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.