Guest Post – David Mark: Villains
Why are we obsessed with murder? What is it that make the act of killing so intriguing? Best-selling novelist DAVID MARK asks why it is that terrible acts are lethally compelling.
Go on, admit it – when you hear there’s a serial killer on the loose, you’re more excited than scared. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a human being. We can’t help it. We’re thrilled by that which terrifies us; we’re invigorated by the idea of a little extra peril in our day-to-day. If you discovered there was a dragon on the loose in Chipping Norton you’d be hooked, and a part of you would be hoping that the next bulletin involved a politician or a tabloid executive being roasted alive. Serial killers are our dragons. They add some danger. They add some colour. They brighten up the drive home. Me? I love ‘em.
These aren’t my actual opinions, by the way. They’re what I like to think of as loaded contentions. They might strike a chord with some, but please don’t think any of the above represents my actual view. I don’t really have a view. It comes with voting Lib Dem. It’s fun to wonder, though. I’ve never actually been to university but I’d imagine this is what it feels like at some of the more elite seats of learning. Right now I feel like I should be in my philosophy master’s private rooms, drinking some obscure liqueur and positing obscenely inflammatory hypotheses in the hope of impressing some overseas student who reads Kierkegaard for pleasure.
Where was I? Oh yes, death. Murder. Villainy. Hmm. Well, crime fiction is my stock in trade. If it weren’t for people’s continued interest in the act of murder then I would probably be writing romance novels and indulging in self-harm. But do I understand the allure? Do I actually have any real ideas about why pretty much every crime novel has the act of murder at its heart? Do I know why millions of readers around the world expect at least one corpse per novel and hope for plenty more? Why for example, do readers gladly overdose on serial killer novels but turn our noses up at the idea of an investigation into other types of crime? Why doesn’t Jack Reacher go after corrupt hedge fund managers? Why isn’t Rebus bringing down corporate price-fixers? And why isn’t my own Detective Sergeant McAvoy spending 400 pages a year chasing after trawler owners who deliberately break EU quota agreements?
Well, for me personally, it’s because there is something unique about murder. When you take a life, you don’t just take the victim’s life. You take their future. You take all they will ever be. There is no opportunity for revenge, redemption or redress. You stop a heart and you are making a decision from which there is no return. It’s the crime that most fascinates and terrifies us and it sells newspapers at an impressive rate of knots.
It’s the same in the entertainment business. Murder mysteries are the true kingpin of the TV schedules. Whether it be cosy poisonings in St Mary Mead or psychopaths cutting people’s feet off in Whitechapel, any show that promises a body, a culprit, an investigation and a resolution, can expect big ratings.
So am I being mercenary? Am I writing about murder because I know people are attracted to it? Or am I writing about murder because I’m capable of looking out at the world through eyes that sometimes scare me and that I’d rather channel that gift into planning murders than committing them? That’s certainly a theory. People do ask me where I get my ideas from and they don’t always think of it as a compliment when they say that the murderers in my books seem terrifying believable. But I’d like to take this opportunity to let readers know they are safe in my company. I don’t see myself going on the rampage any time soon. I suffer with bronchial problems and the idea of a hammer attack sounds awfully tiring.
What was I talking about? Villains, that’s right. Murderers. Killers. Why do they fascinate? Why do they sell? Could it be that they are simply the most interesting characters? If you can think of anybody in your social circle who is more interesting than Hannibal Lecter, you should probably ask them some searching questions and stop letting them babysit.
I’ve been asked several times whether I believe that everybody is capable of murder. My answer is ‘yes’. Given the right motivation and enough opportunity, I believe that everybody on earth could take a life. That’s not based on innate bleakness. That’s based on many years spent covering murder trials as a journalist. For every hundred murderers who stood in the dock, perhaps only one or two seemed to be cut from a different cloth to those in the public gallery. They were just people: men and women who had lost their temper, or their reason, or whose greed had overcome their sense of right and wrong. Most felt remorse for their crimes and those who didn’t seemed reconciled to the fact that there would be a punishment for their crime. They had killed for what they saw as a good reason and they had been caught accordingly.
Those handful of ‘different’ killers were the ones that fascinated me. Those men and women who had a little bit missing in their make-up, or perhaps, an extra little bit in their brain. They were the ones who killed because they wanted to know what the inside of somebody’s head looked like. They were the ones who took a life because they enjoyed the sound of screams. They were the ones who gave me the chills. Perhaps I write about such people because it is a way of keeping them contained; I put the monsters on the page so they don’t escape. But then again, I’m not sure I write about monsters. I write about people who could exist. People who kill, for good or for bad. I write about the different notions of justice and how good and evil are just a double yoke in the same cracked egg. I write about a good man chasing bad people and the toll that takes upon his soul.
Was there a point to this? I’m caught up in it now. I’m thinking about killers. I‘m wondering about goodness and badness and what it all says about me and my species. Perhaps that suggests that we haven’t resolved anything. It certainly suggests that murder remains fascinating. Perhaps that’s why I write about it. Hmm.
DAVID MARK’S new novel featuring DS Aector McAvoy, DEAD PRETTY, is out now, published by Mulholland Books.