Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

An Index of Criminality

Penned upon the 20th of September, 2010

Bugger me sideways, what have I been doing instead of posting, eh? Assembling scale models? Drinking gin from out of a scale model? Unacceptable, rubbish, rot! I have, I’m afraid, been engaged in honest toil; meaningful employment in a minor government position, in fact! I’ve joined the bowler-hatted throng of public servants, wielding umbrella and typewriter ‘gainst utter social collapse.

Two recent circumstances have set me thinking about crime and its adherents. One is taking up this clerical role, which brings me into contact with Her Majesty’s constabulary (and not, as the term would suggest, with the church. Not that I haven’t considered same, but – what faith would have such a pantheistic loon as I?) The other was picking up a collection of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey stories. (Peter may just be my favourite of the Great Detectives, though I’ll withhold absolute judgement until I’ve read more. If by chance you’re not familiar with him, the first novel at least is public domain, and a superlative place to start!)

True crime is, of course, a largely miserable thing; the decent fall prey to the grim, who endlessly profit by their humdrum but harmful business, and the solution is a blind man’s bluff of bills and budgeting. With only the rarest exceptions – a political bandit, who by definition cannot have universal appeal, or an honourable thief, whose day seems long since past – we must look to fiction for play of justice and injustice which speaks to the eternal human spirit, or at least amuses us through an evening. Here, for sure, there are separate classes of criminal – not only in terms of wit or audacity, but in that not all crimes are committed equal. Some carry greater narrative strength; some better endear or repulse the audience; some cast in stark light and shadow the face of the law. I thought I might jot down – speculatively, tentatively – some of my own observations, the fruits of my idleness.

As I alluded to above, the sympathetic, even heroic, criminal remains a popular subject in fiction and in non-. Classically, such a crook is a thief – a robber, burglar, or, in futurist pieces, hacker – who restricts their practice to the wicked. These are the heroes of long-established legends – Robin Hood himself is centuries old – so, even accounting for our present cynical times, I think it’s fair to call the concept rather played out. Not that I’m not a fan of the clever cat-burglar – quite the opposite – but for a relatively fresh take on a likeable lawbreaker, I favour the humble smuggler.

Why a smuggler? For one, the crime is, at least directly, victimless – it breaches regulations, not rights. It may even be a force for the better – history has seen its share of arbitrary and unjustified restrictions on shipping and migration. Even if the laws are fair and the smuggler merely self-serving, the trade does not necessitate violence or robbery, and segues easily into honest trade in a tale of redemption. Finally, it combines all the adventurous possibilities of burglary and of travel tales, in the one story.

A hero can dabble in crime where they feel it justified – stealing blackmail material here, sabotaging the engines of mischief there – without crime being the focus of the story, so let’s return to the traditional position of the criminal as villain and, presumably, antagonist. The chiefs of these rascals are the murderer and the gang-leader. Often enough, the gangster will keep a murderer as lieutenant, as Professor Moriarty, the schemer, had Colonel Moran, the shikari-turned-assassin. However, organised crime makes for dreary, sordid stories – too alike to business or politics for my tastes. A solitary murderer offers much more narrative freedom.

In the practice of a killing – the execution of the execution if you will – ’tis the motive that makes the murder. Method is a worthy subject, certainly, and some works get by on the technical aspects of their crimes alone (looking at you, Jonathan Creek,) but motive differentiates a minor incident, a crime as much the fault of misfortune as anything, from an act of premeditated butchery. Worst of all, I think, is a murder done for a cover-up, or to remove an inconvenient witness or informant. Such a motive turns the taking of a human life – one of the most serious transgressions addressed by law – into a mere appendage to another crime. This demeans the victim, and tempts otherwise sensible detectives into self-indulgent conspiracy theories.

To murder for the money is a little better, though such killers are oft rightly decried for their petty small-mindedness. The best murder of all, I think, is that motivated by revenge. Revenge brings the importance of the crime to the act of killing itself. It makes paramount the personalities and experiences of the criminal and victim themselves, rather than their material or social circumstances. Understanding revenge requires a detective to delve into the histories and the heads of a mystery’s dramatis personae, to reason out their actions from the most fundamental principles. (I hasten to reiterate that, outside of a book, revenge is almost always a messy and regrettable business. Inside of a book, it’s too dark to dog.)

I may be wrong, of course. How about you? What crime do you feel makes for the finest story? Usury? Underground prize-fighting? Unlawful assembly of a scale model? Answers on a postcard pierced with a stiletto dagger, please.

