As I write, the United States is still reeling from the insane murder of twenty-six people at the Sandy Hook elementary school.
As someone who spends a lot of time reading mysteries and thrillers, and some time writing about violence, it raises a lot of issues. There are reports Hollywood is modifying the violence in movies.
That won’t last long.
Not that I feel guilty — anything but.
The corpses in books (and movies) are — here’s a real revelation, folks — fictional characters! They’re not real people.
They’re just as unreal as the characters who are ‘alive’ in the book!
Even if a good writer has made us believe in their emotional reality.
Furthermore, I doubt many authors would attempt writing a fictional version of Sandy Hook. For one thing, who could stand to read about the deliberate hunting and killing of elementary school children? In James Patterson’s first Alex Cross book, Along Came a Spider, the main villain kidnaps two children, one of whom is killed. His death is off-stage, but it’s gruesome enough to make the book feel edgy.
Plus, who understands these kind of mass murderers?
It’s easier to portray killers who have clear motivations. Most people who kill do so out of momentary rage. Bar fights. Jealousy.
We disapprove of gangsters killing other gangsters, but we understand it’s business.
We enjoy reading about serial killers, but they are trying not to be caught.
Mass murderers seem to go into some bizarre state of mind. They know they’re not going to escape. If a SWAT team doesn’t get them, they take their own life, as Adam Lanza did.
When I was growing up, from the age of 3 on, I spent my summers living at a private swim club called Summersport. One of the other families there consisted of three boys and two girls. I didn’t know the girls well, but two of the boys were close to my age. One was about four years younger. Last I heard from my mother, he is principal of Marquette High School in Alton. We all swam together on the Summersport swim team.
Sometimes at swim meets I saw their father. I’ll call him Mr. S. I don’t believe I ever saw him smile. He always seemed grim and angry. And he treated his kids as though he were a sergeant and they were boot camp recruits.
So I didn’t like him, but since I was a kid, it didn’t occur to me to question why he behaved that way.
When I was twenty-four, Mr. S made the front page of The Alton Evening Telegraph for committing mass murder.
It seems that he had left his wife at some point, for another woman. This in itself was quite a scandal. They were Catholics, and Catholics of that generation didn’t break up. They might secretly have affairs, but they didn’t leave their spouses.
Then the woman broke up with him, taking another boyfriend.
Mr. S apparently went into some kind of jealous state of mind of such anger he didn’t think about the consequences of his actions.
He got a gun, went to the woman’s house, shot, and killed the boyfriend.
The house was on Godfrey Road, a fairly well traveled road.
The woman ran outside her house, screaming.
Unfortunately, just at that moment, a man was driving by her house on the Godfrey Road. He saw she was in trouble, and stopped to see if he could help.
That man was named Bob. And I can vouch that he was a very nice guy. He was president of my class at Alton Senior School. So he was very popular. The kind of guy who liked to have a good time, but I never saw him do so at anyone else’s expense.
He wasn’t on the Summersport swim team, but he worked there with me as a lifeguard. I know he knew Mr. S’s two sons that were around our age, though I can’t say how much they socialized together. (They didn’t go to Alton High as did Bob and I.)
I remember one day when we were sent down to The Pit to pull weeds.
Someone we got on the topic of death. He’d been deeply affected by the earlier death of one of our classmates, Beeze Young, who died in a house fire.
I had an Algebra class with her, and she was always a happy, cheerful person.
Bob remembered how studious and diligent she was. She worked hard. She was going to be somebody. For all the good it did her, she may as well have partied like everyone else.
So I know he thought about the possibility of an early death.
Maybe he just used that as an excuse to justify his own partying versus diligent studying.
But by the time I’m writing about, Bob had become a fireman, professionally trained to help people.
Every so often, I wonder if Bob knew who was killing him. I know Bob knew the two boys about our age. But Mr. S didn’t hang around Summersport except during swim meets, so Bob may never have met him, and so never realized it was their father doing the shooting.
