When there’s a case of multiple murders, there’s often a question of whether they were committed by the same person, or by more than one person. If the murders seem to have been committed in exactly the same way, it could be the same murderer. Or it could be a ‘copycat murderer.’
Killers may copy another murderer’s style for a number of reasons. One is that, in their way, they are paying homage to the first killer. Another is that they want to hide their own identities. So they choose the style of a well-known killer, and hope the police assume that it was the same person. There are other reasons, too.
Whatever the reason, the ‘copycat’ phenomenon can complicate a police investigation. Are they looking for one person? Two people? More than two? That suspense can add to a crime novel, so it’s little wonder we see ‘copycats’ in crime fiction. It’s got to be done carefully; otherwise ‘body count’ and brutality can render a story either not credible or too gory. Still, it can be a clever way to manipulate a plot.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local groups of police to catch a multiple murderer. The killer leaves a copy of an ABC railway guide near each body, and sends a cryptic note of warning to Poirot before each murder. So it seems to be a case of one person committing all of the crimes. But there are some little pieces of evidence that suggest that more than one person may be at work. Is it a ‘copycat?’ The question of how many killers are involved certainly adds to the complexity of the case for the sleuths.
In Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo, we learn that L.A.P.D. police detective Harry Bosch was demoted for shooting a man he suspected of being a serial killer known as ‘The Dollmaker.’ In The Concrete Blonde, the family of the suspect, whose name was Norman Church, launches a civil suit against Bosch for wrongful death. So Bosch has to prepare to defend himself and his conduct. As if that’s not enough, another body is discovered, with the murder bearing all the hallmarks of the The Dollmaker’s style. Now Bosch is faced with two terrible possibilities. One is that he killed the wrong man, and Church was not The Dollmaker. The other is that Church was the Dollmaker, and the new murder is the work of a ‘copycat.’ In either case, Bosch has to catch a killer and defend his actions in the civil suit.
Jane Casey’s first Maeve Kerrigan novel, The Burning, also addresses the question of a ‘copycat’ murderer. In that novel, Kerrigan and her Met colleagues have a disturbing case on their hands: a killer who tries to disguise his work by incinerating his victims. He’s been dubbed ‘The Burning Man’ by the press, and the Met is getting a lot of media and political pressure to solve these crimes. Then another body is discovered. This time, the victim is PR professional Rebecca Haworth. It’s very likely another Burning Man killing, but there are enough little differences that it could also be a ‘copycat’ murder. Kerrigan wants to stay on the team that’s investigating the Burning Man case, but her boss asks her to dig a little deeper into the Haworth case. His reasoning makes sense, too. If it is a Burning Man murder, it’s important for the Met to investigate it thoroughly. If not, the Met will take a lot of criticism for letting cases go unless someone takes this one on. So a reluctant Kerrigan looks into it more deeply.
One of the plot threads of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue concerns a killer the police have nicknamed ‘Johnny Bible.’ He seems to be emulating a notorious killer of the late 1960s who was dubbed ‘Bible John.’ It seems that ‘Bible John’ committed three rapes and murders of women he met at the Barrowland Ballroom. Then he disappeared, so that even with a description given by the sister of his last victim, the police were never able to catch him. Now there’ve been three more rapes and murders, in the same style. So the police have dubbed this new killer ‘Johnny Bible.’ Is it a twisted case of ‘hero worship?’ Is there a deeper connection between the two killers? It’s a difficult case, made even more so by the fact that in the meantime, Rebus is the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation. So his every movement is under very close scrutiny.
In Paul Cleave’s debut, The Cleaner, we get a very interesting perspective on the ‘copycat’ sort of killer. In that novel, we meet Joe Middleton, who works as a janitor at a police station in Christchurch. What his employer doesn’t know about him is that he is also a serial killer nicknamed ‘The Carver.’ According to what the police think, The Carver has claimed seven victims. But Joe knows that’s not true, since he’s only killed six people. So he decides to find out who the ‘copycat’ is, and frame that person for his other murders. He’s also of a mind to punish the other killer for pretending to be The Carver. That’s going to be more difficult than it seems, though…
Kate Rhodes’ first Alice Quentin novel, Crossbones Yard, also takes up the topic of the ‘copycat’ sort of murder. Quentin is a London psychologist who sometimes works with the police. In this instance, DCI Don Burns asks her to interview a convict, Morris Cley, who’s about to be paroled. Burns wants to know whether Cley is likely to present a danger to society if he’s released, and Quentin agrees to the interview. Her opinion is that Cley is not a threat, so he is duly placed on parole. The next night, Quentin is on her usual evening run when she discovers a body at Crossbones Yard, a former burial ground for prostitutes. This body was dumped at the burial site, though, so it’s not a case of an old corpse being re-discovered. The body bears the hallmarks of a set of killings committed some years earlier. Cley was associated with the couple who were convicted of the killings, so Burns thinks he may be the key to this new murder. The only problem is, Cley has disappeared. So Burns asks Quentin to develop a profile of the killer and hopefully discover the truth about this killing. It may be a ‘copycat’ murder. Or it may be that Cley is guilty, and was influenced by his former associates. Or there may be another explanation. Quentin will have to return to the older killings to find out how this one is connected.
‘Copycat’ sorts of killings do happen in real life. But writing about them credibly isn’t always easy. Still, when they are handled well, they can be compelling. I’ve only mentioned a few (I’ve not mentioned some I’m thinking of, to avoid spoilers). Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Cranberries’ Copycat.