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The Good Murder

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The title of th is post comes from a bit of French (possibly faux French) from something that may or may not be an actual French poem, called La Belle Homicide.  I admit to not having the patience to read through the conversation on the list I saw this on, mostly because  it’s about four degrees below zero where I live and my office, where my computer is, is in a sunroom.  Meaning it’s really, painfully cold.  That said, I like the term–The Good Murder–and I can even think of half a dozen ways it could be meant.

Cheryl says that the civilized murder, like the handsome young detective investigating it and the half dozen suspects with interesting motives who may have committed it, is a fantasy.   I don’t think I agree.   Oh, the handsome young detective is fantasy enough, but I can think of a whole raft of cases off the top of my head that fit the definition of “civilized murder” the way  I used it in the last post.   There are even a fair number of cases out there that read like murder mysteries.  In the early days of shows like American Justice,.those were the cases they concentrated on.

Consider the three most prominent examples of spousal murder over the last ten or fifteen years, the three  Petersons, Scott, Drew and Michael.  In at least two of these cases (Drew and Michael) there’s the possibility that the man in question murdered one or more wives before the one he became notorious for.   In one case (Michael) the accused was a best selling writer of thrillers.  In all three cases, the victims and murderers and suspects were all solidly middle class or better. 

There are more cases, if you want to look.  There’s Barbara Suger of Durham, North Carolina, who also managed to get away with one spousal murder before she got caught in the replay, who was also solidly middle class and whose story sounds like something out of a Marple, at least, complete with fraud, publishing and really complicated forensics.

But I don’t have to go that far afield.  I have one of these, more or less, in my own family.  I say more or less, because it concerns the mother of the husband of one of my cousins, who murdered her own mother and sister for the insurance money. 

“Civilized” murders, murders of the kind that make the basis of many traditional murder  mysteries, do occur, they just don’t occur as often as murder mysteries make them seem to.  So the question remains, is there a difference in kind, or only in degree, between this kind of thing and the mob of idiots who bludgeon homeless tramps to death for the hell of it?

Robert says it’s only a difference of degree, and in fact the underlying assumption of the traditional murder mystery is just that.   In fact, by the omission of any kind of acknowledge of “regular” murder in the traditional murder mystery, “civilized” murder is left to stand in for it. 

I think though, that looking at the two kinds of crime makes the issue a lot less clear.   Certainly the people who commit the two different kinds of crime have very different kinds of personalities.  Maybe there’s a kind of continuum, beginning with that mob of idiots who kill or maim because they’re bored,.moving up through the deliberated violence of organized thuggery, and ending up on the doorstep of these two little old ladies who murdered half a dozen old men to get hold of their monthly social security checks.  I wish I could remember their names.  It was one of  my favorite true crime documentary stories, and I’ve misplaced it.

Robert suggests that fiction is a bad place to go for information, and several other people have said that they read to “relax” or to “escape” or for “fun.”  I’ll go on record and say that I agree with  Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren, that there are three levels of reading:  for entertainment, for information, and for understanding.  I am, with books, the way a good skiier is with slopes.   The easy stuff doesn’t entertain me, it just bores me.

But I don’t read for information, either, although it’s a plus if I get something that.  I read for understanding.  What I go to fiction for is help in understanding people, and a book is “good” for me to the extent that it gives me a view into the way people very different from me think and feel. 

And, in case you’re about to ask–yes, I do think fiction is the best place to go for such understanding.  In fact, at the moment, I would say it’s the only place we can go.  Psychology does a fair, but only fair, job of giving us the general patterns of  characteristics in wide categories of people, and it can describe the symptoms of diseased minds, but as soon as it gets near individuals, or attempts to describe the functioning of normal minds, it falls apart.   Or worse.

We bring psychologists into courtrooms and parole hearings to predict the future behavior of criminals, and their predictions are less accurate than chance.  This is, after all, a group of people who vote on what is to be classified as a disease, and who are unable to distinguish between an “addiction” and a “habit.”  The result is a multibillion dollar rehab industry with a 97% failure rate and story after story in the papers about axe murderers released from prison as no longer a danger to the community only to hack up their landladies in the first week.

