An interesting post by crime writer and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about fictional murderers. Elizabeth’s very well-taken point is that it’s important for an author to make the murderer a human being – someone who isn’t all bad. I’m sure we’ve all read books in which the killer is a ‘cardboard cut-out’ character who has no redeeming qualities and that doesn’t make for a good story. It’s much more engaging when the murderer is a normal human being – a person who kills not because it’s fun but because there seems little other choice. We may not condone what a murderer like that does, but we understand it. It’s a tricky balance to strike because at the same time, committing murder is a horrible crime and it’s important not to miminise that fact. That said though, when the murder is presented as a complete person, with good qualities as well as the fact of having killed, this invites readers to care what happens. In whodunit type novels it’s also an effective way to keep readers guessing who the killer is. If none of the characters are really all bad (or all good) it’s harder to pick out the murderer.
We’re invited to see the murderer as a full human being in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Linnet Ridgeway Doyle has just gotten married, and she and her husband Simon choose a cruise of the Nile as a part of their honeymoon. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The most obvious suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. Simon is Jacke’s former fiancé and since the marriage, Jackie’s been following the newlyweds wherever they go. She even threatened Linnet. But Jackie can’t have committed the murder and several witnesses can attest to that. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, as is Colonel Race; the two of them will have to look among the other passengers to find the killer. Throughout this novel we see the killer as a sympathetic character in a lot of ways. Even Poirot, who ‘does not approve of murder,’ feels sympathy for that person. In fact, during their final confrontation, the killer explains why and how everything happened. Here’s a bit of their exchange:
‘Don’t mind so much, Monsieur Poirot. About me, I mean. You do mind, don’t you?’
That doesn’t stop Poirot from letting justice take its course, so to speak…
In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate two murders. First Felix McClure, former Ancient History don at Wolsey College, Oxford, is found stabbed in his home. Morse and Lewis begin work on this case by looking at the people in McClure’s life. One is his former scout Ted Brooks, whom McClurse suspected of dealing drugs on campus. Another is a prostitute Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, who counted McClure among her clients. There are other possibilities too, but Brooks seems the most likely. Then, Brooks disappears and is later found murdered. Now the case takes on a whole new dimension. Morse and Lewis have to investigate all of the connections between the two victims and there are more than one. Throughout this novel, we follow the characters involved in this case and all of them are presented as complete human beings, with strong points as well as weak. That’s just as true for the murderer as it is for the other characters and when Morse figures out the truth about the case, we can see that all along, Dexter has invited readers to look at the killer as far more than a ‘cardboard cutout.’
In Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, we meet TV presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s got a basically happy marriage, a terrific relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo, and a decent job. And yet he’s hit a sort of plateau in his life. As the story begins he’s trying to work out how to handle his sense of floundering, his family life and his complicated relationship with his mother, who’s in a care facility. He’s also dealing with his sense of loss over the death of Phil Smedway, his mentor and predecessor at the network. Partly as a way of dealing with that loss, Allcroft finds himself drawn to the place where Smedway died in a hit-and-run incident. The police think the death was a tragic accident, but as Allcroft reflects on it, he begins to wonder. The roadway where Smedway was hit is flat and straight, with plenty of room for even a drunken driver to veer out of the way of a pedestrian. What’s more, the weather was clear and dry when Smedway was killed. So Allcroft begins to look into the death. As his interest grows, he speaks to the various people in Smedway’s life and slowly puts together the pieces of what happened. Throughout the novel, O’Flynn ‘fleshes out’ the characters so that when we find out what really happened to Smedway, we can feel some sympathy for the person behind the death.
Certainly Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer feels that way in Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf. That novel begins with the murder of Halldis Horn, who’s found dead just outside her home. The victim lived in a rather remote area so there aren’t many witnesses. But the evidence seems to point to Errki Johrma, a mentally ill young man who sometimes stays in that area. Sejer wants to interview Johrma but by the time he gets to that point, Johrma has disappeared. Serer and his team try to track him down, but they are distracted by a bank robbery. The team learns that the bank robber has taken a hostage and run off, so in order to rescue the hostage, the team has to turn all attention to the robbery. In the end, these two cases turn out to be related and when we find out the truth behind what really happened to Halldis Horn, and what really happened during and right after the bank robbery, we learn that the killer is not a ‘cardboard cutout’ evil person. We may not condone what the killer did – it’s impossible to do that. But we can see that this is a person with good points who has nevertheless taken a life.
That’s also the case with Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is sent to Wodonga to help the local police solve a series of robberies committed by a motorcycle gang. In the latest incident, which took place at a railroad station, the paymaster was wounded, so the police want this case solved. Berlin settles into the local hotel and begins to work on the case. Then the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in a local alley. Now Berlin has to divide his time between that case and the robberies. At first he thinks that the motorcycle gang that has been committing the robberies is responsible for Jenny Lee’s death, but he soon learns he’s wrong about that. When Berlin and journalist Rebecca Green discover the truth about both the robberies and Jenny Lee’s murder, we get a real sense that the ‘bad guys’ here are not all bad. In both cases it’s a matter of normal people with real personalities who have strengths as well as weaknesses – and who’ve committed crimes.
Wendy James’ Out of the Silence also tells the story of a complex – and sympathetic – person who has taken a life. In 1900, nineteen-year-old Maggie Heffernan was imprisoned for the drowning murder of her infant son. On the surface of it, it seems like a very heartless and cold thing to do, but as James shows us, Maggie Heffernan was not a heartless murderer. As we learn in this fictionalised retelling of these true events, Maggie was born and raised in rural Victoria. In the novel, she meets and falls in love with Jack Hardy, who seems to love her too. The couple secretly gets engaged and Hardy goes to New South Wales to earn his living. When Maggie learns that she’s pregnant, she writes to Jack to give him the news. He doesn’t respond but Maggie is facing the very real problem of where to go, since she knows her family won’t accept her. So she moves to Melbourne and finds a job, believing that Jack will respond to her when he can. Time goes by and Maggie gives birth to a son she names for his father. Meanwhile, she spends what time she can looking for Jack. When she finally finds him, he pretends not to know her and in fact, he says that Maggie is crazy. Completely distraught, Maggie goes looking for lodging and is turned away from six different places. That’s when the baby’s death occurs. As we learn about what happened to Maggie, it’s hard to see her as a one-sided cold-hearted murderer.
And that’s the thing about a well-told crime story. Of course murderers are guilty of taking lives, and that has to be acknowledged. But well-drawn murderers are also human beings with positive character traits and a motivation for the killing that we can believe. I know I’ve only touched on a few examples of this; which are your favourites?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black).