As this is posted, it’s 132 years since the first publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Among other things, this story explores human nature and our capacity for both good and evil. Stevenson uses two separate characters (although, of course, the same physical person) as representations of those two extremes. The fact is, though, that the capacity for both good and evil exists in all of us.
Crime fiction addresses this issue a lot. Not all crime novels get particularly philosophical, but the question does come up: what moves an otherwise law-abiding, possibly generous, loving person to commit murder? And if you read enough crime fiction, you learn that any one of us might do the same, given the right circumstances.
Here, for instance, is how Hercule Poirot puts it in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
‘‘Let us take a man – a very ordinary man. A man with no idea of murder in his heart. There is in him somewhere a strain of weakness – deep down. It has so far never been called into play. Perhaps it never will be – and if so he will go to his grave honoured and respected by everyone. But let us suppose that something occurs…And then the strain of weakness tells. Here is a chance at money – a great amount of money…He becomes greedy. And in his greed he overreaches himself.’’
It’s an interesting discussion of how a person who’s perfectly law-abiding and well respected – a good person – could do something like commit a murder. Several of Christie’s other stories also touch on the fact that all of us have a capacity for good or evil.
We certainly see that happening in James M. Cain’s novella Double Indemnity. Walter Huff is what many people would think of as a good person. He’s an insurance agent who decides to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, one day when he happens to be in the area. He’s hoping he can get a policy renewal if he makes a personal visit. Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff start talking and it’s not long before Huff finds himself attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, and they’re soon having an affair. Then, she tells Huff her plan: she wants to kill her husband to get as much insurance money as she can. By this time, Huff is so besotted by her that he falls in with her plan, even writing the double-indemnity policy she has in mind. The murder takes place, and Huff finds himself drawn into a web of coverup and conspiracy. He wouldn’t have thought of himself as a bad person, and most people would have agreed that he wasn’t. But as the story goes on, we see his capacity for criminality.
Of course, this all can arguably work the other way, too. People can show an unexpected capacity for good. For instance, in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, we are introduced to Fabio Montale. He, Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, and their friend, Manu, grew up together on the proverbial mean streets of Marseilles. They were involved in all sorts of petty crimes and other trouble with the law. But then, a tragedy made Montale re-think his lifestyle and priorities. He left Marseilles, joined the military, and then returned to Marseilles as a police officer. He’s been living on the right side of the law, and has made a sort of life for himself. But then, Manu, who never left Marseilles, is murdered. Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself. Now, in one plot thread, Montale feels driven to find out who killed Ugo and Manu. Among other things, this novel raises some interesting questions about who is good and who isn’t, and what is ‘moral’ and what isn’t.
David Whish-Wilson’s historical (late 1970s) series features Frank Swann. As the series begins, with Line of Sight, he’s a police superintendent who’s just returned to Perth after several years away. He’s come back because a former friend, Ruby Devine, has been murdered. Along with this main plot line, we learn something about Swann’s background. As a young person, he got into more than his fair share of trouble, and it looked very much as though he’d be headed for prison before many years had passed. But then, he met Marion Monroe and the two began to date. That’s how Swann met her father, George Monroe, who was a police officer. And that relationship led to Swann’s decision to join the police force himself. Swann’s certainly no angel. But he’s learned to do the right thing, if I may put it that way.
And then there’s John Clarkson’s Among Thieves. In that novel, we are introduced to James Beck, who owns a bar in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. What a lot of people don’t know is that he bought the bar, and the building next door, with money he won in a wrongful conviction lawsuit after serving eight years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. His co-owners are Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Guzman, Demarco Jones, and Ciro Baltassare, all people he met in and through prison. Unlike Beck, these men are guilty of various crimes, but are trying to put their lives back together. The bar gives them a chance for a legitimate income, and they’re mostly staying on the right side of the law. Then, Manny’s cousin, Olivia Sanchez, comes to him with a problem. She says that she’s been fired from her position at an upmarket investment firm, because she was ready to ‘blow the whistle’ on some dubious transactions. She claims that one of her colleagues threatened her, broke two of her fingers, and is responsible for ‘blacklisting’ her so that she can’t get another job in the industry. What looks at first like a ‘he said/she said’ dispute turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous than it seems. And Beck and his friends are up against some very nasty people. One thing that we see in this novel is that these men all have quite a capacity for good, despite the fact that they’d done really reprehensible things.
And that’s the thing about humans. We all have a capacity for great good – and for the opposite. And it’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats that.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stereolab’s Naught More Terrific Than Man.