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Victims of Reality

with 4 comments

It’s about four thirty in the morning, and I don’t usually write posts this early, but I’m still in the middle of a very bad working week, so here we are.   I’m also in the middle of a very bad weather week, so that I’m sitting here wondering whether what’s going on outside my windows is going to mean no school for the younger one today or an attempt, by me, to negotiate ice and slush to get him to class.  There are a lot of things I like about private schools, but one of the things I don’t like is the fact that they don’t come with snow days. 

Robert asks if realism is really what we want to go to fiction or, and Lymaree says that tolerance for the kind of realism Rendell dishes up probably varies with life circumstances–I’d say it probably also varied with personal temperament–but if we go back to the idea that literature is what tells us “the truth, even if it didn’t happen,” as Kesey put it, then it’s not realism that’s at issue, but honest.

And oddly enough, Kesey had a line for that, too.   The thing about “the truth, even if it didn’t happen” occurs in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.  The other line occurred in Sometimes A Great Notion.  It went:  some things aren’t the truth, even if they did happen.

And part of my problem with Rendell may be that, for me at least, the moral universe she creates does not feel like the truth, even though I know that the specific events in it occur frequently in real life.

But let’s look at another difference between crime novels and life:  at the victims.  The victims are what’s bothering me this morning, because the victims are what’s causing me to have such bad days at work.  Well, at least one victim is.

Let’s start out by stipulating the obvious–in real life, real murders are mostly vastly, mind numbingly stupid.  Some guy gets liquored up and starts punching the lights out of some other guy and somebody has a knife, or a gun.   A woman leaves her boyfriend alone with the baby and the baby won’t stop crying and the boyfriend bashes its head against the wall.  A nineteen year old kid with a bad cocaine habit runs out of money for drugs and decides to hold up the local liquor store, in the course of which he finds that if your hands aren’t steady the gun is likely to go off and hit just about anything, including yourself. 

This is the kind of thing that happens all the time, and I’m not interesting in reading about it, and I’d guess that neither are most of you.  I think one of the reasons that serial killers have had such a vogue is that they seem to provide some meaning and purpose to the act of murder.  Hannibel Lecter, Jeffrey Dahmer–their motives are bizarre, but at least they’re motives.  Next to the guy down the road who beat his wife to a bloody pulp becausae…because…well, he doesn’t remember exactly because…he’d been smoking a lot of weed and then she came in from the club and then…don’t know what happened then…there was a bottle of  Jim Beam–next to that guy, Jeffrey Dahmer is almost a relief.

But although the kinds of murders that are common in murder mysteries aren’t common in real life, they do happen, and when they happen they provide fodder for episode after episode of American  Justice.  But American Justice, like it’s cousins, concentrates on the mind and motives of the murderers and the detectives who track them.  What attention is paid to the victim tends to be not only cursory, but largely synoptical.  If the victim is particularly awful, that would be acknowledged, but most victims are given a sort of minor league hagiography.  Linda Sue?  She was beautiful, and everybody loved her.

I could go on about that beautiful thing at length, but at the moment I’ll let it go.  What interests me at the moment is the fact that the victims of murder-mystery-like murders in real life come in two varieties:  opportunistic, and real, downright, God awful shits.

Opportunistic victims are the ones who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and surrounded by the wrong people.  They’re the last surviving relative keeping a younger member of the family from a trust.   They’re nice guys who marry women who start taking out life insurance policies on them before the honeymoon is over.  One of the reasons why shows like American Justice concentrate on the mind of the murderer is that in many of these cases, the victim could have been anyone at all.  The murderer was going to murder no matter who happened to show up in his line of fire.

The other kind of victim is less common, and that in itself is an interesting point.   For all the talk about how violent human beings are as a species, it’s remarkable to me that more of these people don’t end up dead.  Abusive spouses and abusive parents–if the abuse is physical, you often do get a murder, but in the cases of spouses and parents who confine themselves to the verbal and manipulative, victims just seem to go on taking it year after year after year.  

When the victims don’t, you find yourself in an odd situation:  here is the victim, dead, and there is half the country, thinking:  served him right.

