You Love Me, You Hate Me*

Crime fiction readers (and probably authors as well) are possibly of two minds when it comes to how they view characters, especially characters who turn out to be culprits. On the one hand, readers want to feel that order has been restored, and that often means bringing a criminal to justice. Readers don’t like the idea of criminals getting away with what they’ve done. On the other hand, readers also like the idea of compassion – of understanding why criminals do what they do and feeling for them. That can be a difficult balance to strike in a story, and it may be related to the sort of crime that’s committed. It’s very interesting to see how different authors approach the challenge.

In several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, we see that once Holmes learns the truth about a crime, he can show compassion. For example, in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. The police believe it’s the work of a local gang of thieves that’s been operating in the area. And on the surface, that’s what it seems to be. Still, Holmes thinks there are too many inconsistencies and problems with the story told by Sir Eustace’s wife Mary and her maid Theresa. He deduces the truth about the matter, but his way of handling the case shows that he also understands very well, exactly why the murderer committed the crime, and that he has sympathy for that person.

Holmes isn’t always so compassionate, of course. In The Red-Headed League, Holmes gets a visit from a pawnbroker named Jabez Wilson, who has a strange story to tell. Wilson took a new job to supplement his income. The position was offered by a mysterious group called the Red-Headed League, and it involved copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica. When Wilson went to that job one day, he found that the league had been disbanded with no explanation. Curious, he’s come to Holmes for answers. Holmes finds that Wilson was being manipulated by a gang of thieves who wanted to use his shop as a base to tunnel into a nearby bank and rob it. When the thieves are caught, neither Holmes nor his creator has sympathy for them.

We see that same duality, if that’s the word, in Agatha Christie’s work. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for example, Hercule Poirot is asked to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Her lodger has already been tried and convicted in connection with the crime, but Superintendent Spence thinks the man is innocent. And so it turns out to be. Poirot finds out who is responsible for the murder, and, in a dramatic way, exposes that person. He has no sympathy for the killer, and neither does Superintendent Spence when he finds out who the murderer is.

At the same time, Poirot is not always unsympathetic towards a killer. In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, he solves the murder of his dentist Henry Morley. The victim was shot in his surgery, and at first, it looks as though the killer might be his assistant’s fiancé. That doesn’t turn out to be true, though, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. When a patient of Morley’s goes missing, and another dies of an overdose of anaesthetic, it’s clear that something much more is going on. Poirot finds out who’s behind everything that’s going on, and when he does, he feels a certain amount of sadness. As fans know, he does not approve of murder. But he does have sympathy for the killer in this case.

Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache is a police detective with the Sûreté du Québec. In the series, he encounters several different sorts of killers, some with whom he has sympathy, and some not. In A Fatal Grace, for instance, Gamache and his team investigate the murder of famous life coach C.C. de Poitiers. She’d recently moved to the small town of Three Pines with her husband and daughter, and was planning to open a life coaching establishment there. In the process, she succeeded in alienating everyone, and as the story goes on, we learn that the residents of Three Pines are not the only ones she’s hurt. When she is electrocuted during a Boxing Day curling match, Gamache goes into action. He and his team find out who the killer is, and it’s difficult for them, because there is sympathy for this killer.

I’m not sure the same could be said for the killer in A Trick of the Light. In that novel, artist Clara Morrow is excited and nervous about her solo show, to be held at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montréal. The next day, the body of Lillian Dyson is discovered in Clara’s backyard. It turns out that Clara had known Lillian since they were girls, but the friendship ended over a negative review Lilian did of Clara’s art. Gamache and his team investigate the case, and they find that it has to do with events from the past. When we learn who really killed the victim, there’s not much sympathy for that person – at least, not as much as there is for some other murderers that Penny has created.

These are only three examples from many, many others. If you think about the crime writers whose work you read, especially those who focus on characters, my guess is that you’ll find some murderers for whom the detective feels some sympathy, and some where the opposite is true. It’s got something to do with the kind of crime committed, the victim’s personality, and the motive. But I think it’s more complex than just that. What do you think?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sly and the Family Stone’s Everyday People.