The other result, of course, is the wholesale ditching of Constitutional protections for anybody ever labeled a “sex offender,” no matter what he did to be handed that appellation.  In some states, anybody who has ever been accused of a sex offense–even if he was never charged, or acquitted–is labeled a “sex offender” and registered and tracked.  Apparently, peope accused of sex crimes are not innocent until proven guilty.

So,  yes, fiction is where I go to understand people.  Theoretically, both biography and true crime should offer much the same kind of understanding, but for some reason I don’t understand, they don’t, usually.  My best guess for biography is that it usually takes in too much of a person’s life, tries too hard for the big picture, rather than zeroing in, as fiction does, on one particular arc in the personal narrative.

With true crime, I think the fault may be true crime writers, a lot of whom come from either law enforcement or psychology and who have therefore been trained to look at people from the same kind of theoretical perspective that makes so much psychology so lame. The two true crime books I  can think of that did excellent jobs on the understanding people front–In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song–were both written by first-class novelists. What’s more, they both called their books “nonfiction n novels.” 

But the question remains, or returns, as to whether there is something fundamentally different between the kind of violence committed by all those Petersons and that committed by those random thugs on the street–and, unfortunately, fiction as it exists so far doesn’t really help. 

Traditional mysteries don’t deal with ordinary violent crime.  The more realistic kind of “crime novel” does, but almost all of these are written almost exclusively from the points of view  of their detectives, with only minimal exposure to the points of view of the perpetrators.   And the perpetrators are often stereotypical, more excuses for the plot than attempts to explain and explore real human individuals.  

Mailer and Capote are better, but the didn’t go all the way to the bottom of the barrel, either, although Mailer’s Gary  Gilmore came closer than any character I’ve ever seen to being a type of mind completely and utterly foreign not only to me, but to what I can undestand of the Peterson boys, too.  Mailer’s Gilmore lives in a world of dotted lines, where nothing connects to anything else, where picking up cigarettes can lead to murder because, well, it was Tuesday, and…I don’t know..things just happen.

In civilized murders, things do not just happen.  They have to be planned, and no Gary Gilmore could commit one.

Written by janeh

January 17th, 2009 at 9:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Good Murder'

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  1. The theory has been offered that all of us, put into a particular set of circumstances, are capable of murder. I’ve often wondered what my personal particular set of circumstances would be and cannot think of any . . . yet, I understand the theory and cannot discard it. I think the difference between murderers, then, is the perceived circumstances. John Grisham addressed this in his first novel “A Time to Kill.” The father is so outraged over the sexual attack on his young daughter . . . and by the realization that they are going to escape punishment . . . that he kills her attackers. Is that any different in the mind of the murderer than “picking up cigarettes, and it was Tuesday, and things just happen”? In my mind there is a great deal of difference, but would I kill in either set of circumstances?
    Civilized or uncivilized, in the mind of the murderer there was a “good” reason for the act to take place. Perhaps this is why we have so much trouble with the insanity plea.


    17 Jan 09 at 1:42 pm

  2. I read a lot of war novels. The good ones such as the Hornblower series or the Rifleman Sharpe series provide both entertainment and information.

    That is also true for the “historical” mysteres such as Brother Cadfael.

    I can understand manslaughter. Two men arguing in a bar, one pushes the other, who falls down, hits his head, and dies of the head injury. I have no trouble seeing myself doing that – we all lose our tempers.

    But I can’t understand the 20 year old university student who kills his parents and younger brother and tries to make it look like a murder-sucide so his yournger brother will be blamed. All so that he can inherit the million dollar house. Yes, I’d like a million dollars, bur not enough to kill someone.


    17 Jan 09 at 5:43 pm

  3. I take the point. Entertainment? Certainly, and of course tastes vary. “Easy” fiction could mean any of a number of things, so I’ll pass on that.

    Information? Only with great care. I don’t have the Sharpe novels in the apartment, but I do have Oman’s HISTORY OF THE PENINSULAR WAR in seven volumes–which may be why I don’t have Cornwall. A historical novelist–even a good one–isn’t a historian, and can be an additional source of error, either through mistake or “dramatic necessity.”

