I’m Finding it Hard to Be Really As Black As They Paint*

petty-crime-and-murderIf 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donald Westlake, Gene Kerrigan, Jean-Claude Izzo, Lawrence Block, Peter Robinson

18 responses to “I’m Finding it Hard to Be Really As Black As They Paint*

  1. The clear separation is very interesting.

  2. Wonderful topic and Now that I start thinking about it, I’ve read quite a few books where serial killers didn’t have any criminal record at all and stayed under the radar as such. I suppose it is because their names would send red flags too early in the stories. I wonder if it’s also true in the real world. We’ve had 2 serial killers here and yes they didn’t commit any crimes before they were arrested for their crimes…

    • Oh, I didn’t know that, Inge – scary!! I’m glad they were caught. And it is interesting, isn’t it, how some serial killers do, indeed, manage to stay well out of sight, with no criminal record. And there are other people (both real and fictional) who commit what we might think of as petty crimes (like shoplifting), but do not escalate to the violence of murder. I appreciate the kind words, and I”m glad you found the topic interesting. I know I do.

  3. neeru

    Margot, you have a knack for picking-up such interesting topics for discussion. I had never really thought on these lines but now I realise that there are quite a few novels that I have read where people commit crimes but still wouldn’t cross a certain line. A novel of Chase, esp, comes to the mind where there is this brutal person who has broken the law on a number of occasions but when he is called to kill somebody, he develops cold feet coz he has seen (in jail) those serving sentences for killing others and he feels that there is something in their manner and eyes that puts them beyond normal humanity and he doesn’t want to be one of them.

    Wishing you a the very best in the New Year and thanks for all the visits to the blog and the encouragement you have given me with your interest and comments. Happy 2017.

    • Thank you, Neeru, and thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you like what you find here. And the Chase novel you mention is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind as I was writing this post. There are certainly people, and fictional characters, who would commit certain crimes, but who wouldn’t, as you say, cross the line to murder. I’m very glad you shared that example.

  4. This is a fascinating discussion – and it doesn’t even begin to take into account people who have been imprisoned for petty crime and then develop more ruthless habits in prison (although The Rage does veer close to that, I admit).

    • Yes, it does, a bit, Marina Sofia. But your larger point is really well-taken. I think there certainly are people who start out as petty criminals, and get involved in much more serious crime after going to prison. That’s an important point, and one I think needs to be considered in real life.

  5. Interesting! Hmm – I don’t know is my best answer, I think. In real life, I don’t think murders have motives as often as they do in fiction – I think they’re usually either heat of the moment alcohol-fuelled things or else gang-related. And except for the gangs, who probably do commit all different kinds of crime, I suspect the murderers may well not commit other kinds of crime, and in fact often would never commit another murder. So in fiction I think it makes sense for the authors to draw a distinction. I think lots of criminals manage to fool themselves into thinking that non-violent crime is “victimless” so burglars and fraudsters etc possibly wouldn’t turn to violence unless they felt really threatened.

    • You know, FictionFan, you really have a very interesting point about what people have sometimes called ‘victimless’ crimes. Embezzlement, for instance, may not be violent, but it is not victimless. And there are many other crimes that people put into that same category. And I’d guess you’re also right that a lot of real-life murders aren’t carefully-plotted and motivated, as the fictional ones are. Perhaps that’s why it makes the news when there is a murder that was pre-planned? At any rate, I would guess that, in real life, there isn’t necessarily a link between crimes such as shoplifting and a violent crime such as murder. Not that a given person cannot commit both. But still, I don’t know that there is a clear and well-supported link. Like you, I just don’t know…

  6. I have read that anyone can be capable of murder given the right combination of circumstances, whether it be self-defense or an emotional snap brought on by overwhelming stress. It’s hard to accept, but I think it might be true. In this world, no matter how rational and peace-loving we are, bad things can happen in an instant and we have only an instant to react.

    • You’re absolutely right, Pat. The most mild-mannered, law-abiding person could commit murder under the right circumstances. It can be hard to accept, because I think most of us would like to believe we wouldn’t murder. But who knows, given the situation?

  7. I definitely think they belong in different categories. Stealing is a far cry from murder. It’s a fascinating question, though. The one exception may be crimes of passion. When one partner snaps and kills, they might not ever kill again. Hard to say, which makes it all the more terrifying. You just never know what dark fantasies lie beneath the surface.

    • That’s true, Sue. And you can’t always tell what might make an otherwise peaceful, law-abiding citizen take a life. I think it’s partly for that reason that we can’t say that petty crime automatically leads to (or at least predisposes one to) murder. There are far too many other factors to take into consideration.

  8. I think there might be a division between real life and fiction – usually in a book the suspect with the criminal record will not be guilty, or at least not of murder. In real life it might be different – though assumptions and pre-judging are not good of course…

    • Interesting point, Moira. I don’t have any reliable data on the topic, so I really couldn’t say just what the relationship is between non-violent crimes and murder in real life. But it does make for a good ‘red herring’ in crime fiction.

  9. tracybham

    I don’t have any strongly held opinions or any basis for one, but I think a thief might be put in the position of killing more readily than other people. Just because he is protecting himself or is threatened. And very true that fiction and real life can be really different.

    • If that’s your belief, Tracy, then it is. I don’t have real data to show one way or another, so I don’t know. But plenty of people agree with you. And you’re right; there is sometimes a big difference between fiction and real life…

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