To catch a killer…

This post kind of continues from my recent post about how the killer in a traditional murder mystery such as the ones I write–or try to–is always ‘one of us’. It’s important that the killer IS one of us. I have to say, if I read a mystery and the perpetrator is revealed as someone barely mentioned, or the author uses that old chestnut, the guilty butler, or any other member of staff, I am SO bitterly disappointed–with both the story, and in fact the author. Because it just feels like a letdown, like the author ‘phoned it in’, as they say, ie couldn’t be bothered to do a proper job. Even some of my favourite authors indulged in this heinous practise!

In his essay, The Decline of the English Mystery, George Orwell wrote, ‘The perfect murderer is a humdrum little man (or woman, I say!) of the professional classes.’

I think most people could agree that when they read a murder mystery, the most satisfying part of the book is trying to beat the sleuth to the finish line. Or at least, to be able to nod sagely at the end and say, ‘I knew it!’ as the killer is revealed.

We’ve come a long way from this scenario: ‘God must search out the solution to this crime because only He knows the secrets of the heart.’ (Revelations of a Lady Detective, William Stephens Hayward 1864) Now, as the reader ‘we’ want to take God’s place and work it out for ourselves. Is it because we want to impose a rigid order on our lives, have complete control over something? Who knows. We could write a philosophical paper on why we enjoy crime books when we (most of us, anyway) are vehemently opposed to violence.

I have to say, I do get a thrill when the murderer turns out to be someone I had completely ruled out or overlooked. I like to be surprised but I also, more than anything, like to be convinced. So if the evidence is flimsy or entirely circumstantial, I don’t buy into it at all. I need to know the why of it far more than how or all the other questions. After all, in a traditional type of murder mystery the guilty party must have a compelling and urgent necessity to take such a drastic act. Otherwise, they could simply move to another town and live under a new name. Or something normal like that…

So here are a few must-haves for the killer of a traditional murder mystery:

  1. They have to appear innocuous or be excluded from being ‘the one who did it’.
  2. If possible they should be genial, amiable and pleasant to most people, and get on with everyone (apart from the victim 😉 )
  3. They will be very aware of every move the victim makes, and take a lot of trouble to keep themselves informed.
  4. They need to be pretty intelligent to outsmart–for a while at least–the sleuth who will be coming after them.
  5. In spite of being pleasant, genial etc they also should reveal–gradually–an arrogant side with a large dollop of superiority complex: they believe they are able to outwit everyone, and are better than anyone, and that their motive completely justifies or exonerates their action.
  6. Lastly, they will crave attention and status; this means they love to get involved in the investigation into the death of the victim. They want to keep themselves informed in order to plan their next move, and to make sure they are safe.

In mysteries, many killers merely carry out the act to cover their butts: the victim knows something, or has the power to do something that threatens the killer’s safety in some way, whether it is their actual liberty at risk, their financial position, their social status, or the safety or fidelity of a loved one. It must be an utterly compelling reason for them.

If they are truly psychopathic, they will feed off the admiration of others and continually find ways–subtle and not-so-subtle–to make sure everyone knows how clever they are. Sometimes this will lead them to offer to help the detective, or sometimes this will lead to another death, as they either have to cover up the first crime, or feel a need to display their ingenuity.

In the case of serial killers, another death can be the result of their urge to experience that sense of fulfilment and power they got from the act of killing itself. They crave that thrill as an addict craves their addictive substance. The pressure is then on for the sleuth to find the killer to prevent yet another death. And often, the author will ensure that tension ratchets up a notch or three by having the next potential victim someone the sleuth really cares about.

Wow, that turned dark and non-cozy very quickly, didn’t it?

In fact the powerful killer is no such thing: as the story reaches its denouement, they are revealed not as powerful but weak, because they do not have the ability to be satisfied with being ordinary.

But that’s why we love these books–it’s so easy to sit back in our comfy chair and close the book, thinking, “Well, I would never do such a terrible thing.”

Isn’t it?

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