Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | July 13, 2012

Getting Away With Murder

If you knew you could get away with it, that there would be no repercussion, no retribution, no punishment, would you do something that you know is wrong?

At some point in your life, you’ve probably considered this question whether in first year philosophy class, after a few beers with your mates, or in the privacy of your own thoughts.  This question is designed to challenge your moral code.  Do you act responsibly and ethically because you believe it’s the right thing to do or only to avoid the consequences?  Has your sense of morality evolved out of compassion and a generosity of spirit toward other people or has it been imposed on you by social and legal forces?

And why am I, someone who barely passed my first year university philosophy course (never to attempt another) considering this idea?  Strangely enough all this popped into my head because of some work done to my next door neighbour’s house.  On three separate occasions, workmen  left a portion of their work unfinished in spots conveniently out of sight of my neighbour, but all within my view.  Were these men forgetful, sloppy, or did they actually think, “Well, Ms. X won’t see ever this bit, so why bother”?  Now I’m not saying that any of these gentlemen would commit murder.  That’s a considerable leap in logic.  But what it did start me thinking about is that acting irresponsibly like this, effectively charging for a full job and then cutting corners, is the thin end of the ethical wedge.  How far someone takes this depends on the individual.  But every time we do something irresponsible or illegal and get away with it, it makes it a little easier the next time.

As a mystery writer who must create realistic psychological profiles for my ‘villains’, I’m fascinated by not only why people commit crimes but how they are able to rationalize that they can get away with them.   Because I write traditional British mysteries (also called cozies), I am especially intrigued by what motivates seemingly ordinary people to commit the ultimate crime.

The novels of crime and thriller writers are populated with serial killers, paid assassins, and professional criminals.  I can understand their motivation, be it abnormal psychology, financial advancement, or fear of retribution.  But my murderers are the school teacher, the hairstylist, and the retired accountant down the street.  (It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it?)  What makes them step out of their everyday lives and strangle, poison, or bash in the head of another human being?  Not only is the act of killing someone often gruesome, there’s the dead body to be dealt with.  But that’s just the beginning.

After they get rid of the body, or just leave it where it fell (hoping against hope that there are no forensics on the scene), they must  construct an elaborate deception that is able to stand up to intensive  scrutiny, just as they have to stand up to police interrogation.  They must create an alibi, downplay any shared history with the victim, deny having access to anything resembling the murder weapon, demonstrate shock and confusion about how their fingerprints, hair, saliva, or lipstick came to be on the body, and swear that the eyewitness was obviously mistaken when he saw them entering the victim’s home at the time of the murder.  And even if they manage to pull all that off, they must live out the rest of their lives aware that at any moment if even one lie is proven to be unsound, they could be arrested.  Would your accountant or hairstylist be able to do that?

So over your fifth or sixth beer, if someone asks you the question —  would you do something you thought was wrong if you could get away with it — think very carefully before you answer.  Or you could end up in my next book.

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Responses

  1. Love these thoughts. Not that I am contemplating murder, you understand. As a philosophy student (I know, an MA will get you “Do you want fries with that?”) I revel in these sorts of “what if” questions. I’d love to see more ruminations of this sort.

    • Then that might explain why you like mysteries. Not only is the process of writing fiction, regardless of genre, one big “what if” — what if this character meets an old lover, what if there’s a horrendous storm, what if something shocking is revealed — but in a mystery the police or the amateur detective is constantly asking “what if” in order to solve the mystery. This is certainly one reason why I love the writing process. You keep throwing situations at characters and see what they do with them. If it doesn’t work, well, you throw something else at them. What if . . .

  2. I am a big fan of these ruminations. It seems that it’s only by diving into ourselves with fearlessness and not just mindlessly answering “no! Not me!” that we actually learn about ourselves, each other, and reality. Thanks for this.

    • You’re welcome, Jennifer. I think it is essential that we examine and challenge not only ourselves but the people around us. This helps us to create more complex and interesting characters if we are writers, and we also gain new insight into ourselves.
      “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates

      • Very, very true. I want to put more time into doing that. Also, that’s a great quote! 🙂

  3. Jennifer — I agree. I find, in this too dull and, dare I say, conservative time, that people are not willing to delve into important questions. I would like to hear from you and from Alice Fitzpatrick what questions you think we should be addressing.

    I will tell you up front that my central issue is justice — and I see so little of it in the world.

    Perhaps this is why I read mysteries — because, in the end, justice prevails — or not . . . .

  4. I actually recall a situation years ago where the thought of murder came to me. I knew a man who was, in my opinion, wholly evil. I was driving along, miles away from my home turf, when it occurred to me that he was living, alone, in a house maybe two miles off the road I was on. Out of the blue, my mind said, “You could knock on his door, shoot him, and drive away. The world would be a better place, and no one would ever suspect you.”
    I didn’t do it (honest!). For one thing, I didn’t have a gun, (nor do I know how to use one). But more importantly, I think for a rational person in a non-threatening environment, the idea of killing another person is simply outside the realm of possibility, no matter how much it might better the human race. Circumstances have to put a person into a mental corner, so to speak, where he/she feels he has no choice but to kill, and even then it takes some added factor to push past society’s rules.

    • I think you’re right, Peg. I’ve watched TV programs where someone, and it’s usually a woman, is being chased or is trapped in a confined space, and the woman is terrified, literally fighting for her life. At that point I often yell out “just kill him!” It reminds me of those dreams many of us have in which we are being chased, often having trouble running, and we know it’s inevitable that our pursuer will catch us. So I think my breaking point would be that I am being relentlessly pursued, terrorized, and there is no bargaining with my pursuer. He wants me dead. Knowing that I’ll have to live the rest of my life in fear and that he will eventually kill me would make me act. I can rationalize this as a form of self-defence. But would I be able to actually do it when the time came? I don’t know.
      As writers, being forced to act by circumstance is the type of situation in which we often place our characters: everyday people who come to believe that they have no other alternative but to kill. The hows, whys, and wherefores is what makes for interesting reading.


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