Of course, whether or not you think it served him right has something to do with life circumstances, too.  One of the first jobs I had after I left graduate school was as assistant to a newspaper writer who was going up to Scarsdale to cover the Jean Harris trial.  This was a long time, and you may not remember it, but Harris murdered her lover, diet doctor and best selling author (The Scarsdale Diet) Herbert Tarnower, because he was about to leave her for a younger woman.

One of my duties that trip was to go around asking people in the street who had come to witness the trial whether or not they thought Harris was guilty.  The men said various things, guilty, not guilty, not sure, but the women all said the same thing:  of course she killed him, but you wouldn’t want to put somebody in jail for something like that.

From all reports, Tarnower was the kind of victim I’m talking about here:  emotionally manipulative, arrogant, often verbally abusive.   And in real life, his murderer went to mail, and should have.  We don’t have the right to kill other people even if those people are poor excuses for human beings.  

When we move out of the real world and into the fictional one, however, we’re faced with a problem.  It’s really not a good idea to give the reader a victim so spectacularly awful that the idea of bringing his murderer to justice just feels…wrong.

And there are people like that.  The other night, flipping through channels because I really should have been already in bed, I ran across one of those “documentary” shows about prison life.  The prisoner being profiled had a cell to himself because he kept maiming or killing his cell mates.  The last one he’d killed had been a rapist who’d shown up boasting about the things he’d done to women and girls–the nipples he’d cut off of one, the way he’d cut up another.  So our hero, so to speak, decided to make sure his cell mate never did any boasting again, and rammed his right arm to the elbow up the rapist’s…uh…you know.

And part of me went, “okay.  That works.”

But it doesn’t work, of course.  It really doesn’t work.

I think one of the things people use crime fiction for, one of the reasons why they read it, is to be presented with a world in which “justice” is done, where “justice” is defined as that satisfying tit-for-tat that means the bad guys have been punished.

And yes, the bad guys need to be punished, and a world where that did not happen would not be a good one.  And there are people out there who do things so awful that it sometimes seems that there’s no way on earth to even the score.  Nothing that the law could have done to  Frederick and Rosemary West, even if England had still had the death penalty, could even approach the ugly terror they visited on each and every one of their twenty-odd victims. 


There are different kinds of justice, and different definitions of the term, and the murder mystery–not the crime novel in general, but specifically the murder mystery, the tradition that includes Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and even Perry Mason–the murder mystery is primarily concerned with justice as a process, of the reassertion of order and reason on the chaotic intrusion of violence.

Obviously, even the most determinedly rationalst writer has forays into vigilante emotionalism.  Hercule Poirot solves Murder on the Orient Express by inventing a clever cover story so that the twelve murderers of the man sho masterminded a famous kidnapping can go free.

In general, though, they don’t, and I think that’s because the very concept–that it is permissable and maybe even laudatory for individual vigilantes to fix “lapses” in the justice system–is m ore dangerous than any dozen of the nasty victims who are so summarily dispateched. 

In a democratic and rational society, justice resides in the process, not in the verdict.  It is the process that must be protected against incursions of emotonal and individual retribution, even when that retribution is deserved.   The process protects us all.  When that process results in a wrong verdict–when somebody is convicted of a crime they haven’t committed, or acquitted of one they have–dedication to the process itself requires that we try all we can to correct the mistke, but only within the process itself, not by sticking a knife in the ribs of the murderer who managed to convince a gullible jury to set him free.

In the kind of case more common to crime novels–the murder of a man or woman who has committed no crime, but who s so nasty, so obnoxious, so innately destructive of the people around him that every day he exists serves only to bring more pain to more people–I think there is also a tacit recognition about the way these cases actually go in real life.

I come through dozens, maybe hundreds, of true crime cases every year.  I’ve come across several in which the victim was a first class waste of breath and who was murdered by exasperated lovers, spouses, children, employees, fellow workers, whatever who just couldn’t take it any more.

In not a single one of thse cases have I found a murderer who was clean.  The crime noel cliche is that the murderer in these situations is a fundamentally decent human being who, through that fundamental decency, is driven to kill.  The true crime reality is that the murderers are almost never thoroughly decent human beings.  Most of them are at least as sociopathic as their victims, and maybe even more narcissistic, solipsistic and arrogantly selfish.  

