No Compassion*

Early in life, most of us develop the capacity to take another’s viewpoint, and have sympathy – even empathy – for others. All of the religions and spiritual traditions I know about make a point about the importance of compassion. And even if you don’t believe in any religion or religious tradition, you’ve probably been taught the importance of sympathy for others. It’s part of the glue, if you will, that holds society together.

But not everyone has that sense of sympathy and compassion for others. Psychologists don’t agree on why a person might not have that capacity. And, in any case, there are any number of possible causes. Whatever the reason, the end result – a person who doesn’t have sympathy for others – can bring sorrow and tragedy. And in crime fiction, such a character can be truly chilling.

Agatha Christie included several such characters in her stories. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to approach her husband, Lord Edgware, regarding a divorce. She tells Poirot that she wants a divorce, but that her husband won’t agree to it; she wants Poirot to get Edgware to change his mind. This isn’t Poirot’s usual sort of case, but he agrees to at least speak to the man. When Edgware says he has no objection to the divorce, Poirot thinks the matter is done. That night, though, Edgware is murdered in his study. The most likely suspect is his wife, and there’s evidence against her. But she claims to have been at a dinner party in another part of London at the time. And twelve other people are ready to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. They find that this killer has no conscience, really, and no sense of sympathy for others. Here’s a tiny snippet of a letter that the killer sends to Poirot:

‘I feel, too, that I should like everyone to know just exactly how I did it all. I still think it was all very well planned…I should like to be remembered. And I do think I am really a unique person.’

And that matters more to this killer than does any consideration for anyone else.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ lives with her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian in the family home just outside a small New England town. We soon learn that the Blackwoods are a very isolated family. No-one in the village wants anything to do with them, and the feeling is mutual. Gradually, we learn of a tragedy that took place six years earlier, in which three other members of the Blackwood family died. Almost everyone in town thinks that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible, which is why the local people shun the family. Still, life goes on, more or less. Then one day, a cousin, Charles Blackwood, unexpectedly comes for a visit. His visit touches off a series of events that ends up in more tragedy. Throughout this novel, the lack of conscience and real sympathy for others plays an important role in what happens. And it adds to the tension and suspense.

In Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake, we are introduced to John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife, Rosie, own a fishing lodge in the northern part of Saskatchewan, but live in the small town of Crooked Lake, further south in the province. It’s not the sort of place where a lot of violent things happen as a rule. But then one day, Harvey Kristoff is murdered. The weapon seems to be a golf club, and his body is discovered on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is Nick Taylor, who was recently fired from his position as Head Greenskeeper, and who blames Kristoff for his termination. But he claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart, who’s a good friend, to clear his name. Bart doesn’t want to think his friend is a murderer, so he agrees to look into the matter. And he soon learns that there were plenty of other suspects. Then, there’s another murder. Bart finds out who the killer is and in the end, we find that the murderer,

‘…took the lives of two men as if they were nothing more than annoyances.’

It’s a disturbing look at what someone with no sympathy and no compassion is really like.

Peter Robinson introduces us to that sort of character, too, in A Dedicated Man. In that novel, archaeologist Harry Steadman retires from his position at the University of Leeds. He and his wife, Emma, then move to Yorkshire, where he plans to excavate some Roman ruins in the area. He gets the necessary permissions, and then begins the work. Then, tragically, he is murdered by blunt force trauma. DCI Alan Banks and his team investigate, and they soon discover more than one possibility. For one thing, not everyone in the area was best pleased about the excavation. For another, there’s the matter of Steadman’s former colleagues at Leeds. There are other possibilities, too. In the end, Banks and his team find that this killer has no real regrets and, really no sympathy either for Steadman or anyone else.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight. In that novel, five children from a Mumbai slum called Kandewadi go missing, one by one. And, one by one, their bodies are returned to their families. Once the media outlets get hold of the story, pressure is put on the police to solve the murders, and Inspector Savio is assigned to investigate. He is in the habit of consulting with retired detective Lalli on his cases, and this one is no exception. Savio, Lalli, his assistant Shukla, and Lalli’s niece, Sita, investigate the killings. They discover that behind these deaths is a complete lack of sympathy for others or compassion. And it’s that lack of humanity that makes the killings even more disturbing, if that’s possible.

And that’s the thing about sympathy for others, and compassion. They help most of us control what we do, even if we do get angry or resentful. Without those qualities, the result can be truly chilling.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Talking Heads.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Kalpana Swaminathan, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Robinson, Shirley Jackson

30 responses to “No Compassion*

  1. Isn’t this the definition of a sociopath?

    And those people tend to put themselves in positions of power (politics and heads of businesses) more than anywhere else. Remorseless killer? Check what the CEO was doing at the time of the murder.

    • You have a well-taken point, Matt. Very often, having power is associated with less sympathy for others. Doesn’t hold true in all cases, of course, and I’m sure we can all think of lots of exceptions. But there’s definitely something to what you say.

  2. sure it can only ever be part of the story but do you know about snp rs53576 on chromosome 3?

  3. I wonder how you have the time to do your own writing when you post at such length and in such detail on your blog, clearly having read all these delicious mysteries. I admire this but wonder if you also eat, sleep, shower, and have a life…
    Alice Horning

  4. We throw around words like sociopath a lot. And I think we have one in D.C. right now. There are certainly a lot of characters in crime fiction that lack empathy.. But I doubt I have ever met one. And certainly hope not too.

