Sends Shivers Down My Spine*

Reactions to Taking a LifeCommitting 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, James M. Cain, William McIlvanney

23 responses to “Sends Shivers Down My Spine*

  1. A.M. Pietroschek

    Not too relevant I remember ‘Twin Peaks’ showing that regular people change aka degenerate or freak-out due certain misdeeds. The stark contrast to Laidlaw made me remember that.

    As an roleplayer I had my share of playing heroes who kill, vampires, and outright villains. It is true that most killers ain’t immune to consequence, still it is as well true that too much of a fuzz is made about it, as in wartime most of us, pacifist or not, would be drafted or conscripted into the army anyway.

    Then there is ‘Margot Kinberg’s Terry Case’. A mother killing the perv, who is already stalking her daughter with the clear intent of rape & abuse, is certainly a very different ‘killer’ compared to a robber or a serial.

    That spectrum is very broad, and I would say it culminates into does the killer fit into both, the story-prowess AND the readers imagination. Sorry, can’t contribute much today, I need to take a walk and clear my head.

    • You make a well-taken point, André, that there are different sorts of killers out there, both in fiction and in real life. There are also different situations (e.g. the person who kills because s/he is in an army combat situation, but who wouldn’t consciously consider killing under other circumstances). And those circumstances can often impact heavily on the killer’s reaction. It’s also true that different people have different personalities, so that taking a life may affect one person differently to the way it does another. But for a lot of people, killing someone, even for the purpose of defending oneself (or loved ones), usually takes a real toll.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        Oh, I wished I could swap 3 ‘true’ for one ‘appreciated by Margot’.

        But taking a walk did clear my head and I remembered: In many of the classic murder mysteries, including the houses discussed recently, the killer is afraid that some secret is discovered, or eager to inherit. So the persons are mostly not routinized criminals, but ‘normal walks of life’ types.

        This may stem from making it the reader extra easy to understand the type of person, or from the thought.

        Sadly below your league is a murder we all can commit ourselves. Even in the cost-free demo of ‘Fahrenheit – the Indigo Prophecy’ one plays as a guy who murders a stranger in a diner’s toilet, and than has to cover-up & escape, while avoiding to get too nervous or too obvious.

        • It’s interesting, André, that you bring up the kind of killer we see in most classic/Golden Age crime fiction. There aren’t that many serial killers, or even ‘mad’ killers. Very often it’s a person who feels threatened, for whatever reason. Or it’s a case of greed, jealousy, etc.. In other words, it’s a person with whom readers can identify, at least on some small level.

  2. I have to admit the type of murderer you are covering here are the ones that I like the best in that there is a reason for the crime other than their own twisted beliefs – that’s not to say it’s a good thing to take a life because you want a woman etc. but at least there is a reason that most people can identify with even if we would never go that far to get ‘the prize’ And I have put Laidlaw on my list of books to read this year – Fiction Fan recommended it an absolute age ago and it’s now getting close to the top of the list!

    • You’ve got a well-taken point, Cleo. Readers want to identify with the characters they ‘meet.’ And most of us wouldn’t dream of taking a life just to do so. But we can imagine what it might be like to be so afraid/angry/jealous/greedy/in love that we would take a life for that reason. And characters who are more like us – more ‘human,’ if you will – are deeply affected by taking a life, even if they had what they think is a good reason. It’s just not that easy for most of us to kill.

      And I do hope you get the chance to read Laidlaw. It’s an absolutely excellent crime novel, in my opinion.

  3. Keishon

    Can you explain the ending of Double Indemnity? I enjoyed the book but the ending was baffling. Sort of a downer, too.

    As to your post, accidental criminals make the best type of criminals because you understand their motive and see how they arrived at such bad decisions. Often the guilt of their actions wear them down and they are begging to be found out and are relived when they are found out. Those types of books kind of get under your skin a little. Human behavior is often baffling.

    • It really is, Keishon. So many factors impact what people choose to do, that it’s very hard to determine at any given point exactly what will motivate them. And quite often, it’s a combination of factors. As you say, people who don’t kill in a planned and calculating way are easier to understand. If the author has done her or his job, we can see how the killer would get to the point where s/he felt there was no choice but to kill.

      As to Double Indemnity, I don’t want to give spoilers. Let’s just say that the way I see it, we need to consider the feelings Huff has not just for Phyllis (and how they’ve been affected), but also for other characters. The ending is bleak, but I think it shows that Huff just doesn’t see any other choice that wouldn’t ruin too many lives. I don’t want to say more, in case folks who haven’t read it intend to do that.

  4. Yes, like Cleo I much prefer murderers who kill for a reason rather than out of some kind of twisted insanity. I do often wonder what it must be like to have to live with the consequences of having murdered, especially if it was done in the heat of the moment. When you consider how much angst we all put ourselves through whenever we do something relatively minor that we’re later ashamed of, it must be almost impossible to put such a major thing behind you. But lots of murderers do seem able to – perhaps whatever it is that lets people cross that line also gives them some form of protecting themselves from the full sense of guilt.

    • Oh, you put that so well, FictioinFan! It really does take a serious toll to take a life, and I’m sure people who do so have to develop some sort of coping mechanism, so they can live with what they’ve done. As you say, most of us deal with enough guilt when we do small things we regret. To know one’s taken a life – that must be awful to cope with, and for the rest of one’s life, too. That’s really an interesting way to look at it.

      And I see your point. Those kinds of killers: the kind who kill for a reason, however desperate that reason may be, are more interesting. They ‘feel’ more like real people, if that makes sense.

  5. It’s scary to think (and know) there are killers in this world that never feel anything when they take a life. I wonder do they feel anything else or are they able to just turn that part of their emotions off. Intriguing post, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. And you ask a good question. Do people like that, who kill with no feeling, also have no feeling about other things in their lives? It does make one wonder…

  6. The repentant killer, it’s an interesting one Margot. One of my fave cheesey watches has to be Murder She Wrote and invariably the killer is repentant which is how Jessica gets her man/woman in the end, despite her flimsy circumstantial evidence. She fixes them with a steely glare and they throw up their hands …

  7. Thanks for the mention, Margot. Must say, I mistook the title of this blog post briefly for a lyric from a song by the Australian band Boys Next Door (Nick Cave’s early outfit) called ‘Shivers’. You might like to check it out for a future post:

    • Oh, thank you, Angela! Always happy to learn about more music. I’ve heard of Boys Next Door, but I’m not really familiar with their music. Time for me to learn, I think. And it’s always a pleasure to mention your work.

  8. I am a big fan of Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered, which for most of its length is a cheerful and quite light-hearted book. But at the end, when the culprit and motive are revealed, there’s a passage which I found very affecting, full of regret and sadness, and a certain confusion.

    • Oh, yes, indeed, Moira! I thought about including that, as it’s a great example. But I couldn’t easily think of a way to do that without giving too much away. But yes, that’s very affecting. Hey folks, Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar series is a good ‘un – and only four books in it.

  9. Except for Double Indemnity, I have not read any of your examples. And most of them are ones I hope to read someday. I guess some murderers are relieved when they are caught, if it affects them badly enough.

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