One of the things writers always need to think about when they’re creating stories is motive. For crime fiction writers that usually includes the motive for a murder or series of murders. But for any fiction writer, the characters have to have some sort of believable motive for doing what they do. Otherwise they’re not realistic characters. Sometimes those motives aren’t as compelling to the reader as they are to the character but they have to be there and the reader has to believe that a given character would really be motivated in the way that the author depicts.
In some crime fiction the murderer’s motive is fairly straightforward: financial or other gain, fear and revenge are a few of those kinds of motives. In other crime fiction the motive makes sense only to the killer but in well-written crime fiction we know what that motive is. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethy dies, seemingly of natural causes. At his funeral though, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that she thinks her brother was murdered. At first everyone hushes her up, not wanting to believe that what she says is true. But privately everyone wonders whether she was right. When Cora herself is murdered the next day it seems clear that she was. The Abernethy family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate and Poirot agrees. In this novel the motive for murder wouldn’t make sense to a lot of us but it does make sense to the killer.
That’s also true of the killings in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is the undermaster of the grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. One morning he is shocked to find the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson in his classroom. As if that’s not enough, Seaton’s good friend music master Charles Thom is accused of the murder and in fact imprisoned for it. Thom claims that he’s innocent and begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and begins to ask questions. It’s not long before he finds that more than one person might have had a motive to kill Davidson. For one thing, it’s possible that Davidson was a papist spy who was willing to help his allies take over Protestant Scotland. There are several people in town who would consider that suspicion reason enough to murder him. And then there’s Davidson’s romantic rivalry with Thom for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. That’s a major part of the reason Thom’s suspected of the murder. There’s also the whisper that Davidson could have been involved with witchcraft. It certainly seems possible when Marion Arbuthnott, who was also rumoured to consort with witches, is murdered. When Seaton finds out who is responsible for the deaths, he learns that the motive makes perfect sense to the killer, even if it wouldn’t be a compelling motive for others.
In K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page, Rocksburg Pennsylvania Chief of Police Mario Balzic and his team investigate the murder of Janet Pisula. Her body is discovered one day in her room at the rooming house where she lived while attending the local community college. At first there seems to be no reason for the murder. The victim was quiet, had few acquaintances, little money and seemed to know no-one’s dangerous secrets. So it’s difficult for Balzic to trace her movements and try to get to the truth about her murder. In the end though Balzic finds out something crucial about Janet Pisula and uses that to connect her with her murderer. When we discover the reason for the killing we see that to the murderer, killing her made sense even though it really doesn’t to a lot of other people.
That’s also true of the killer in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. In that novel, Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman has to deal with not only her patients, some of whom are really suffering, but also her own deep sense of loss at the death of her husband Stefan. One day Bergman gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. Then she’s framed for a drink driving incident. Other frightening events happen too and before long, Bergman is convinced that someone is trying to destroy her professionally. Matters are made very much worse when the body of one of Bergman’s patients Sara Matteus is found in the water near Bergman’s home. Bergman herself is suspected of the murder and now it’s clear that someone is trying to ruin not just her practice but her life. Slowly Bergman and her friends Aina Davidson and Vijay Kumar discover who is behind Sara Matteus’ murder and the stalking and other incidents. When we learn the truth, the killer even explains why everything happened; to the killer it all does make sense. To others what the killer does is appalling.
But that is fiction. Fiction writers as I said have to explain characters’ motives. Readers want to know them. In real life it doesn’t happen that way. On Friday 20 July, a shooter opened fire in a crowded Colorado movie theatre, killing twelve people and injuring over 50 others. We don’t know, and maybe we never will, exactly why those murders happened. There will doubtless be dozens of profilers, psychologists and other experts who will give their opinions as to why it happened. There will be calls for more security, for greater gun control and for a lot of other things. The media will cover this horrible tragedy from every angle.
But that won’t change anything. And that’s perhaps the worst thing about this awful event. Twelve people are dead and nothing we say or do will bring them back. Dozens and dozens more are injured and although they may heal physically, they will have to deal with this always. We don’t even really know why the shootings happened and that makes things worse. It’s easy enough to say, “Oh, well, the shooter was a deranged person.” That may be true but it certainly doesn’t explain much to the families of the victims or to those who were injured. We can’t even give those people the admittedly sad satisfaction of knowing why it all happened.
Crime fiction writers have it easy; we’re allowed (expected even) to have everything make sense in some way. Those who have been affected by the Colorado shootings don’t get to have things make sense. Not now and maybe not ever. To the families of those who died on that awful night, my deepest condolences. To those who were injured and their families, I wish you strength and hope as you heal. I hope it’s of at least a little comfort to know that this is appalling to all of us. I wish you all peace and healing. I also wish I could give you answers.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays.