Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Fictional Murder is Not This Scary

Historically, August 21st has been a day of some violence. One of the more horrifying assassinations I've ever heard of was attempted on August 20th in 1940, when a hired killer broke in on noted Marxist Leon Trotsky in his Mexico hotel room, tricked him into reading something, and then struck him on the head with an ice pick, which had been concealed in the visitor's coat. Worse yet, Trotsky did not die instantly, but lived until the next day.

Because I teach Crime and Punishment, I'm forced to contemplate the violence of axe murder twice a year, but this one is far more horrifying to me because it actually happened, and in historical mentions the weapon is even called an "ice axe."

And more political violence: on this day in 1983, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., the Phillippine opposition leader, decided to return to Manila from the U.S., and was shot moments after disembarking.

And on this day in 2000, after noble efforts to rescue the sailors on the Russian Submarine Kursk, it was announced that all 118 men had perished.

I prefer my tragic deaths and murders in the pages of good fiction--these events are far too dramatic and horrifying for my bookish sensibilites.


Eric Mayer said...

I like how a murder and the investigation of a murder can serve as an interesting puzzle and as a literary vehicle to explore human motivations, but I prefer the murder to remain more a device and don't like very realistic depictions of violence.

Julia Buckley said...

I agree. I'm very squeamish. I'll only put up with a rather bloody murder (as in Crime and Punishment) if the way the crime was committed is a significant detail, or if there is somehow symbolism in the method of killing.

Bob said...

I would recommend to you a book of poetry which you may not have read. WHAT BEING RESPONSIBLE MEANS TO ME by Donna Brook. In her poem PINK DIAPERS, she talks about the leftist leanings of her family during the McCarthy era and remembers meeting a man who was with Trotsky in Mexico.

Julia Buckley said...

That sounds fascinating--thanks, Bob!

Peter said...

One of the reasons I like Fred Vargas is that she is about the only crime-fiction writer I can think of who explores the question of what drives a person to kill.

I posted this on my blog, but it's worth posting again -- at least I hope you and your reader think so. It's from Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand:

And you haven't any doubts?" [Adamsberg] asked.


"Why not? You don't like me, and there's a mountain of evidence stacked up against me. But you don't think I did it?"

"No. You're not the sort of man who would kill someone."

"How do you know?"

Retancourt pursed her lips slightly, seeming to hesitate.

"Well, let's just say that it wouldn't interest you enough."


"I admired your flair of course, everyone did, but not the air of detachment it seemed to give you, the way you disregarded anything your deputies said, since you only half-listened to them anyway. I didn't like your isolation, your high-handed indifference. ... you ought to listen when I say you didn't murder anyone. To kill, you need to be emotionally involved with other people, you need to get drawn into their troubles and even be obsessed by what they represent. Killing means interfering with some kind of bond, an excessive reaction, a sort of mingling with someone else. So that the other person doesn't exist as themselves, but as something that belongs to you, that you can treat as a victim. I don't think you're remotely capable of that."

I have no idea if this is accurate or even if it's a serious exploration of the issue on Vargas' part. But the has her characters grappling with the issue, and that's something.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Julia Buckley said...

Those are great, thanks, Peter!

Not to beat the Crime and Punishment topic to death, but one of my favorite scenes in mystery is in that book and for that reason. Porfiry Petrovich knows exactly what sort of person Raskolnikov is, and what sort of murderer he is, because he has read his work. When he has all of the pieces of the crime in place, he tells Raskolnikov,

"He forgot to shut the door behind him, but he murderered, and murdered two people, for a theory . . . The torment he suffered when he crouched behind the door and heard them battering at it and ringing the bell, was not enough for him; no, he must go back to the empty flat, half delirious, to revive his memory of the bell; he felt compelled to experience once more that cold shiver down the spine . . . .

Great stuff.

Mikko said...

I notice you say very clearly that the weapon used was an ice pick, sometimes referred to as an ice axe. Were I you, I would do a bit of research on this—you will find that the weapon was in fact an ice axe, used for mountaineering, not an ice pick (for chipping ice blocks before ice cubes).

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for the clarification, Mikko. That does create a different image altogether.