A Lack of Originality*

CopycatsWhen 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Kate Rhodes, Michael Connelly, Paul Cleave

27 responses to “A Lack of Originality*

  1. And Then There Were None comes to mind, which is probably a poor example, do I look forward to others’ comments.

    • And Then There Were None really does show a creepy series of multiple killings, Tim. And it does bring up the question of whether there is just one killer or more than one. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  2. Correction: but I look forward . . .

  3. Heartafire

    Most interesting articles, Margot, I enjoy them very much.

  4. Kate Rhodes uses a similar theme in her more recent book ‘The Winter Foundlings’ too. Psychopath Louis Kinsella is in a secure hospital, guilty of a string of child murderers. Now copycat murders are happening – but is Kinsella involved somehow? Or is it just some twisted ‘fan’ of his?

    And Arne Dahl’s ‘Bad Blood’ sees a very specific type of gruesome murder method, one that was used before. But the main suspect from the time before is dead, so were the police wrong first time round and it’s the same murderer at work? Or is it a copycat?

    The copycat question does seem to crop up quite often, especially in serial killer novels. Two psychopaths for the price of one!

    • Those are very good examples, FictionFan, of exactly what I had in mind with this post. And you’ve reminded me that I need to read the new Rhodes (haven’t done so yet – shame on me!). It is interesting how often copycatting comes up in crime fiction. Not only do you get two psychopaths for the price of one (love that!), but the author has the chance to mess with readers’ heads and raise the question of whether there’s a copycat out there. 😉

  5. Col

    Loved the Connelly book, but you’ve remembered far more of it than I have! 🙂

  6. I know I must have read lots of these as it is a fairly common theme but the one that springs to mind is The Winter Foundlings which is also by Kate Rhodes – I do like it more when the copycat picks a murderer from the past to model his/her crimes on.

    • I know what you mean, Cleo. There’s something about that past/present connection that makes a story really interesting for me, too. And thankd for reminding me of The Winter Foundlings. I’m annoyed with myself that I’ve not (yet) read it, but it is on the TBR.

  7. For once I know nearly all your examples (although I think it’s time to re-read the Connelly books, as that was a generation ago!) Having said that, I only bought Crossbones Yard yesterday. The Paul Cleave sounds interesting, too. (Don’t make me buy more books!!) I can’t think of any other examples right now, but that’s definitely my favourite Rebus you’ve mentioned – Bible John is still regularly mentioned in Scotland as he’s the most prolific serial killer never to be caught. There was some nonsense when Peter Tobin, an itinerant handyman in his 60s, was convicted a few years ago of a string of murders, but DNA from one of the victims exonerated him – unless the victim had sex with more with more than one man that night, and I don’t think that happened in the late 60s! But some people are determined he is Bible John. Personally, I don’t think we’ll ever know now, unless there’s a link through familial DNA sometime in the future…Now you’re going to have me trying to think of examples!

    • The ‘Bible John’ case is really interesting, isn’t it, Crimeworm? I think it holds our attention so much because the killer was never caught. I think I remember reading about Peter Tobin, now you’ve mentioned it. It all makes you wonder just who ‘Bible John’ really was. In any case, Black and Blue is, I think, a great treatment of that real case in a fictional way. I hope you’ll like Crossbones Yard. I think Alice Quentin is a well-drawn character.

  8. It is probably an overused device but it can be exciting if done well. As you have said. Hope you have not had to row a boat down the street there, Margot. We arrive tomorrow and are perhaps a bit too close to the ocean for my peace of mind.

    • Oh, have a safe trip, Patti! We sure have had a lot of rain lately, but it’s sunny and drying out today, and we really did need some rain. I hope you don’t run into any problems with your place!

  9. Margot, you have highlighted some really good authors and their books. I prefer one or two murders as opposed to multiple killings. I’m not much into serial deaths in crime fiction where a corpse turns up after every chapter or two. I like to get on with the case investigation.

    • Thank you, Prashant. I know what you mean about preferring to focus on an investigation, rather than on ‘body count.’ I feel the same way, as a rule. For me, a story with a lot of murders has to be exceptionally well-written to really appeal to me.

  10. Y’know, I read this post while waiting for my hosting to fix my email. Before I could comment he came back on the line. Sorry. Yes, copycats! Unfortunately, I’m drawing a blank. It’s been one of those days.

  11. Keishon

    The Michael Connelly books (loved The Concrete Blonde and I still remember it in parts) and copycat murders are a lot more difficult to solve and complicate things. I think if done well, they make a good compelling mystery like you said. It can sometimes be a major twist or surprise, too. I can’t recall any additional titles off the top that use this trope/device.

    • The Concrete Blonde really is a good ‘un, isn’t it, Keishon? And you’re right; doing a copycat murder story can be a challenge, and it does let the author offer a very effective twist in the plot. It takes a deft hand, but it can work well.

  12. No titles or hints of course, but Agatha Christie really is the queen of the misdirecting murder – copycat, murder to mislead, mistaken identity that really isn’t, rehearsal for murder, murder hidden among others. Never trust any death to be exactly what it seems.

    • Oh, you’re so right about that, Moira! Things are almost never what they seem in an Agatha Christie story. And even when they are, she makes you think they won’t be. And yet, almost never do I feel she’s not ‘playing fair.’ Genius!

  13. This plot device is used a lot on television for sure. The Maeve Kerrigan novel, The Burning, was the one I have read that comes immediately to mind for me.

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