By Christina James
Do you remember telling a lie for the first time?
I have a vivid memory of not only speaking but of acting out a lie when I was four years old. My father worked for the British Sugar Corporation, in those days a paternalistic company that provided sports clubs for its employees and Christmas parties for their children. My parents began to talk up the Christmas party well before the end of November. As the date drew nearer, my aversion to the party grew and grew, though I’d never been to one before. Even the blue velvet dress with the lace collar that my grandmother’s dressmaker had been commissioned to make for the occasion was not sufficient reward for being forced to attend a function that had assumed the dimensions of a monster in my mind. How could I get out of it?
I’d only just started school and had developed a slight cold. At lunchtime on the day of the party, a plan of action formed in my mind. I refused to eat, kept on blowing my nose ostentatiously, said my head hurt and curled up in an armchair, where I dozed fitfully (though keeping an ear out for my parents’ conversation). My mother came and put her hand on my forehead. “The party! The party!” I muttered, as if talking in my sleep. My mother disappeared into the kitchen to have an urgent tête-a-tête with my father. I could hear their voices, though not what they were saying. They came back together. My father scooped me up in his arms and took me upstairs. My mother put me to bed. No party for me that day! Even better, one of my father’s colleagues visited later to deliver my present from Santa, saying how sorry everyone was that I couldn’t be there and how disappointed I must have been. If my parents had any inkling that I’d been fibbing, they never admitted it.
I’ve told this story because it raises an interesting question: how and when did I learn to tell lies? I certainly wasn’t taught by my mother, who always “told the truth to shame the devil” (and some!). It may have been that I’d already picked up bad habits at school, but I think it’s more likely that my capacity for breaking one of the ten commandments was innate: it came from deep inside me. No-one was hurt because of what I did: I simply got my own way and gained some undeserved sympathy into the bargain. I knew it was wrong, but I saw the opportunity and took it. All children experiment with right and wrong, but by the time they reach adulthood most have embraced a personal moral code and most people, more or less, abide by the law.
Or do they? For some years I worked as a regional manager for Waterstones, which involved overseeing forty-two bookshops. As well as being expected to meet targets for turnover and stockholdings, managers had to keep ‘shrinkage’ (the technical term for stock that inexplicably disappears) to less than one per cent of turnover to qualify for their bonuses. This struck me as unfair, as opportunities for theft seemed greater in some shops than others: shops which had lifts, multiple floors or outdated security systems or which were situated in dodgy neighbourhoods were disadvantaged when compared to small shops in leafy suburbs with only one floor. I voiced this concern to the head of security, who gave me an old-fashioned look. “You think the punters are responsible for shrinkage?” he said. “I can tell you that nearly all retail thefts are internal. For every ten employees, four will be honest, four will be dishonest, given the chance, and the other two could go either way. Fact.”
Does this mean that everyone has within them the capacity to do wrong? Do the four honest employees in the security head’s statistic do daily battle with themselves to resist temptation? Or is it that they have a splinter of evil in their hearts that is lying dormant, perhaps never to be awakened, perhaps just waiting to be kindled by some emotion, experience or event?
It’s well-known that youth offenders are often reacting to adverse social circumstances: poverty, physical or mental abuse, or a deep-seated fear of not belonging that prompts them to join gangs, reject authority, commit crimes. Sometimes they’re saved by rehabilitation programmes that give them a sense of purpose and self-respect, help them to find jobs and become ‘upright’ citizens. Depressingly often, this doesn’t happen: instead, over time and after a few spells in prison, they become hardened criminals. Some add murder to their repertoire. Would Mr or Mrs Average be drawn along the same evil path if faced with similar circumstances?
Writers have always been fascinated by criminal acts, particularly those carried out by characters who started out ‘good’. Some of the world’s greatest literature explores the mental turmoil of these characters. In his quest for power, Shakespeare’s Macbeth kills Duncan, but is thereafter haunted by guilt. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker for gain, at first rationalising the crime with some chilling sophistry (he argues that murder is permissible in certain circumstances); eventually, however, he is so wracked by remorse that he longs to be caught, for only by serving a prison sentence and expiating his sin can he gain inner peace. Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, has more success than Raskolnikov in imposing her own set of moral values on an unjust society. Her philosophy is epitomised by the Old Testament adage ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’; her conscience remains untroubled by committing many crimes, from computer hacking to theft to murder, if she can believe that by doing so she is righting a social wrong. Larsson is successful in engaging the reader’s sympathy for Lisbeth, even though this involves some ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.
Yet more disturbing are characters with no moral yardstick whatsoever. Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter is an example: he kills as if playing a game of chess, turning murder into an intellectual game as he tries to outwit the forces of law. According to psychologists, this type of serial killer is rarely found in real life: the ‘typical’ serial killer is someone who becomes addicted to murder. As time goes on, the need to kill becomes more urgent, the murders take place more frequently and with escalating violence. It’s now also believed that some modern serial killers kill in quest of celebrity, fulfilling a narcissistic desire to achieve the kind of notoriety that contemporary media channels are only too happy to provide. Ian Brady, one of the Moors murderers, revelled in his fame. Against all odds, he succeeded in publishing from prison The Gates of Janus, his solipsistic account of killing as an ‘existential experiment’, to help keep himself in the public eye. Sliding into obscurity would have been the worst possible punishment for him.
There has been much debate about killers who work in pairs. Is one more to blame than the other? Did one coax the other to kill, awakening that splinter in the heart? After she’d been in prison for seven years, Myra Hindley claimed that she was coerced into murder by Ian Brady, an assertion that Brady furiously refuted; yet it’s possible, even probable, that if she hadn’t met Brady, Hindley would have lived a blameless Lancastrian matron’s life. Rosemary West denied all knowledge of the Cromwell Street murders and, prior to his suicide, Frederick West backed her up. Although it beggars belief that she didn’t know that so many murders had taken place under her roof, Fred West was a killer before he met her. If Rosemary had married someone else, would the idea of murdering ever have entered her head?
Exerting an evil influence on the vulnerable is a particularly heinous crime, and not always one that it’s possible to punish. Such characters occur in literature; some are very powerfully drawn. Among
My latest novel, Fair of Face (published 15th October), contains a character like this. His name is Tristram Arkwright. He’s already in prison, so he has nothing to lose.