killed. Your comment reminds me of the killer in Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile , who tells Poirot that what's scary is that it gets easier to kill after you've killed and that you begin to think you're the only thing that matters. Exactly the sort of thing you're mentioning here.

  5. That is a good question. One that I don't have the answer to. If a person killed out of what they viewed as necessity, than if he felt it necessary again, he might do the same thing. I think the shock of killing someone lessens each time you kill so that after killing once, it becomes easier to kill again. What a great post. Have a great weekend.


  6. Clarissa - Thank you :-). You make a good point, too, actually. Killing for the first time is a terrible, terrible shock, I think. But as you say, it's quite likely that the shock lessens once a person has killed. I think you also make a well-taken point that whether a person kills again depends on why s/he killed in the first place. Interesting stuff to ponder...

  7. I think it sure must be easier to kill again, once you've stepped over that line. And, of course, they might see the crime as necessary if the 2nd victim figured out they were behind the first crime, etc.

  8. Elizabeth - Oh, no doubt about it that a person might kill the second time if s/he thinks it's the only way to "hide" a first murder. And I agree; it's probably very much easier to kill a second time if one has already committed a murder.

  9. Oh Bernadette, one day I am going to kill MY former boss! In a crime story. I just need the right kind of plot so no one will suspect me.

    I am a bit ambivalent when it comes to your question, though. In real life I think ´the average murderer´ whoever that is only kills once. And in older novels it was also possible to write a whole novel with one victim. So even though I have begun to learn by adding more victims, I think it is a bit sad that readers - or is it publishers? - want three-four murders today. To me, many victims does not necessarily equal high quality.

  10. Dorte - I know exactly what you mean. It really does seem, doesn't it, that there's a perceived need for multiple murders in today's crime fiction. A high "body count" doesn't necessarily equal a high-quality book, either, as you so rightly point out. I'm not sure, either, whence the pressure to have several victims, but there certainly is pressure.

    In real life, thought, perhaps you are right that most people who take a life take just one. We read in the papers about multiple murderers, but maybe they make news because they are relatively rare. It's an interesting question... I have to say I think, though, that the idea of taking a life is easier to conceive of if you've done it. That may make it easier to do. Never having killed (well, not in real life ;-) ), I know know whether that is true, though.

  11. Definitely not inevitable, in my opinion. I suspect many who kill in self defense or out of desperation or rage are so appalled and horrified by the act of taking someone's life that they never get over it.

  12. Patricia - Oh, I think you've got a very well-taken point. I think it has quite a lot to do with the reason for a killing. As you say, self-defense, desperation, or rage can drive a person to do things she or he would never dream of doing otherwise. Once it's over, yes, I can see where the horror of it would haunt the killer. Hmmm...I feel another post coming on - thanks!

  13. You really made me think with this one, Margot. And one I hope I never find the answer to, because while I do often want to kill someone, I always end up creating (and living) multiple scenarios that disarm the person, and make life hell for them.

    I do know that somethings are easier after the first time- you have to really overcome your scruples the first time round, but taking a life????
    I really hope not.

    A very incoherant reply, I know, but I am going to be back after I articulate what I want to say better.