In the crime fiction genre, the killer - or murderer - is a very central figure. In early crime fiction, he was usually an unpleasant character, cruel and callous, and nobody doubted that the world would be a better place when he was hanged. Most people seemed to believe that criminals inherited their negative sides from their parents - a very convenient theory because if your parents were good, upright citizens, you would have nothing to fear.
Examples of the nasty killer: Arthur Conan Doyle´s "The Reigate Squire", but interestingly, the theory of heredity also plays an important role in a Reg Wexford story by Ruth Rendell, "Sins of the Fathers" from 1967.
Already in the Golden Age, some of the better writers offered more nuanced characters. Good examples are Dorothy L. Sayers´ "Busman´s Honeymoon" and "Murder Must Advertise" where the reader cannot help feeling some sympathy for the murderers.
And what about crime fiction from this millenium? Is the killer just an incorrigible villain who ought to be put away for good - or is the truth more complex than that? In the best novels I think the killers are as different and as difficult to typecast as any other character.
Two interesting examples among the books I have reviewed lately: Martin Walker, "Bruno, Chief of Police" and Daniel Woodrell, "Winter´s Bone".
What is your favourite crime story in which the killer is not presented as a monster but as a nuanced character?(Please try not to spoil the pleasure for new readers)
Of the top of my head Borkmann's Point avoiding spoilers, the killer has an excellent motive for his/her acts.
Well I always thought I'd have joined the gang in Murder on the Orient Express as they are so sympathetic, of my recent reads I think the killer in Belinda Bauer's Darkside is definitely...understandable (not justifiable), and certainly not a stereotype.
Dorte - Fine discussion of the development of the killer as character. A few of Agatha Christie's killers are people I can sympathise with; for instance, I have to agree with Bernadette about the killer in Murder on the Orient Express. Your post also made me think of Colin Dexter's The Jewel That Was Ours, in which we can certainly understand what's behind the killing.
Like you, I think modern fictional killers are distinctive and no longer can be typecast and I'm actually glad of that. Makes for a much more interesting book :-).
Agatha Christie does this well. I love her books told from the POV of the killer. We can't help sympathize.
As you say the villian has come a long way so much so that I often find myself having a certain amount of sympathy for them.
Classic examples of "sympathetic" killers are Joel in Elizabeth George: What Came Before He Shot Her, and Rebecka in The Terrorists by Sjöwall & Wahlöö. I prefer the latter :-)
The killers in Jim Thompsons The Killer Inside Me (Lou Ford) and in James Ellroys Killer on the Road (Martin Plunkett) are very, very, very unpleasant, but I find the portrays of those psychopaths precise, skilled and with depth.
We know who the killer is in the opening pages of "The Meaning of Night" (which is not exactly a crime novel), so I'm not giving anything away, but he definitely was the character I most sympathized with throughout the novel.
Good post! ...and I'm looking forward to "Winter's Bone". I have it sitting on my shelf!
Very interesting thoughts - you're absolutely right of course, but right now I can't remember any examples at all - even though I like to read both new and old crime stories.
Thank you for all your input, and I am glad to see you also like discussing the development of crime fiction.
Dorte: I would say that P.D. James may be the best of all in creating nuanced killers. Her books all have fascinating characters. Rarely, if ever, is there an obvious killer. The killers are always real complex people.
Bill: good point about the complexity of P.D. James´ characters!
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