It’s not easy to take a life. Even if it’s a case of defending oneself, taking a life often changes everything for a person. Certainly it doesn’t come naturally to most people; there’s just something that prevents us from taking that step. And when a person has killed, coming to terms with what’s happened can be complex and difficult. Realistic crime fiction acknowledges that and shows what happens when people cross that line and commit murder.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for instance, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is shot during her honeymoon cruise of the Nile. Her former best friend, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort is the prime suspect, since Linnet had married Jackie’s former fiancé. But it’s soon proven that she could not have committed the murder. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he works with Colonel Race (who’s also on the cruise) to find out who is really responsible. It turns out that just about everyone on board has at least one secret to hide, so getting to the truth won’t be easy. In the end, though, Poirot finds out the truth. At one point, he has a conversation with the killer, who tells him this:
‘I’m not a safe person any longer. I can feel it myself.’
In this case, the killer admits that taking a life changes one’s perception about killing. To put it another way, it becomes easier next time.
One of the more interesting examples of how taking a life affects one is in Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus. Dr. Duca Lamberti has recently been released from prison, where he served time for participating in euthanasia. He’s approached by a wealthy engineer named Pietro Auseri, who wants his help. It seems that Auseri’s son, Davide, has developed a serious drinking problem that even time in treatment hasn’t solved. He’s distant and clearly troubled, but Auseri doesn’t know why. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do, but he agrees to work with the young man. Soon enough, he discovers the reason for Davide’s depression. A year earlier, Davide had met a young woman named Alberta Radelli. They found they liked each other, and spent a pleasant day together. Then, Alberta begged him to take her with him. When he demurred, she threatened suicide. He didn’t agree, though, and not long afterwards, her body was found in a field outside Milan. Davide is convinced he is responsible for her death, and is consumed with guilt. Lamberti knows that he won’t be able to make headway with his patient unless he finds out what really happened to Alberta, so he starts looking into the matter. In this case, it’s not an actual murder that changes a person; it’s the belief that he has, in effect, murdered someone.
Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder is a former NYPD police detective. All that changed, though, when Scudder accidentally killed a young girl named Estrellita Rivera. He was going after two armed thieves who’d killed a bartender when he fired a shot that went astray and hit the child. For Scudder, that incident changed him permanently. He left the police force and ended up becoming a private investigator (first informally, and then later getting his license). Even though it was a ‘clean’ shot, in than he behaved correctly, etc., Scudder is still haunted by Estrellita’s memory. He often lights a candle for her when he passes a Catholic church, and he no longer feels any sense of moral superiority to anyone. That makes him less judgmental than he might otherwise be.
As L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. He has his reasons, which we find out as the story goes on, but the fact that he has taken a life affects him deeply. While he doesn’t panic, he knows that he will be suspected if he’s found at the crime scene. So, he leaves the scene, goes home, and only later reports the crime. RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg takes the case and begins the investigation. His focus soon becomes the people who visited Burke on the day of the murder, and that leads him to Wilcox. The trouble is, he can’t seem to find a motive for the murder. Wilcox and Burke had disliked each other for years, but that’s really not a reason to kill someone. And there’s no other solid evidence to link Wilcox to the crime. So, Alberg keeps digging. Wilcox knows that he’s a suspect and that Alberg is good at what he does, and that begins to impact him. As the story goes on, we see how taking Burke’s life has changed Wilcox.
In Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X, Yasuko Hanaoka is a single mother doing her best to earn a living and raise her daughter. Then, her abusive ex-husband, Shinji Togashi, pays her a visit and threatens her life and that of their daughter. Yasuko tries to defend herself and their child, and ends up accidentally killing Shinji. She is terrified by what has happened, and she knows she can’t go to the police. She gets an unlikely champion in the form of Tetsuya Ishigami, a brilliant teacher of mathematics who lives next door, and who’s fallen in love with her. He heard the commotion, and is sure that something is terribly wrong. When he finds out what happened, he helps Yasuko cover up the crime. Tokyo Inspector Inspector Shunpei Kusanagi investigates the murder, and strongly suspects Yasuko. But he has no real evidence. So, he gets help from an old college friend, Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. Thus begins a battle of wits between Yukawa and ishigami, and they are well-matched. Although that conflict is the main focus of the plot, we also see how Yasuko Hanaoka is affected by having taken a life.
Murder doesn’t come naturally to most of us; there seems to be some sort of inner barrier to killing another person. So when it does happen, the killer is often profoundly affected. And that can add an interesting layer of character in a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
10 thoughts on “Mama, Just Killed a Man*”
When our characters take a life it changes the dynamic and makes for very interesting story enhancement and characterization. Excellent blog, as always, Margot! xx
Thanks, Cat – so glad you enjoyed the post! And you put that really well: when characters take a life, the dynamic of the story changes, and so do the characters’ personal dynamics. I don’t see how it can be otherwise, when you think of how drastic a thing killing really is.
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Margot! I can’t believed you murdered someone just to take that picture! Who was it? What did you do with the body?? If they catch you, I’m willing to provide an alibi… for a price… 😉
Oh, don’t you worry about that, FictionFan! Nothing to see here. Nothing at all. The less you know the better your case is for plausible deniability. And trust me, as a writer/academic, I don’t have the wherewithal to keep you in the style to which you’d like to become accustomed. 😉
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It’s not quite the same thing, but in Dorothy L Sayers’ novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, Peter Wimsey is tortured by the knowledge that by bringing a killer to justice, he is bringing about the killer’s own death by hanging and I think that is interesting. It doesn’t seem to worry Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot!
I’m glad you mentioned that one, Christine! I like that extra layer to Lord Peter’s character, if I’m being honest. He has a similar reaction in The Nine Tailors, too, and it makes him a bit more human, if that makes sense. Poirot and Miss Marple, as you say, don’t suffer those pangs of conscience, and I think that’s interesting, too!
The psychological ramifications of taking a life intrigues me, too, Margot. When an author explores that aspect, they’ve got me. Riveting!
Thanks, Sue! And I agree; it’s absolutely fascinating when an author addresses what it’s like psychologically to take a life.
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I really must read Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus. There’s a few others as well – Scudder for one, and Wright’s The Suspect. Never enough time!
No, there isn’t, is there, Col? I do agree about Scerbanenco, though. When you get to it, I really think you would like it.