In crime fiction, many people who commit murders do so because to them, there is no other alternative. But that doesn’t mean they have no feelings; many fictional killers recognise the enormity of what they’ve done and in some cases, it’s even a sort of relief when they’re caught. But there are some killers who have what you might call no conscience at all about what they do. I’m not referring here to the all-too-common serial killer who takes pleasure in killing or in something about killing. I’m also not talking of killers who are glad for what they’ve done (as in a vengeance killing or a murder for gain). I’m talking more of killers who simply don’t feel anything about what they’ve done. To those killers, the taking of a life is a means to an end or serves some other useful purpose, and the humans involved simply don’t matter, or they don’t matter much. That kind of killer is in a way an especially chilling kind of killer, and not easy to depict in fiction. But when it’s done well, stories that feature that kind of killer can be gripping.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. His wife Jane Wilkinson is the most likely suspect; she threatened her husband in Poirot’s presence, and it’s known that she wanted to divorce him so that she could re-marry. What’s more, someone giving her name and looking like her was at the Edgware home on the night of the murder. However, there are twelve witnesses who swear that Jane Wilkinson was at a dinner party in another part of London on the night of the murder and that she didn’t leave the party until after the murder had been committed. So Poirot, Hastings and Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. In the end, and after two more murders, Poirot discovers who killed Lord Edgware and why. And in the end, Hastings describes the killer as “completely conscienceless.”
Patricia Highsmith has described her Tom Ripley as “utterly amoral. “ And so he is. He commits fraud, murder and identity theft all without second thoughts, although he’s never entirely convinced he won’t be caught. And in Ripley Under Ground, he’s no sooner settled into a comfortable life in France with a wealthy wife when he once again gets drawn into the world of crime. In this case, it’s the business of fraud and art forgery, and Ripley has no compunctions about committing the crimes he commits. The closest he gets to even considering the larger consequences of what he does is to think he’d “rather not” have to go as far as murder. He doesn’t glory in killing, but he doesn’t stick at killing someone if murder is necessary. He’s a very compelling character as much for that complete lack of conscience as for his appealing, almost suave ways.
The killer in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI is also what you might describe as amoral. In that novel, the FBI is rocked when special agent George Pritchard’s body is found at the agency’s own rifle range. The murder has to be investigated quickly and thoroughly in order to prevent the bad press that might result if the investigation doesn’t seem transparent. So agents Chris Saksis and Ross Lizenby and their team immediately begin to look into the matter. As they begin to untangle Pritchard’s complicated life though, they find that he was privy to several secrets, some professional and some personal, that could have been good motives for murder. For instance, he knew the identities of several members of a dangerous terrorist group and was about to reveal them. He was also writing a book about the FBI and was possibly going to reveal things that some highly-placed people didn’t want him to reveal. In the end, Saksis uncovers the real killer and we learn that this killer had no qualms about killing, nor seemingly any “pricks of conscience” about taking a life. That fact makes the killer that much more of a creepy character.
That’s also true of the killer in Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor. World Health Organization (WHO) doctor Calvin Doohan has moved from his native Scotland to San Francisco. He’s working there when he gets involved in the investigation of a frightening outbreak of what looks like a particularly virulent strain of influenza. He volunteers his services to the local Public Health Department to try to find out what exactly is killing the victims of what looks more and more like an epidemic. It’s not long before Doohan and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) doctor Suzanne Synge trace the epidemic to people who attended a recent conference at San Francisco’s Hotel Cordoba. Before long, the CDC, the Public Health Department and the Army Chemical Corps, led by Major Lawrence Hanson, are all working on this strange outbreak. Doohan discovers to his dismay that the outbreak was deliberately caused. What’s worse, the pathogen is not naturally occurring; it was synthesised. So Doohan comes to the conclusion that whoever started this epidemic is using the deaths as a means to some kind of end. When he discovers what that purpose is, Doohan also learns just how amoral his enemy is. He’s up against a force with no conscience or particular feelings one way or the other about the victims.
Adrian Hyland’s Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest finds herself up against a similarly amoral enemy in Gunshot Road. In that novel, she’s on her first day on the job as an ACPO when the team is called to Green Swamp Well, where prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins has been murdered, apparently as a result of a drunken quarrel with John “Wireless” Petherbridge. Tempest doesn’t think Petherbridge is guilty though and begins to ask questions. Against the specific instructions of her boss Bruce Cockburn, Tempest investigates Doc’s murder and finds that he had made a very dangerous enemy. The closer Tempest gets to the truth about what really happened, the more danger she finds. And when we do learn who’s behind Ozolins’ murder, we see that the killer is conscienceless about having taken life. It simply doesn’t matter.
There are other examples of amoral killers in crime fiction – more than there is space for here. They have to be depicted with a deft hand though; otherwise one risks either the stereotypical serial killer or a character that’s too hard for the reader to “buy.” When it’s done effectively, though, an amoral killer – a killer with no feelings one way or the other about having taken a life – can be a very chilling antagonist. Have you read novels with killers like that? If you’re a writer, have you experimented with a truly amoral killer?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Duran Duran’s Ordinary World.