Northern Irish author Paul Charles writes three series of mystery novels. The ten-book-strong DI Christy Kennedy series saw its latest instalment, A Pleasure to Do Death With You, published in 2012. A second series, set in Donegal, Ireland and starring Inspector Starrett, had its third entry, St. Ernan’s Blues, released in 2016, and the most recently launched series, set in modern-day Belfast, debuted in 2015 with Down on Cyprus Avenue. Paul’s first story for EQMM, from the DI Kennedy series, will appear in our July/August issue—and we’ll have another for readers shortly after that. In this post he reflects on the need for a crime writer to probe what lies behind a crime.—Janet Hutchings
Can good people do bad things or, fundamentally, are offenders just evil all the time?
Let’s take a simple example: Say someone risks road rage and the wellbeing (safety) of you and your fellow passengers, by cutting you—in your pristine Vauxhall VX4/90—up at a junction.
Understandably you’d be forgiven for thinking they were a rude, first-class pranny. At that point, you can do one of two things: You can immediately seek revenge by trailing them, perhaps honking your horn, gesticulating furiously and offensively, and causing mortal danger to the offender and their passengers by cutting them up at the next available or, even worse still, unavailable opportunity. Or, you could just think, “Oh, they must be having a bad day,” forget all about the incident, and continue to focus on what is currently on Radio 4.
If it’s the former, then perhaps I could politely suggest your retaliation would make you an equal pranny. It would show that deep down you are every bit as careless, reckless, ruthless as they were. Was their cutting you up at the junction, striking the first blow as it were, justification enough for your subsequent action? Does your action show that you no longer had the right to pass your original assessment of the offending driver?
If, on the other hand, you’ve chosen the more passive response, then is the “Oh, they must be having a bad day” justification enough for their behaviour?
Now let’s ramp this up a few notches on the offending scale.
If, say, your wife or partner cheats on you, or a business associate swindles you, or someone steals from you, does that give you the right to return the disfavour? For example, you may have something, a prized possession, perhaps even the aforementioned motorcar. You’ve worked hard to get it, maybe even, if truth be known, you couldn’t really afford it in the first place, but you broke your back and your bank account to purchase it.
Sidebar; I should probably mention here that I think the classic Vauxhall VX4/90—particularly in its majestic racing green with white flashes down each side—was the only UK-manufactured car that came anywhere close to the majesty of the classic American cars of the 1950s and 1960s. The American vehicles are some of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen. I should also mention here that I have never driven a car in my life. I think the closest I ever came was a golf buggy. (Coincidently, neither do I play golf.)
Anyway, someone sees this beautiful VX4/90 in your driveway. They share a passion for it, but can’t afford to find, buy, and lovingly restore their own. They do however feel, through their sense of entitlement, that they can steal yours. Are they to be viewed sympathetically as a victim of their circumstances and be forgiven? I mean, after all, they didn’t murder anyone, did they? In the instance of theft, what would you do? What could you do? What would you be forgiven (acquitted) for doing?
But say they did murder someone. Yes, what if we ramped up this thought process even further? In fact, let’s take it the whole way through to number eleven out of ten on our scale. What then? What if, for whatever reason, they deprived someone of their life? Their motive is not really important here, but it could have been: revenge; financial; jealousy; love or lack of love; or maybe even self-defence. What is important, however, is how you would be prepared to act in retaliation. How would their action affect your reaction?
Most of us would obviously seek justice through the courts. But what if their deed was just malicious? What if they were guilty of pure wickedness and they were just simply malevolent? What if it was a drug-related crime and they treated a family member or a loved one of yours in a depraved way before ending your loved one or family member’s life? What might you do then? What might you be capable of then, knowing that in these liberal times there was a very good chance they’d be back on the streets in a few years while you and your family members would mourn the loss of your dear departed for the rest of your days?
Every time I start work on a new mystery I find myself trying to unravel the basic mystery at the core of crime writing: what motivates a sane person to commit the most heinous of crimes by taking a human life. I want to understand, not because I want to make the murderer sympathetic, but because I want to try and paint a picture where, from their perspective, their actions are justified.
Now if we go back to the road-rage example for a moment, were they basically just a good person who was having a bad day? Perhaps they were merely in a hurry to get a sick relative to the hospital for urgent treatment? Or, were they just simply a happily, self-confessed, immoral person? If so, how did they get to that point? How do you ever get to the point where you wake up one morning and say to yourself, “Okay, enough is enough, so-and-so has got to go.”? And is the mind-set a lot different if the so-and-so is their wife, their husband, a parent or even both of their parents? Then, once you’ve made that commitment, resolve to kill them, what exactly is the thought process from there?
In the planning stages does a potential murderer ever give up, or do they get progressively buzzed by the ritual of death? If you murder once out of (from your perspective) necessity, does it make it easier, when push comes to shove, to murder a second and possibly a third person in order to protect your liberty?
As a murderer, are you ever concerned about the fact that in the USA 60% of homicides are solved, while in the UK 80% of murders are solved? As in, the odds are really stacked against you as a killer. Clearly those statistics are based on reported crimes, but what about all the crimes that are, for one reason or another, just not reported? How does that impact the above percentages? Would many more people commit murder if they thought they could get away with it, or do we have to thank the above success rates for the figures being what they are? I avoided saying, “as low as they are” because in the UK in 2015 just over 500 souls lost their lives at the hands (or weapons) of others and in the USA the 2013 figure was 14,000. These are certainly not “low” figures.
Year on year, though, figures in the United Kingdom and the United States of America are falling.
I’m also intrigued by whether or not the need/want/seed of murder has always been within those who commit the biggest crime of all by taking a life, or, if in an otherwise righteous life, something happens where, in a Liam Neeson or Charles Bronson classic-revenge-movie moment, the loss of a precious loved one causes something deep inside to snap and you are powerless to contradict your inner turmoil?
So . . . can good people do bad? Well, you’d have to think that anyone in the right circumstances—or perhaps that should be: anyone in the wrong circumstances—can react in a manner, which on consideration, they would have never thought themselves capable of.
Asking these questions and searching for the answers is what motivates my writing. Will I ever get any closer to understanding the mind of a murderer? Well, in a way I hope not, because maybe when you arrive at that point . . . well, the next stage doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?