Committing murder isn’t easy for most people. In fact, in real life, most of us would be horrified, or at least badly affected, by having taken a life. That’s arguably one reason for which returning soldiers have so much difficulty after they’ve fought in a war. And it’s part of why stories about people who kill in a cold-blooded, unfeeling way make the news. That uncaring reaction seems so alien to most people.
There are, of course, all sorts of different types of killers in crime fiction. Some of them (a post in and of itself, actually) are hardened and unfeeling. Or they completely justify the taking of a life in some way, so that it doesn’t really affect them. But many, many killers are devastated when they take a life.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, we are introduced to Louise Leidner. She’s accompanied her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, on a dig at a site a few hours from Baghdad. One afternoon, she is bludgeoned in her room at the expedition house. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to take a few days and investigate the murder. It’s very unlikely (‘though not impossible) that an outsider committed the murder, so the pool of suspects is somewhat limited. Still, as Poirot learns more about the victim, he discovers that more than one person might have wanted to kill her. It’s not spoiling the story to say that murderer intended to kill. But that doesn’t mean that person was left unaffected by taking life. Here’s what the murderer says:
‘‘I think – really – I am rather glad [at being found out]…I’m so tired…’’
Even the narrator of the story feels a sort of pity for the killer.
In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance sales representative Walter Huff meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his clients. He’s immediately besotted, and she seems to reciprocate. Soon enough, they begin an affair, and she persuades him to help her plot to kill her husband for the life insurance money. He’s so much under her spell that he goes along with her plan. Then, once the deed is done, it starts to sink what he’s really done:
‘I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a finger at me, and I would have to die.’
The problem is, of course, that he can’t confess his guilt without risking everything. There are other reasons, too, for which it won’t be as easy as it may seem to simply go to the police and tell them what he’s done. So Huff decides he’ll have to take other action.
In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate the murder of fashion designer Sheila Grey. After a bit of digging, they settle on Ashton McKell as the chief suspect. He was in the victim’s apartment on the night of the murder, and was known to be in a relationship with her. When McKell’s name is cleared, both his wife, Lutetia, and his son, Dane, fall in for their share of suspicion, and there are reasonable cases against them. But the McKells aren’t the only possibilities by any means. In the end, the Queens get to the truth about the matter. And we discover that the murderer has been badly affected by killing Sheila Grey. Here’s what the killer says:
“…I’m sorry, I’m sorry, there’s something wrong inside me, there always has been since I was a kid. Everything went wrong.”
It’s clear that this person is not left untouched.
Neither is the killer in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw. In that novel, Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw investigates the rape and murder of eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson. Although there’s a great deal of sympathy for the Lawson family, the case is not an easy one to solve. For one thing, the victim wasn’t mixed up with drugs or prostitution, so there is no ‘criminal involvement’ lead to follow. What’s more, nobody really knows what Jennifer did or where she went at the time of the murder. People really weren’t paying attention. So nobody can say who might have been with her. What’s more, the people who live in the area where the girl was found are not exactly fond of talking to the police. So even if someone saw something or knows something, it’s not likely to be reported. Still, Laidlaw and his team persist, and in the end, they find out the truth. In this case, the killer is consumed by guilt about the crime, and knows full well exactly how horrible a crime it was. That sense of horror and guilt play a major role in what that person does.
Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel introduces Melbourne copper Charlie Berlin. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned from WWII service in Europe. He’s still dealing with the trauma of that experience, but is also trying to get on with his life. He’s seconded to Wodonga to help investigate a series of robberies in the area, and catch the motorcycle gang that’s responsible. Berlin’s in the middle of that investigation when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first, there’s a suspicion that the motorcycle gang was involved, but Berlin soon learns that’s not true. So he begins to look elsewhere for the person responsible. In the end, he finds out the truth, part of which is that the killer is devastated by what’s happened. This is no case of a cold-blooded psychopath, and McGeachin makes it clear that taking lives exacts a real toll from the people who take them.
And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking some time off at Krabi. They enjoy their holiday until they find out about the death of Chanida Manakit, who went by the nickname of Pla. Miss Pla was an expert swimmer, who actually guided a tour that Keeney and Patel took, so they feel a personal sense of loss when her body washes up in a cave. It’s very hard to tell exactly how she died, but Keeney doesn’t immediately accept the police theory that this was an accident; Miss Pla was too good a swimmer for that. She and Patel agree to stay in Krabi for a few extra days to look into the matter. And when they find out the truth, we learn that Pla’s death was not a case of falling into the water and drowning. The person responsible for her death is both fearful and horrified by what’s happened, and Savage makes that clear. That horror turns out to have consequences, too.
There are of course killers who aren’t affected by taking a life. But many real-life killers are. So it makes sense that fictional ones would be, too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.