This week I’d like to expand on a post I made on November 8, 2010, on EQMM’s Web-site forum, concerning confession scenes. They’re a staple of our genre, so much so that I suspect most writers of crime fiction have resorted to one at least once to wrap up a story. I’m sympathetic: a confession scene must sometimes seem irresistible to an author struggling to bring a particularly vexing plot to resolution. But it’s precisely when it’s used for that reason that this literary device causes me to groan—and I’ll bet every reader has had that reaction at one time or another to a killer’s spilling of the solution. My disappointment in this type of denouement doesn’t only derive from the fact that it replaces a display of deductive brilliance. Often, it’s that the psychology of the whole business is either absent or just doesn’t feel right.

You know the kind of scene I’m thinking of: upstanding pillar of society suddenly turns a gun on the nosy sleuth he’s convinced is about to finger him for the crime. But before despatching the detective, he can’t resist bragging about his cleverness. Such conscienceless pride over heinous acts is, in the real world, behavior typically associated with sociopaths, and despite the fact that sociopaths are known to be extremely adept at appearing “normal,” I always feel that if a fiction writer is going to hang the story on such a personality, some groundwork should be laid.

Not all confessions in fiction come from the mouths of sociopaths, of course. Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which involves perhaps the best-known confession in fiction, centers around a tortured conscience—something a sociopath, by definition, does not have. When I first posted on this subject I had just learned that Poe’s famous story was inspired by a real murder case that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1830. The Smithsonian had just run an article by E.J. Wagner about the murder of Joseph White, an elderly former sea captain, and the subsequent trial of the men who conspired to kill him. White was a man of considerable fortune, with only nephews and a niece to inherit his estate were he to die intestate. Like many a wealthy old curmudgeon in mystery fiction, White was apparently fond of tormenting his family with changes to his will, and despite the picture newspapers painted of him as a “beloved old man,” he inspired hatred in some of his nearest and dearest.

What makes the case so interesting from the standpoint of mystery writing is that the perpetrators, in effect, led themselves to justice. It was their indiscretion in talking about the crime to at least one person who would later attempt to blackmail them—along with their own missteps in attempting to deflect suspicion—which led to their demise. The prosecutor on the case was the famous Daniel Webster—U.S. congressman and senator and twice Secretary of State. Regarded as the leading orator of his time, Webster was asked by a relative of the victim to assist the prosecution in the trial of one of the conspirators. After reading the Smithsonian article, I found a fuller text of Webster’s summation to the jury online, and I think it’s something every writer of confession scenes, at least of the non-sociopathological variety, should read.

According to E.J. Wagner, Samuel McCall, another lawyer and statesman of the time, called Webster’s speech “the greatest argument ever addressed to a jury.” It included these passages on the matter of conscience:

“He has done the murder. No eye has seen him . . . The secret is his own, and it is safe! Ah! Gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake . . . such secrets of guilt are never safe from detection, even by men. True it is, generally speaking, that ‘murder will out.’ . . . the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret. It is false to itself, or rather, it feels an irresistible impulse of conscience to be true to itself. It labors under its guilty possession, and knows not what to do with it. The human heart was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant. It finds itself preyed on by a torrent which it dare not acknowledge to God or man. A vulture is devouring it, and it can ask no sympathy from heaven or earth. The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him, and like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him, and leads him whithersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes . . . it breaks down his courage . . . When suspicions from without begin to embarrass him, and the net of circumstances to entangle him, the fatal secret struggles with still greater violence to burst forth. It must be confessed, it will be confessed . . .”

Anyone who’s read “The Tell-Tale Heart” will have no trouble agreeing with Poe scholars that Webster’s words, which apparently would have been known to Poe, probably inspired the famous short story. And it wasn’t only Poe who was influenced by Webster’s eloquent speech. Wagner points out that Nathaniel Hawthorne was living in Salem at the time of the trial and contributing stories to the local newspaper. He says: “I discovered the murder case had even found its way into some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works, with its themes of tainted family fortunes, torrential guilt and ensuing retribution.” More specifically, some scholars have connected the influence of Webster’s speech on Hawthorne to the need Hawthorne’s character Dimmesdale feels to confess in The Scarlet Letter.