    • Oh, I hope not to meet one, too, Patti. And you’re right about the use of the word. That said, though, I you’re very much not alone when it comes to your assessment of what’s going on in D.C…

  5. I always think this kind of killer is much more chilling than the crime of passion killer. Often crimes of passion arise out of a perversion of love so that afterwards the killer will feel remorse. But with these cold killers, they don’t seem to see their victims as people at all. The most recent example of this kind of killer I’ve read was in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The 12:30 from Croydon, where we see the story mostly through the eyes of the killer – after the crime he feels horror and fear of being caught, but no guilt and no remorse. It’s really well done, I think.

    • You put that so well, FictionFan. People with no sense of sympathy or compassion (let alone empathy) don’t really see their victims as people. And that makes what they do all the more chilling, as you say. That, I think, is part of what makes stories about them so disturbing. Thanks for mentioning the Crofts. He created some well-crafted mysteries, and that particular one seems a great example of the remorseless killer who has no sympathy at all. Brrrr….

  6. Col

    I wonder if Westlake-Stark’s Parker qualifies as a sociopath. Maybe borderline? He won’t set out to harm you, but if you cross his path and interfere, he may well do and I doubt he’d lose sleep over it afterwards.

  7. I admire the authors who can take a character like this with no feelings or concern for others and make you (the reader) almost care about them. I remember reading one story (but not the name of it) where the killer was actually two brothers who were exactly as you describe. The author had scenes between them where you almost caught yourself feeling for them despite knowing how truly horrible they were. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. And I agree with you; I give a lot of credit to an author who can make me care about (or at least be interested in) a character who has no sympathy and no compassion for others. It’s not easy to pull that off.

  8. Another great posting, Margot. Even if I were to live backwards, like Merlin, I would not live long enough to read all of the wonderful books and stories you have so generously and nicely highlighted in your blog. Thanks for all of the wonderful reading pleasure.

  9. Oh Lord Edgeware! The murderer’s final comments are a tour de force in themselves. Funny yet chilling – Christie did the character so well…

  10. The quotes you included are chilling, Margot. They also say a lot about the character. Brilliant! It’s precisely this lack of empathy/sympathy that intrigues me most about sociopaths and psychopathic behavior. It’s so difficult to grasp how someone can so easily take a life the way you or I might order a meal. I love novels that explore this psychology.

    Crooked Lake…some of the names in crime fiction crack me up. In one of Larry Brooks’ books, Bait & Switch I believe, he uses an advertising agency called Wright & Wong. Hilarious!

    • That agency name is great, Sue! I can see why you love it. And thanks for reminding me of Larry Brooks’ work. I really must spotlight one of his books…

      As to sociopaths and psychopaths, it really is fascinating to consider how these people view the taking of a life. They just don’t see it in the same way that we do. As you say, it’s so difficult to comprehend; yet, there are people like that. And when they’re portrayed effectively in crime fiction, that can make for a really chilling story, can’t it?

      Thanks for the kind words!

  11. kathy d.

    I just don’t understand it, taking lives without any concern for human life, whether it’s psychopathology or sociopathology or another reason. But we all have certainly have our share of crime fiction with killers who have no compassion. Reasons are complicated. Often awful child abuse is a factor in real life and probably in crime fiction, too.
    What motivated Leopold and Loeb to murder a child? I remember reading a book about them and it puzzled me. Never could figure it out.
    I think though of military boot camp which hardens people and rids them of their empathy so they can be hardened soldiers without compassion. For sensitive, caring human beings it must be very difficult to go through that.
    How much compassion do soldiers have? And those who decide on the wars and send bombs (and now drones) to civilian areas? The empathy is gone.
    I don’t read books about war; I’ll take simple civilian sociopaths, I guess, although I do not like books around serial killers. And certainly nob books told from their points or view, not even chapters or paragraphs from their point sof view. Not fun for me.
    On the other hand, just read a book full of compassion for homeless people, “The Chalk Pit,” by Elly Griffiths. Very nicely written, a great read, even moved me to tears.

    • It is hard to ‘get into the minds’ of those who have no sympathy and no compassion, Kathy. Most of us do have at least some sense of sympathy, so it’s difficult to really understand how a person wouldn’t. There are several factors that can account for how a person loses (or never develops) sympathy; and, as you say, horrible abuse can figure into that. But whatever the reason, it really is chilling, isn’t it?

  12. Parker was the character that came immediately to mind because I just finished the 2nd book in the series. Col beat me to it, though. The assassin in The Butcher’s Boy is another example.

  13. kathy d.

    I don’t even understand why people are snobbish and intolerant to homeless people. There but for fortune go you or I as Joan Baez sang (I think it was her.)
    Why not help them out with a few dollars or some food? I was walking home from Whole Foods last fall and saw two people lying on a sleeping bag under scaffolding a block from my residence. I had just bought ripe peaches, which I love. So I took two out and gave them to one of the people whose face lit up. He said, “We haven’t had peaches in years.” He was so grateful and I barely did anything.
    I think I was just as elated that I could improve two people’s situation for a few minutes and they’d know not everyone in New York is callous.
    What does it take? They’re human beings.
    And I will never understand the cruelty of some people towards them.

    • Thanks for sharing that story, Kathy. It’s a great reminder that homeless people (and others in need) really are human beings, first and foremost. It doesn’t take much to make a kind gesture. But it does start with seeing them as humans and having sympathy for them.

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