If you read enough crime fiction, you learn that, at least fictionally, anyone can be a killer. But are some people more likely to kill than others? For instance, are people who shoplift, or steal cars, or rob homes more likely to kill than are people who don’t commit those crimes? It’s not an easy question to answer, because there are a lot of different factors that play roles in who kills and who doesn’t (or in who embezzles and who doesn’t, or…). The picture isn’t really made any clearer by looking at crime fiction, either.
For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot speaks often of the psychology of someone who kills. And he differentiates it clearly from the psychology of someone who steals (not that he thinks either is acceptable). I don’t want to say much about specific Christie novels, for fear of spoilers, but I will say this. In many (not all!) cases, Poirot points out that just because a suspect has committed a crime (say theft) doesn’t mean that suspect is, per se, a murderer, too. He even makes this comment about the difference to Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train:
‘You could, perhaps, love a thief, Mademoiselle, but not a murderer.’
That said though, there are cases (again, no spoilers) where someone who’s unmasked as a thief also turns out to be a killer.
In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, DCI Alan Banks has recently moved from London to the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He’s barely had time to settle in when he has deal with some difficult cases. For one thing, a voyeur is making the lives of Eastvale women miserable. There’s a lot of pressure on Banks and his team to catch this person. As if that’s not enough, there’s been a series of home invasions and thefts lately. And then, there’s a murder. Is there a connection between the home invasions and the killing? What about the peeper? The question of whether the same person is responsible for all (or some) of these activities is an important part of the novel.
A similar sort of question comes up in Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day. Two years before the events in the novel, Yvonne Harrison was murdered, and her body found in her bedroom. On the one hand, she led a private life that could easily have put her in danger. And her family life was complicated and dysfunctional. On the other, the police never could get sufficient evidence against one person, and the case was allowed to go cold. Now, a man named Harry Repp has been released from prison, where he was serving time for burglary. Anonymous tips have suggested that he killed Yvonne Harrison. Inspector Morse is assigned the case, but he seems quite reluctant to do much about it. So, Sergeant Lewis does most of the investigation. And he’s faced with a difficult question. There’s no doubt that Repp is a thief. Did he escalate to murder? Was he framed? As it turns out, this case isn’t going to be easy for anyone, least of all Morse or Lewis.
Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos introduces readers to a Marseilles police officer, Fabio Montale. He and his two good friends, Manu and Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini grew up in one of Marseilles’ rough districts. And they got into more than their share of trouble as young people. Then came a tragedy that caused Montale to re-think all of his choices. He served in the military, then returned to Marseilles and joined the police. Manu and Ugo, though, got involved in the criminal underworld. As the novel starts, Manu’s been murdered, and Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his friend’s death. When he, too, is killed, Montale feels a sense of obligation to find out what happened to his friends. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that it’s interesting to see how being involved in petty crime impacted each of these characters.
In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we meet Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, and has quite a history with law enforcement. He has no desire to go back inside, so he’s decided not to take any more risks. Not unless the payoff is so great that it makes the risk worthwhile. He thinks much more in terms of heist and theft than he does of murder. After his release, he meets up with his brother Noel, his girlfriend, Michelle, and some other friends. Before long, they begin to plan a major heist – one that will set them all up financially. Their target will be Protectica, a security company that transports cash among various Dublin banks. The group plans out every detail of what they’re going to do, and pull off the heist. But then, things begin to go badly wrong. There’s no doubt that Vincent Naylor is a thief who’s been in more than one scuffle with the law. Does that mean he’s a murderer, too? It’s an interesting layer in this novel.
Of course, there are characters such as Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder, and Lawrence Block’s Bernie ‘the Burglar’ Rhodenbarr. They’re thieves, and have committed other crimes, too. But they aren’t what you’d call ‘natural’ killers. And, of course, any crime fiction fan knows that there are characters who are completely law-abiding – until the day they kill. So perhaps the connection between crimes such as theft, home invasion and so on and murder isn’t really clear. Certainly the law puts those crimes in very different categories. What do you think about all of this?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Reviewing the Situation.