In any crime novel one’s own suspension of disbelief is the harder to sustain the more murderers one has known. Especially so with those authors like Cormac McCarthy who revel in every gory detail. The number of his books I’ve put aside when salacious detail has been heaped on his every other delight in the grotesque.
This is not how murders are. What I found most unsettling about murderers is how ordinary they tend to be. Granted the murderers I helped look after in a psychiatric setting were by that time, if not permanently medicated, then they were long past any murderous intent, their killings the consequence of a previously undiagnosed mental disorder or the result of a passing florid psychosis. Or, in some cases, the killings were the outcome of a simple misunderstanding.
Their crimes seemed to themselves to belong to someone else. The murder itself was certainly of another time, the violence excessive rather than extraordinary – a wife strangled during sex, a man stamped to death in a bar fight; while ‘balance of the mind disturbed’ partner and children shot, a father set on fire… themselves unforgiven.
The traumatised relatives of murder victims seem to also exist in the same state of puzzlement. That their sister/brother was the victim of domestic violence, of rape, a street brawl, a fatality in a racist/terrorist attack… has them wondering if the death had been caused by a road traffic accident would they, the bystander, now be feeling so guilty? Would they now be feeling that they should do something about the killer? That killer living on, being kept alive somewhere, being given counselling, rehabilitated? The relative’s anxiety rotates about – silly seeming worries – what they should do if they meet the killer in the street. Not violent themselves, not capable – even had they the character – of vengeance, should they say something?
The more of death one sees the more ordinary it becomes; and in the end it is the everyday ordinariness of death that is the hardest to come to terms with, that is the more unnerving. Is it, for instance, the unbearable ordinariness of killing that has more combat soldiers kill themselves on their return than have been killed in action in both Iraq and Afghanistan? So easy to kill. So easy to die.
Goes without saying that in fiction details bring verisimilitude. Not though where those details are transparently gratuitous. I’ve been going along my shelves trying to decide… and the only novel I can find where every tiny detail of the crime and its consequences was absolutely necessary is in Jim Crace’s ‘Being Dead’.
Hit and Run is publshed by Endeavour Press