    Understanding? Yes, and I’ll do that too. But always remember the hidden snare. We accept the novelist’s depiction of a personality type because it fits what we know or think we know about people or people of that type. If a novelist depicted criminals–or revolutionaries, or moochers or what have you–in a way which conflicted with our understanding, odds are we’d reject the novelist as implausible. Sadly, the plausibility of a character has no direct relation to the truth, but only to our previous understanding. The non-fiction writer, if he’s any good, provides facts and sound logic, and explains where his facts come from. He is far better equipped to unseat error than the novelist can ever hope to be.

    I’m sure of the novels which have entertained me. Have they informed me? Maybe, but which of us would accept “I read it in a novel” as verification? Have they helped my understanding? Try a simple test: do the people who disagree with you have novels which helped their understanding, too? I’m right, of course, but it’s very hard to prove it with that system.


    17 Jan 09 at 6:23 pm

  4. “two little old ladies who murdered half a dozen old men to get hold of their monthly social security checks”

    Dorothea Punte worked alone (except for the homeless male alcoholic she ‘adopted’). She looked like a nice little old lady providing a valuable service by housing the old and addicted that no one else wanted to deal with until the bodies were discovered and the authorities took a closer look at her background. Women are said to murder people they know and men to murder strangers, but I’m not sure how far that goes. Dorothea Punte appears to have been motivated by greed – she ran her boarding house to make money, and if she couldn’t make enough, or a resident started making trouble, well, she had a solution. She didn’t seem to murder people really close to her.

    Yes, there are people who plan murders like the murderers in novels. They sometimes don’t plan them very well – like the ‘brilliant’ young student who had such contempt for the police that he waited calmly for them with a carefully worked-out alibi after ‘discovering’ the bodies of his family. He wasn’t brilliant enough to realize that this kind of reaction to discovering the bodies of your entire family wasn’t normal.

    Maybe the difference in kind is between those who work out murders of those close to them and those who do so ‘on the job’, so to speak, during a criminal act, or who are impelled by some kind of connection between sex, power and killing. But then you have killers for hire and those who kill their family members out of rage instead of calculation. The more I think about it, the less clear-cut it seems.

    ‘But the question remains, or returns, as to whether there is something fundamentally different between the kind of violence committed by all those Petersons and that committed by those random thugs on the street’

    I’m thinking as I type here. Maybe some of the difference is that between planned and implusive murder. I know that to call it murder you have to have some pre-meditation, but it seems to me that there must be a difference in the mental processes of someone who cooly figures out how to permanently eliminate someone who stands in his way – whether it is a bank guard or the parent with the insurance policy – and someone who goes to a convenience store with a weapon to frighten the clerk – or so he tells himself – and gets rattled or angry enough to fire it. Or the adult child who simply can’t take his parent’s ‘selfishness’ any more and grabs a bottle of sleeping pills to fake a suicide.

    If you get past strong emotion – rage, terror etc – it all comes down to whether or not you recognise the other person as a human being instead of an object. In families, this problem can be acute. In one of Ann Rules’ books, she quotes a prosecutor as saying that Diane Downs considered her children ‘fungible’. I had to look that word up, and I’m not sure it’s the right one – the implication was that her children weren’t realy human beings in her eyes; they were objects that could be easily replaced. Diane Downs was one of those women who kill their children to make themselves more appealing and available to a new lover.

    It works the other way, too. I’ve been astonished at how often adult children consider their parents’ property to be essentially theirs (the children’s). That kind of attitude must make it easier to murder the parents to get the family property, although fortunately it usually doesn’t.

    I can’t imagine committing murder myself, although I could imagine killing in self-defence. But maybe that line isn’t as clear as I would like to think – surely many murderers have thought that their killings were to defend themselves against poverty, shame, prison….I prefer a much more restrictive definition of self-defence – defence against imminent death!

    ‘Information? Only with great care.’
    I find sometimes a novel or, more often, a TV show, will arouse my interest and inspire me to go out and get another source on the topic. I do like novels that make me feel like I understand something, but I know things may have been misunderstood or slanted by the author. If I spot that, I really don’t like it!


    18 Jan 09 at 8:39 am

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