Sunday, October 26, 2014


...and I've decided on a motive: hybrid!

Specifically, I wrote three motives for the murder: sort of an intellectual one, which had to do with family history and such, another motive rising from flat-out weasel-ish greed, and the last one, misguided altruism.

And they all work, kinda. Greed the most of all, which is why I'm going with that for the primary motive.

Thing is, people rarely do things--particularly bad things--for just one reason. Sure, there's the gut motivation, the one that kicks you into action. The reason you got out of bed that morning to do that awful thing in the first place, the reason that overcame your moment of inertia. Anger, greed, lust, all the big hitters of villainy, yes. There's that.

Then there's what you've been telling yourself ever since you did it. People tell themselves all sorts of stories to justify their own actions. These are the stories you make up so you can sleep at night, hopefully so that one shitty thing you did that you can't stop thinking about doesn't seem quite so awful. That's important to know, too. This is also the story you might give to a friend or a reporter when explaining your deeds. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. This is more than an alibi because you're not, specifically, denying the crime. You're recontextualizing it so that you can be the hero of your story.

And then there's the story you tell close friends or business partners. It's usually somewhere between the first two on the scale of awfulness. It's within sight of the black heart, but not quite there yet.

Since I can't really talk about how the book's going to wind up--for two good reasons: a) I haven't written it yet and b) I don't really want to have the final chapter show up on a basic Google search--I'll go with a real life example.

I have a half-cousin who's serving a life sentence for slitting a cab driver's throat over $16. The more I read about it--the victim, the circumstances, what my cousin's life must have been like to lead him to do such a thing--the worse I feel. It's truly awful on many levels, just an epic multilayered shit sandwich which tastes worse the more you bite.

That particular branch of the family is, to put it charitably, the black sheep of our family tree. We've mostly cut them out of the loop, on the general theory that the less toxic the people you hang out with, the better your life will be. Objectively speaking, it was probably the best decision we've made as a family over the years.

Almost that entire branch of the family has spent time in jail. Two of them are serving life sentences; the others have been in and out of prison their entire lives. They tend to gravitate towards unglamorous crime: it's not uncommon for people from that branch of my family to get fired from, say, Shopko, for shoplifting from their own employers. They'd fit in well on the set of Justified.

The kid who wound up in jail was so out of control they'd kicked him out on the streets while he was still in his late teens. He's probably the most common type of career criminal: zero impulse control, chip on his shoulder. He came from a fairly broken household and probably had some basic learning disabilities which were never addressed properly thrown into the mix. But most people would simply call him stupid. One of his previous arrests, for example, was for knocking over a food truck with the help of his girlfriend. The food truck was parked in front of a police station.

He dropped off the family radar for a few years and it came to light that he'd become homeless. Someone like him, with his history, can't really hold down a job. He's not terribly employable, he's got a short fuse, and if he does get employed that itch he's had in his head since he was a kid wouldn't let him hold it for very long. I'm guessing he supplemented his income with petty theft and muggings, maybe drugs and other minor crime, but I don't really know for sure. It's reasonable, though.

Late one night in some state out west, he and two of his friends called a cab. The cab driver, a Vietnam veteran in his late fifties with a wife and several kids, answered the call. There was a scuffle, words were probably exchanged, and the cab driver was killed.

I doubt my cousin started out that evening planning to murder anyone. He'd been homeless for some time. He'd burnt every bridge he'd ever had access to. I'm guessing plan A was to get enough cash to pay for food and maybe a cheap hotel room somewhere to get some real sleep, get clean maybe, maybe even buy some booze or drugs. When you're that low on the Maslow pyramid of needs, your goals tend to be pretty basic.

At its core, his primary motive was mostly desperation. He needed money to live and he was going to get some. When the cab driver resisted or perhaps protested that he didn't carry much on him, he panicked, probably with the help of his friends who were goading him and each other on. There was probably a point early on when they could have talked each other out of it, but the tipping point was reached and someone, probably my cousin, decided to finish it.

Having people with you in such a situation is hardly ever helpful. Someone panics, the rest go as well. People start stupid and get stupider with numbers.

One of the depressing things about contrasting crime fiction with reality is that real motives for such things tend to be squalid and sordid, even more so than the norm for, say, noir. No matter what the criminal tells himself, the real motive is usually greed, desperation, fear or anger, mixed with a good dose of panic and sociopathy.

The story he most likely tells other people is the timeless narrative that life is a hard row and mistakes were made. I don't plan to talk to him any time soon, but I'm going to say that he'd probably tell you that one of his friends panicked, killed the cab driver and he took the blame for it. He's going to tell you how hard life is on the streets and you have to make hard decisions sometimes.

One of the many strange things about modern life in prison is that the prison system has its own version of Facebook. Prisoners have a profile page, you can message them, they post selfies, or pictures of their own artwork, everything anybody does on real social media they can do there, except with worse haircuts. It's less cool than Facebook, if that's believable: more like a version of Myspace circa 2005, preserved like a Jurassic mosquito in amber.

On his page he talks about how he gives great advice because he's screwed up his own life in every way imaginable. He's had plenty of time to reflect and to find God. There's nothing about what landed him in jail this time, but there are a ton of generic platitudes and quotes from the Bible.

If you were closer friends, he might tell you a more detailed version. Maybe they figured there was money in that cab. Maybe alcohol was a factor. One of them made a joke about how it was like ordering a pizza. You'd make the phone call and your next paycheck would show up. I'm guessing that detailed version wouldn't be as noble as the public story, but would be less degrading to tell than the real story, the one that hurts to think about at night.

It would make the worst detective story in the history of mankind. Given what I know about my cousin's modus operandi, he probably did it in front of a local gun shop during a police convention in broad daylight, with loudspeakers blaring "A CRIME IS IN PROGRESS."

But it does illustrate something that a lot of writers tend to forget, that motivation is only a small part of what makes a villain tick. There's also background and history and accidents that complicate things which the investigator must uncover. If they killed Mrs. Renfro, then why did they also steal the garbage can and the cat? Those things are all part of the unraveling process.

Totals:  531, 512, 557, 1141, 580, 547, and 1403.

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