In the end, I think, murderers are not good people to leave on the street, no matter how deserving their victim, and outside of clear cases of immediate self defense, murder is not justified.   If literature is supposed to be “the truth, even though it didn’t happen,” then something like Murder on the Orient Express has lost its bid to be literature even before we start talking about things like the writing or the thematic structure. 

And  I’m sitting here stuck with one of the most obnoxious victims in my entire writing career, and I’m human enough to be going–somebody killed her off?  Oh, good.

Written by janeh

January 7th, 2009 at 6:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Victims of Reality'

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  1. I’ve never really understood the ‘he deserved killing’ argument. I can understand the drunk or druggie who doesn’t even entirely realize what s/he’s doing until it’s too late. I can even understand the couples who have years of battles, also often also under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, until eventually one or the other strikes out once too often a bit too effectively. But ‘He’s a bastard who needed killing’? I don’t really understand why the killer didn’t just walk away instead from the violence or the manipulation or the verbal or emotional assaults.

    I think in some cases the killings are a result not of the obvious wrong done by the victim, but because of the way that wrong was experienced by the killer. That is, if your lover tells you to get out; he’s found someone younger and prettier (as Tarnover apparently did), it is devastating, but most women deal with it without either killing themselves or killing their lovers. It’s almost as though a few women are thinking not of their own hurt and pain, but of the threat to their very sense of self that the abandonment poses. It’s like there’s a weakness in the killer that causes them to lash out homicidally in reaction to loss and abandon. I’m not sure I’m putting this clearly.

    There was another case back in the 1960s or 1970s that got a lot of press especially since some feminists thought that the killer had some excuse for her behaviour. I think it took place in California. The longtime wife of a doctor was told he wanted a divorce to marry his mistress. She was enraged – either at the breaking of the commitment or at the loss of the social and economic status of ‘doctor’s wife’ – and quite a while after the separation, killed her husband and his mistress. It sounded like an example of what I’m talking of – the killing didn’t take place in the first period of rage and anger and hurt. It appeared to be motivated largely because the woman was threatened by the loss of her life (socially speaking) to an extent that most people would consider irrational.


    7 Jan 09 at 8:34 am

  2. “The truth, even if it didn’t happen” indeed–but I think the best response to certain kinds of “realism” came in David Drake’s WITH THE LIGHTNINGS: “Besides, you can’t trust one of THEM even if they do happen to tell the truth.”

    As for process vs justice, no, justice does NOT reside in the process. The process is respected as a way to achieve justice which is–mostly–better than blood feuds. People will live with some failures to achieve justice for the sake of civil order, but once the process becomes a way of evading justice rather than ensuring it, it’s doomed. Nor should it be otherwise. If it is reprehensible that a guilty person should evade punishment by paying a judge in secret, is it right that a guilty person should evade punishment by paying lawyers in public?

    Justice is an ideal toward which we strive. Process is a means chosen–we hope–to obtain that end. Ends ought never to be confused with means.


    7 Jan 09 at 5:03 pm

  3. I’ve been thinking about Jane’s comment that “Let’s start out by stipulating the obvious–in real life, real murders are mostly vastly, mind numbingly stupid.”

    The list she gave sounds just like Australia. There is something reassuring about the fact that crime is the same in both countries.

    But I can read and enjoy detective stories written by US, UK, Dutch and Swedish authors simply because people are much the same in all those countries.

    The same thing seems to hold over time, otherwise I couldn’t enjoy Lord Peter Whimsey or Sherlock Holmes or the Canterbury tales.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with that idea. It’s just “People are people.”


    7 Jan 09 at 7:15 pm

  4. “is it right that a guilty person should evade punishment by paying lawyers in public?”

    If the lawyer follows the rules – yes, it is. According to our legal traditions, the accused is innocent until proven guilty. We all know no human system is perfect, and some actual innocents will be ‘proven’ guilty and some actually guilty parties will not be ‘proven’ guilty, but that’s the price of using a legal system. Any legal system, really. I suspect vigilante ‘justice’ or family blood feuds have worse error rates, and although I don’t know much about modern continental European legal systems, what I do know doesn’t sound like an improvement either.


    8 Jan 09 at 6:44 am

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