Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Do They Murder? by Chester Campbell

I haven’t indulged in any scientific study of the subject, but it seems to me that in crime fiction the most popular motive for murder is greed. I say that using the dictionary definition of greed: “An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves.” Most often it involves money in some form or another, but it could be almost anything, including somebody else’s wife.

One of the classic Bible murders occurred when David got his henchmen to arrange the death of Uriah. That left him free to marry Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba. James M. Cain used a similar plot (sans henchmen) in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a classic tale of greed. All the killing is done in an attempt to acquire the supposedly ancient black bird.

Another popular fictional murder motive is revenge or retribution. This has spawned the good guy killer fad seen most notably in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. The hero doesn’t consider them murders but retribution for injustices to himself or other friendly characters.

Interestingly enough, this type of rationalization is similar to that of the schoolyard killers. At Columbine and Virginia Tech, the students rationalized that they were punishing other kids who had bullied them, ostracized them, made fun of them, or generally made them feel unwanted. In the fictional world, authors make sure their targets are painted black enough that there’s no doubt “they deserve it.”

Actually, rationalization is the balm that most murderers use to justify what they’re doing in their own minds, even when they know it is against the will of the law and society. They become determined to do it anyway.

I say most murderers, because there are always the psychopaths—serial killers. These guys (and a few gals) are so egocentric and socially disconnected that they know what they’re doing is right. Nobody else matters, so what’s to rationalize? Psychologists say there are plenty of them around. Fortunately, only a few drift into the murderous category. Except in fiction.

So why do they murder? If you’re writing a novel, they can do it for any good (or bad) reason you can dream up. Just try to keep it believable.

Chester Campbell
Mystery Mania
Murderous Musings


Jean Henry Mead said...

So true, Chester. Always be nice to hospital nurses because they comprise the largest single group of serial killers. Whether they rationize that they're 'angels of mercy' or go into the profession because hospital killings are easy and usually undetectable, I'm not sure, but psychopaths, are, unfortunately, attracted to the profession.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Very interesting, Chester. I think as mystery writers that we have to be really careful to make sure the killer's motive is it something that someone would actually murder over? Good points here.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Dana Fredsti said...

The scary thing about the world is there seems to be no end of bizarre and seemingly irrational motives behind murders. Some are alcohol/drug fueled, others because the perpetrator is crazy, and others...well, there doesn't seem to be any reason other than a total lack of ethics/morals/empathy on the part of the killer. Convenient for us mystery writers, though...