When I was employed in a psychiatric hospital part of my job was also to work on the forensic unit next door. This was a place where people who had committed crimes while mentally unwell were incarcerated and, although we didn’t have any high profile offenders like Ian Brady, we did have a number of people who had killed others. Every week I moved amongst people who had committed arson, raped or murdered but not once did I come across a serial killer. In spite of people outside the hospital forever asking me how many of ‘them’ were serial killers, none of our patients ever fell into that category. And that is because serial killers are rare.
In spite of the old adage that killing the second time is easier than the first, actually homicide is hard both on the body and the mind. Just the fear of being caught can cause changes in the system like heightening pulse rate and blood pressure that can be unpleasant and what such an act does to the mind can be devastating. Many of our patients had blanked out what they had done although their actions would often resurface in their dreams which were frequently terrifying and distressing. When a person kills once and then never again, there is a good reason for that.
Exceptions to this however do exist. Dr Harold Shipman, the world’s most prolific serial killer, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and Peter Sutcliffe the Yorkshire Ripper are examples that easily spring to mind.
I had been thinking about possibly writing a book featuring a serial killer for some time before I eventually penned ‘Body Count’ my latest Cetin Ikmen novel. I both did and didn’t want to do it. In a way it felt to me like a cliché. But I did some reading about Shipmen, Brady and Hindley and Sutcliffe anyway. None of these people were deemed to be mentally disordered when they committed their offences. Sutcliffe tried to convince the court he had paranoid schizophrenia but his plea was rejected. Uncomfortable though it may be, clinically sane people do kill and they do it far more frequently than those who are mentally ill.
But what made these ‘sane’ people kill? And in such quantities? There are a range of disorders that are fuzzily referred to as ‘personality disorders’, what used to and still are sometimes, called psychopathy. Roughly psychopathy is a defect in the personality that makes empathy with others all but impossible and which may lead to an inflation of the sufferers sense of self and/or mission in life. Most psychopaths function in a civilised fashion although their ruthlessness in business and other forms of competitive activities can be shocking. However it is my belief that psychopathy combined with a single minded belief in something the person feels is vitally important can lead to a series of crimes like those of Shipman etc. Inasmuch as a motive can be deduced from Sutcliffe’s killing spree in West Yorkshire back in the 1970s and 80s it would appear that an altercation with one of the prostitutes he used on a regular basis prior to his crimes led to a fixed belief that he had to ‘clean up the streets’. Whether such a belief if ‘mad’ or ‘sane’ may well be open to question. But because the devil didn’t make him doit and because Sutcliffe was not experiencing hallucinations when he committed his offences a British court had to conclude that he was responsible in law for his actions. Which means he was not insane.
And so to ‘my own’ serial killer. Right from the start I knew he/she had to be sane. I knew that to kill multiple times he/she had to know what he/she was doing and why. So my first job was to build him/her a plausible belief system. This doesn’t have to be an entirely believable belief system but, unless the person is insane, it does have to have a grounding in the real world and possess an element of the possible. My man/woman has a belief just like this. Though unlikely what he/she fears could happen – just. His/her fear can be envisaged and, to some people, it represents the kind of thing they fear most. So he/she will attract some sympathy if or when he/she is unmasked.
In order to make my offender even more plausible as both a personality disorder sufferer and someone on a ‘mission’, he/she has to use other people casually. Depth of feeling is often replaced by superficial charm that can make others fall madly in love with that person. From my own experience I can say with certainty that I’ve met a few psychopaths in business and they briefly did charm me. Until I realised what was happening.
‘Body Count’, though not my first literary encounter with a psychopath is my first serial killer mystery and so, if you read it, remember where my offender came from and try to work out what his/her ‘problem’ is before the end of the book. After all, if my offender is a real psychopath he or she will be enjoying the chase just as much as, I hope, you will be.