What this all leads me to is a plea to writers concluding their stories with confession scenes: If you must use this device, try to do it with a degree of psychological realism. The interesting killer —to me, at least—is a character conflicted over his crime. He or she may have an egotistical desire so boast of the cleverness of what’s been done. Webster notes this is his speech. He says: “Such is human nature, that some persons lose their abhorrence of crime in their admiration of its magnificent exhibitions. Ordinary vice is reprobated by them, but extraordinary guilt, exquisite wickedness, the high flights of poetry and crime, seize on the imagination, and lead them to forget the depths of the guilt, in admiration of the excellence of the performance. . . ” Webster is addressing those who admire the criminal, but the same point pertains to the criminal’s self admiration. And Webster is very clear that alongside that glorification of the crime is the guilt that abides and grows in the soul. In modern terms we would say that if not for that—if not for conscience— we’d be dealing with a sociopath, and the sociopath is a type of character that is interesting to me, in fiction, primarily as a freak. He or she can be fascinating, of course, but not in the way a human character compels our interest.

The type of confession scene that makes me groan is that in which there’s been a kind of “cop out.” The plot has been resolved, but at the expense of making any sense of the character. That upstanding pillar of society who turns the gun on the nosy sleuth without any remorse and with a gloating pleasure in recounting his exploits is a cipher in the character department. If a story is going to be resolved by a confession, I want to see something of the inner conflict that leads to it.—Janet Hutchings

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6 Responses to WRAPPING IT UP

  1. Barb Goffman says:

    Very interesting, Janet. But putting the sociopath aside, I think there are at least two types of murderers who will realistically confess. There’s the one you address above, who has a conscience, who perhaps committed murder because he felt backed into a corner. In that circumstance, I agree it would be better writing to have that character reveal bits of that conscience peeking out throughout the story.

    But then there’s the murderer who thinks his actions were morally correct. I’m reminded of the scene from “A Time To Kill” (forgive me, I’m recalling the film, as it’s been about twenty years since I read the book), where the defendant essentially said, “Yes, I killed him, and I’d do it again.” He had no remorse because the person he killed, to his mind, had it coming. I can buy that type of killer confessing, too, when he’s reminded of all the wrong (real or not) that the murder victim did to him. No earlier conscience peeking out in that story would be necessary to me (as a reader). But what I would expect to see, instead, is the anger, the righteous indignation peeking out (assuming we see enough of the killer earlier on).

    Anyway, very interesting post. Thanks for contributing to a thoughtful morning.

    • Janet Hutchings says:

      You’re absolutely right, Barb. That’s an important type of confession, and I didn’t address it. Thanks for posting about it. There are many different types of believable characters who don’t feel conflicted about the murders they commit not because they don’t have a conscience but, as you say, because they’re confident that what they’ve done is morally acceptable. A lot of gangsters found in fiction fall into that category (though where their loved ones are concerned conscience usually seems to operate as in an ordinary person). But I think in many of those cases what interests us about the characters is precisely that their conception of what is morally acceptable differs from ours. They are interesting as characters because they have a moral dimension, however distorted; they’re not just generic villains whose confessions—however inexplicable—are needed to resolve the plot. I see the latter sort of confession ending often in whodunit stories by newer writers. Occasionally also in stories by pros.

      Anyway, you gave me something to think about too. Thanks!!

  2. Hayford Peirce says:

    Some years ago, before Janet took over the duties of running EQMM, I read an interview with a previous editor — Eleanor Sullivan, perhaps? Wish I could remember where it was, maybe in The Armchair Detective. Anyway, Ms. Sullivan was talking about weird manuscripts that came over the transom and the strange things they contained. The weirdest, she said, was one in which a murder had been committed. People were in an office on a fairly high floor of a building discussing the case. Suddenly the door flew open. “A tall woman burst into the room. ‘I did it,’ she cried. ‘I killed so-and-so!’ She ran across the room, opened a window, and jumped out to her death.” End of story, apparently. Poor Ms. Sullivan. Poor Janet….

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