After killing his ex-girlfriend and Bob, Mr. S went into the garage, and put a bullet through his own brain.
It seems that mass murderers go into a mental and emotional state where they commit the murders. Then, once they’ve killed some people, they wake up, and feel so guilty they can’t live with it, or the shame.
Of course, that’s conjecture.
But it’s common that such killers do kill themselves after the others.
Who can tell? On my day job, I dealt for many years with a woman who seemed to be the only sane person in her family. She received the money for her retarded/insane younger sister and all her insane/retarded nieces and nephews the sister had by a retarded/insane man.
For at least twenty years, she was the one we contacted for any business related to them. She was the one we relied on.
Then, one day, we heard the news. Jealous of her boyfriend and another woman, she shot the man and then killed herself.
And it’s also true the parallel between Lanza and Mr. So is not precise. Mr. S was a full grown man. He’d married, fathered five children, and by that point at least three of them must have been out of college. I don’t know what kind of work he did, but the family seemed upper middle class. So he was hardly the obvious loser Lanza was.
However, I believe it wouldn’t be too far wrong to say he had a personality disorder. I’m not a psychologist, but in my former day job I talked to a lot of people who had that diagnosis. In my view, ‘personality disorder’ is politically correct psycho-babble for ‘asshole.’
And, in my admittedly limited experience of him, Mr. S was an asshole.
But not all assholes go on killing sprees, thank goodness.
Years ago, a man in St. Louis got angry at his wife. He may have been already separated from her. I forget the details. Anyway, she was a school teacher. He went to the school where she taught, and shot her while she was in front of her class.
We were horrified that her students saw that happen.
But at least he didn’t shoot any of them as well.
So it also seems a lot of these stories have sexual jealousy and love gone wrong roots.
My personal belief is, mysteries and thrillers — if they have any impact at all — reduce not increase violence.
In traditional British/Agatha Christie-style, ‘cozy’ mysteries, the dead body is nearly incidental. It’s simply the basis for an intellectual puzzle.
I can possibly see potential murders reading such mysteries to better understand how police and detectives solve crimes, the better to avoid being caught, but whether that’s happened in real life or not, I don’t know.
I cannot believe anybody has ever been influenced to commit murder by reading Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, or any other cozy writers.
The basic appeal of such books, beyond solving the puzzle, is the detective restoring order to society by bringing the murderer to justice.
American ‘hard-boiled’ style stories, such as pioneered by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, have the same basic appeal. Justice is done, often despite the barrier of social injustice.
And such detectives have to use both their brawn and their brains. They tend to experience more on-page violence than the murder victims.
Dick Francis often beats up and tortures his heroes.
Many such books are violent, but if the hero is not taking it in their quest for justice, they’re dishing it out for justice. Such as Mickey Spillane.
I can’t recall in which book I read it, but in one Alex Cross novel, his buddy Sampson tells Cross that he (Sampson) and another cop found the man who killed Cross’s wife (in an earlier book), and killed him.
Interestingly, Patterson made no issue of this. Although in the United States we tend to believe (or hope) cops don’t generally carry out vigilante justice.
Of course I haven’t read every mystery and mystery-related thriller ever published, but it’s hard to imagine one that doesn’t present a murderer of the innocent as anything but evil.
(Whoops — HANNIBAL and HANNIBAL RISING by Thomas Harris just came to mind. They are exceptions that prove the rule. And they try to make Hannibal Lector the ‘good guy’ by pitting him against other evil people. Even so, they appalled me — especially HANNIBAL. Perhaps he intended the seduction of Clarice Starling to the side of evil — having her eat the brains of the lambs — as Lector’s most depraved act. Yet it seemed to me Harris worked too hard to make us cheer too hard for Lector.)
Therefore, I for one say people who read — and hopefully write — thrillers cheer for justice and the protection of the innocent. Reading of the horrors of violence against the innocent in fiction may well make us more sensitive to the horrors of real life violence against the innocent.