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Commentary upon “An Index of Criminality”

  1. The Notorious L.Y.N.Z. was heard to remark,

    Upon the 21st of September, 2010 at 12:15 am,

    As an avid reader of serial killer lore it fascinates me to watch the concept of revenge twisted and mauled by lets face it, an unbalanced mind (which is not to say all serials are insane by legal definition, but uh… well their actions speak to the balance of their mental health). Most commonly seen is the ‘all women are whores’ twist – some slight from a cruel mother, an unjust lover, an unfaithful spouse, sprouts a seed of revenge in the killer’s mind, which twists from righteous vengence (you killed my father, I kill your father) into a more generalised revenge against specific personal injustice – my wife was a whore, therefore all women are whores, therefore it becomes (in that messed up mind) fair revenge to kill ALL women as representative of a type, rather than just kill the one unjust woman. Inside that sick mind, any woman walking along the side of a street becomes a street walker, becomes a whore, becomes life unworthy of life, free for the taking. The Green River killer started this way – the offence taken over his failed marriage to an unsuitable woman progressed in his mind to ‘all women are whores’ and ended with him no longer distinguishing any quality amongst women, just taking whomever he could get. And with a barely above retarded IQ he managed to kill with regularity for more than 20 years – the one thing he could do well, he specialised in with a ‘success’ unmatched to my memory.

    What fascinates me ultimately? After a great deal of personal inquiry along the lines of am I just a sicko, I honestly couldn’t say. A fascinating man at the end of a mystery, I guess – the stories I DISlike the most are those where the killer is never found. Zodiac is the most boring tale possible, as it has no answers. Ultimately, the answers SHOULD be unsatisfactory, as there is really no honourable justification for multiple homicide, but unraveling the how, when, where intrigues me. A man (very occasionally a woman) needn’t be a Hannibal Lector – let’s face it, he is utterly a creation of fiction, being powerful, potent, intelligent, seductive… all the qualities that, should you possess, you would never feel in yourself the need to kill in the first place. The complexities of the chase and capture draw me in, the near misses, the fumbles, the final nailing down of the tagged beast as he goes from free and fathomless to a bug squashed under the laws lens.

    One intriguing character missing from your list is the standover man, the Chopper Read. He is a very rare creature, the man that other evil men fear. A true character because he NEEDS character, one of horrific quality perhaps, but he is an easy anti-hero as polite society has nothing to fear from the standover man as he feeds off crime itself. Mr Read himself has phrased his own career as a cleanup of sorts, doing away with those who deserve doing away with – hence the popularity of his books and himself, he is likeable because we do not identify with his victims nor see them as innocent.

    LEAST fascinating is a man who falls short of the myth. Ted Bundy for example – not half as intelligent as believed, but an excellent manipulator, so much so that he is remembered as a terrifying genius when in fact that was his own press, his own ego, speaking.

    To properly answer your final question, I must be revolted by my own character and admit the sickly sadistic makes the finest story for me. I cannot answer as to why. A matter of taste? I do know that my soul has not become hardened to the fates of the innocent, quite the opposite, and that there is room in one heart to hold sympathy for both victim and killer.

  2. Sir Frederick Chook was heard to remark,

    Upon the 21st of September, 2010 at 9:16 pm,

    To begin in media res, you’re quite right about my missing the standover-man. A sorely underutilised character – I can only think of one fictional example, off the top of my head, and he was a fairly blatant Chopper homage, though turned semi-legitimate security expert (and most certainly sympathetic, incidentally.)

    The problem with serial killers – aside from the serial killings, natch – is that it’s next to impossible to invent one and make them believable. How many TV series have had some mysterious wannabe with their ridiculous targets and methods? But then, reality has fiction over a barrel here. If H.H. Holmes hadn’t been real, would we ever have believed such an outlandish story? He could only be played by Vincent Price!

    Possibly even more boring than a story without an end is one with a disappointing end. Who was the supposed serial killer who turned out just to be a hitman targetting a handful of specific small-town businessman? American, used an axe… I’ll find where I read that sooner or later. Might have been a Fortean piece. In any case, I highly recommend Whose Body?, linked above – you’d love it.

  3. The Notorious L.Y.N.Z. was heard to remark,

    Upon the 21st of September, 2010 at 9:55 pm,

    Will do!

    For me a huge part of understanding (enjoying? ew) a particular case is finding the right book. Of course one can only find the best book on a particular subject by reading a lot of wrong and awful books!

    I suspect however that this is of benefit to a fuller understanding because if you gather a range of viewpoints, take a teaspoon of this and that from each, I imagine that’s where the truth lies – somewhere in the middle of multiple opinions. It’s surprising what utter rubbish some will write and get away with, so poorly researched you wonder why they bothered.

    There are certain authors who reveal more of themselves than of their chosen subject – a certain ‘Dr’ Helen Morrison who has sought out and spoken personally with many serial killers makes for hilariously frustrating reading as you watch her be taken in and conned by each individual ultimate conman. She genuinely believes their bullshit and passes it on as ‘unique insight’ to the reader, utterly laughable!

    Then there’s the professional psychiatric witnesses… gah don’t even get me started, I should stick to fiction *LOL*

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