Enigma of murderous evil is the job of serious fiction


What makes human people do inhuman things? That question hangs heavy over America in this anxious year of school and workplace shootings. The debates are full of easy, policy-oriented answers like loose guns, bad parenting and violence in TV and the movies -- but literature has already been addressing this question for centuries. The results could strike the chattiest talking head dumb.

Imaginative writing, especially fiction, has infinite potential to delve into the human heart and suggest how particular worlds work on particular minds to inspire acts of evil. What the most powerful literature of this stripe finds, however, often looks more like another question than a genuine answer: the uncomfortable truth that enigma always remains at the core of murderous evil.

In the past, such literary achievements as "Crime and Punishment" and "The Turn of the Screw" directly confronted the unsettling, ultimately mysterious coexistence of humanity and brutality. In Joseph Conrad's great novella "Heart of Darkness," the paradox is particularly ripe: the colonizer Kurtz's bloodlust appears to be part and parcel of his humanitarian impulses toward the colonized Congolese. Kurtz writes an eloquent, optimistic report on his ivory operation that voices "every altruistic sentiment" -- before abruptly declaring in a chilling about-face coda, "Exterminate all the brutes!"

Today this level of serious meditation on the psychology of evil has virtually vanished from novels. The most serious contemporary American fiction tends to be interested in the psychology of victimhood or otherness (for instance, Janet Fitch's recent success "White Oleander"), in history (Thomas Pynchon), in the management of everyday life (David Gates). By and large, the study of evil is left to thrillers, which are captive to the demands of entertainment and unresponsive to those of art.

The most popular way to explore evil in fiction these days is through the uber-monster of modern times, the serial killer. But the serial killer of best-selling fiction is all too transparent to be a persuasive or illuminating portrait of human monstrosity.

In the current American cultural lexicon, the serial killer is the very embodiment of evil (and almost always a he). He should, then, reflect something about what the culture believes about evil. Alas, serial-killer lit proves for the most part locked in step with the clinical and therapeutic banalities of the experts on TV. It supplies all of its villains, practically to a man, with traumatic childhoods that are supposed to explain their madness and even their methods.

Exhibit A has to be "Hannibal," the publishing story of last summer, still high on the best-seller list. Thomas Harris' previous two books pushed at the boundaries of genre by giving their FBI heroes compelling and complex inner lives. They also introduced Dr. Hannibal Lecter as the final word on evil -- an absolutely remorseless connoisseur of pain and death.

Lecter was evil beyond explanation. As he himself famously put it to Clarice Starling in "The Silence of the Lambs" in 1988, "Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences." This seemed not only scary but authentic, so many critics were deflated to find the murderous doctor's own unhappy past laid out like a map in "Hannibal." To explain his peculiar appetites was to demystify him, and to court sympathy for a character readers once relished fearing. It is no accident that Harris seemed closest to transcending genre when he let Lecter be a true mystery.

Along with Harris' earlier books, Caleb Carr's "Alienist" is a recent example of serial-killer lit heralded as bringing the genre to a higher plane. The historical thriller set in New York City circa 1896 tells of a bloodthirsty pioneer in this specifically modern form of crime, and the equally trailblazing psychologist whose controversial criminology can alone track down the killer.

Carr's research is painstaking and his ambitions laudable -- but the die-cut pieces of his puzzle fit together all too seamlessly, with nary a red herring in sight. Everything the killer does is a crystalline clue to his psychosis, which in turn becomes a clue to his identity. The ways of real human beings are, as a pretty firm rule, not so neat.

In terms of plot, neatness may be all to the good. No mystery reader wants to wind up holding loose ends. But recall the not-so-neat plots of past masters like Raymond Chandler. When his "Big Sleep" was being made into a film, not even the scriptwriters (among them William Faulkner) could figure out who had killed the limo driver. When they asked Chandler by telegram, he didn't know himself.

This murkiness married the book's plot to its atmosphere and in turn to Chandler's moral vision of Los Angeles at its highest and lowest echelons; aesthetic integrity overrode the imperative to unravel the mystery. Audiences may not have known exactly whodunit but they found out something, through feeling, about human corruption.

Nobody can be blamed for wanting to find out the answers at the end of the mystery, and few cloudy mysteries will repay their readers in art and intensity the way Chandler's do. But when the psychological motivations behind crime become subject to absolute standards of rhyme and reason, then fiction pretends that evil is subject to scientific knowledge -- that its inscrutability is not a major component of its terror.

In Carr's "The Alienist," for example, the killer's psychoses and background are reflected point for point in the details of his murders. The narrator recounts how "Any aspect of his behavior that puzzled us, from the most trivial to the most horrendous, we must try to explain by postulating childhood events that could lead to such eventualities." Indeed, when the culprit finally appears, he seems a ragtag bundle of symptoms that have already been divined from the steady stream of clues he has left. Because nothing is left to imagination, he provokes no real fear, and no real reflection.

By contrast, one could consider a horror story written a year after "The Alienist" is set. In Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw," a child dies a death as ambiguous as the untimely demise of the limo driver in "The Big Sleep." The overall body count is minimal, yet the level of dramatic intensity exceeds anything to be found in serial-killer lit -- for the moral and psychological certainties are in far shorter supply.

On the surface, "The Turn of the Screw" is a ghost story, but James allows speculation that the "spirits" may actually be imagined by the narrator, a young governess; if they are imagined, then she may be a murderer. For decades literary critics fought the ghost-or-governess battle in earnest, but now most of them credit the story's essential ambiguity on this point and recognize that much of the story's interest lies in its inconclusiveness. The potential for good and the potential for evil exist side by side in the character.

Writing about serial killers in the 1990s has been a great way to sell books. This type of villain could be an ideal focal point for serious thinking about terrible human acts. But the clinical realism of serial-killer lit reduces human nature to a straight stimulus-and-response mechanism. It ignores the enormous promise that literature holds to evoke the genuine mystery of the human capacity for evil. That mystery will never be solved -- but it is never even illuminated by those who pretend it can be.

Laura Demanski is writing a doctoral dissertation on Victorian literature and the London slums. She previously worked at Simon and Schuster and the University of Chicago Press. In June, she reviewed "Hannibal" for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/24/99

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