Sandeep Sandhu is a writer based in London who recently completed a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh, where he was an editor for From Arthur’s Seat, an anthology of prose and poetry. He was long-listed for the Alpine Fellowship Fiction Prize 2021. In EQMM’s next issue, July/August 2022 (on sale June 14), Sandeep will debut as a professionally published fiction writer with the story “Servant of the Gentle,” in our Department of First Stories. This post should be of equal interest to readers and writers, since, as the author says, it’s likely that many readers as well as writers fancifully plan the perfect murder in their heads. —Janet Hutchings
To misquote Tolstoy, all imperfect murders are the same, but each perfect murder is perfect in its own way. That’s to say, killers are often caught for the same reasons: sloppiness, or the mental effects of guilt and remorse taking their toll. Those who get away with it—well, we don’t know, do we?
Like many writers (and even more non-writers) I’ve spent what might be considered a worrying amount of time planning murders I have no desire to commit. With the meteoric rise of true crime podcasts, the release of umpteen bingeable crimes series, and, of course, the everlasting popularity of crime and mystery books, I have no doubt this morbid pastime is increasingly common—even if most who do it don’t go to the length of storyboarding the entire thing as many authors do (it’s a common joke among writers that if anyone got our search history, we’d be in a lot of trouble).
Anybody who has given this more than a passing thought will know there’s no catch-all method to avoid detection; no standard best practice for murdering. This is especially true today, when we’re being watched in more ways that we can imagine. The sharpened icicle that melts away leaving no evidence might have done the job half a century ago, but when your phone confirms you were at the murder location at the time of the killing, it’s not quite so easy to play dumb. Like all of the most successful things in life, tailoring your murder to your circumstances is the only surefire way to give yourself a fighting chance of getting away with it.
Choosing a victim is paramount to the success of any perfect murder. While some would argue mysterious people make the best murder victims thanks to their lack of communication with others, it can also be argued that those who follow the same routines on a day-to-day basis are easier targets. In The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the murder is planned on the basis that the victim follows the same route every time he takes a walk. Yet, if your victim has slipped through society’s net so nobody knows their whereabouts on a day-to-day basis, like the homeless victims in Robert Swindells’s Stone Cold, that’s just as useful as any clockwork-like routine. This feels like quite a dialectical thing: the more extreme the potential victim is in terms of mystery or reliability, the more useful that particular habit is to the potential murderer.
It’s not just the victim’s habits you need to take into account either. Killing people is hard—even killing animals will likely take a toll on your psyche unless you’re built in the right way (a la Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory). It’s a well known fact that armies have to propagandise soldiers to make them kill because most don’t want to—and that’s in a warzone situation, where their own lives are at stake. There’ a reason so many murders are crimes of passion, after all. Sometimes you can even have a completely willing victim and it’s still a struggle, like in Muriel Spark’s In the Driver’s Seat. Without a burst of emotion, or some kind of psychosis, it can be near impossible for most to murder. But that passion and change of mental state is also what leaves us clues.
Literature has taught us there are some must-dos if you want to escape detection. The one thing we learn from Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the other greats is the importance of motive. So, it follows you should pick someone you’re not connected to as your victim—or, like the characters in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, find someone to do a murder swap with (that is, you kill their victim, and they yours). But that, of course, opens you up to another potential link. If you are the sort of person who can kill, as the last paragraph established you need to be, then murdering a stranger shouldn’t be too out of the question. But even if you psych yourself up for the task with all your might, you might find it’s still not enough.
In probably the most famous psychological crime novel of all time, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, our protagonist Raskolnikov talks about wanting to murder someone who deserves it and being the right type of character to get away with it: a “Napoleon,” in his words.The perfect murder needs the killer to have that level of confidence, but without veering into arrogance. In the epilogue to Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky discusses those who have gotten away with much worse crimes than Raskolnikov, concluding: “. . . those people had the courage of their convictions, and so they were right.” And, despite convincing himself that his original victim deserved death, describing her as a parasite and louse who has personally made his life harder, Raskolnikov still couldn’t stomach the crime. There’s no doubt one of the best tools a detective has in solving a murder is something they have no control over: the murderer’s sense of guilt.
So, you’ve got your victim and you’re in the right headspace: now you need to come up with some ingenious way to kill them and leave no (or very little) evidence. Perhaps like the murderer in Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger you’ve managed to find a way to make the death look natural, or you’ve discovered a foolproof method of disposing of the body. Everything is planned out to a T – but more problems remain. For whatever reason—some cosmic connection with the universe, a primal sort of instinct—human beings can often have a sixth sense that something is awry. Bobby Rupp, the boyfriend of one of the victims of Truman Capote’s infamous In Cold Blood, claimed that when he left the victim’s house the evening of the murders he was sure the killers were nearby: “Only now when I think back, I think somebody must have been hiding there. Maybe down among the trees. Somebody just waiting for me to leave.”
The problem really is that murder itself doesn’t seem to be as easy as many think it is. Perhaps we’re obsessed with the perfect murder because Dostoyevsky was right: it’s a super power to be able to do exactly what you want and have no remorse, especially if that thing is breaking the most sacred of human bonds, and because being kind and caring for each other is such an intrinsic part of the human condition. That also explains why people love true crime in the way they adore high-level sportspeople doing their thing: we get to see someone do something almost superhuman, even if that something is truly horrific.