Tuesday, February 22, 2011

True Crime Tuesday: The Randomness of it All

JULIA: When you consider the difference between real-life crimes and the fictional ones we mystery writers present to you, what do you think of? The way that fictional criminals are usually a lot smarter than real ones? The 100% solution rate for fictional crimes? How about having several murders a year in a town of 8,000?

The discrepancy that has long fascinated me is randomness. In mysteries, the murder is always intentional. There may be a red herring body thrown in, someone killed by accident or design to throw off the sleuths, but ultimately, the murderer has a motive. An actual, definable reason why Miss Scarlet wants Mr. Boddy dead. That can be a real struggle for the crime fiction writer, because for all the variations on a theme, all credible motives boil down to Love and Money. (There used to be a third motivator, Shame and Reputation, but that died the day the Jerry Springer Show went on the air.)

But in studying real crime, one of the first thing that strikes you is the randomness of it. Someone was walking down the wrong street. Stopped at this red light instead of that one. Spilled a drink on a guy at the bar. There was a woman who was killed in nearby Scarborough, Maine by two drifters. They took $20 off her body and her 10-year-old minivan. When they were caught, they said they just picked the first person who came out of the supermarket where they were panhandling.

The idea that one could be a victim for no other reason than walking out of the Shop 'n Save is terrifying. And I suspect it's why both crime fiction and true crime writers focus on elaborate schemes involving spurned lovers or disputed inheritances. The reader gets a great deal of satisfaction, not just from following the thread of clues through the labyrinth, but also from the thought that it couldn't happen to me. I didn't marry a con man, I didn't embezzle from my boss, I didn't hang around with gangsters at nightclubs. It couldn't happen to me.

I became particularly fascinated by the role of randomness in crime after reading Judgment Ridge: the True Story of the Dartmouth Murders by Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff. In January 2001, Half and Susanne Zantop were found slashed to death in their Etna, New Hampshire home. The two were long married, popular professors at Dartmouth, with no obvious enemies or looming financial difficulties. The deaths shocked and horrified northern New England and became one of the largest investigations ever undertaken by the NHSP Major Crimes Unit.

I won't spoil the investigation for you—the book is well worth reading for it's depiction of the careful, meticulous policing that broke the case—but the murderers are a matter of public record: two teenage boys with knives and an almost unbelievable disconnection with reality. They picked the Zantops to rob and kill because there was no dog barking at the couple's isolated house.

Judgment Ridge directly influenced one of my own books. I wanted to see exactly how close to that terrifyingly random killing I could get and still meet the genre expectations of mystery. (I won't tell you which one it is. If you've read it, you'll know.) I still find myself flirting with that edge, and I wonder, do mystery readers always need a motive for murder? Or are they ready for truly realistic crime in their novels? After all, there's no reason given for Col. Mustard or Mrs. White to commit murder, They were there. The lead pipe was there. That was enough.


  1. Julia, I remember reading about those murders with absolute horror. Terrifying to think of people in the world who simply don't value the life of other humans...

    I don't know about readers of mystery fiction, but I suspect randomness would not make it past our editors!

  2. Julia, I think about his EVERY DAY. The randomness. What if I cross the street now? What if I hurry and make the light--or don't? Ah. If you think about it too much, it's so overwhelming.

    Mitch and Dick are pals of mine--they're both terrific, personally, and quite devoted journalists. Maybe we should invite them to visit JR! They'll be thrilled that you like their book.

    And Roberta, that's the thing too. The randomness of real life doesn't work at all in a mystery novel. (I saw the same old friend in the grocery store for the first time in ages about a month ago, then he was also there the very next time I shopped. And then--never again. It really happened. But in a mystery? No way.

  3. This is so true, Julia.
    Most true crimes are random, mindless, petty, sordid.

    We work hard to create fascinating villains, competting motives and crimes that stump the police.

    A local homicide detective said that they solve most murders--they are such simple crimes--husband bashes wife, gang member shoots rival gang member, youth shoots convenience store clerk. No glamor about them.
    That's why people read our books!

  4. There's news today that a couple sailing around the world and captured by pirates have been murdered. Horrifying, random. It's a combination that makes us all feel so powerless.

    On random events in a mystery novel - I remember reading one where a woman is standing in a parking lot and a car drives by and shoots the woman standing next to her dead. I stopped reading. TOO random... I guess because the character/bystander is the series sleuth. Crimes she gets involved in have to meet a higher standard of credibility

  5. Julia,
    i LOVED Judgement Ridge - it was a terrific book. And yes, it makes you think... especially the part where these kids tried another house first.

    A whole lot of readers love serial killer books - and pretty much all serial killers attack randomly. But I'm not sure those are the same readers of mysteries.

  6. I think that may be why people read mysteries. We watch the news and realize random violence is all around us. A well-crafted mystery lets us pretend for awhile that murderers have a reason for their crimes--and that we will never be victims.

  7. You are so right, Silver. And, as you say, it's an illusion.

  8. Reading this, I realized that in my mind I differentiate between somebody being 'murdered' and somebody being 'killed'.

  9. Hank, I think it would be wonderful if you could ask the authors for a visit. I thought Judgment Ridge was one of the best true crime books I've ever read--especially since they had the challenge of presenting a senseless, motiveless crime in a logical and suspenseful way.

    I have a theory that we deal with random crime in fiction through the slasher/serial killer genre. But I'll save that for another True Crime Friday!

  10. Julia-
    How lovely to see you here! So glad you decided to join the charming and interesting band at Jungle Red.

    As a huge control freak, I definitely can't stand the idea of a random murder happening to me or someone I love. It sometimes helps to think about how small our chances are to have something so horrible happen to us--but not always. And you're right, randomness just wouldn't work in traditional mysteries.