True Evil: Sometimes Fiction is No Match for Real Life. By James Hayman

Like a lot of writers of suspense thrillers I’ve populated my books with some pretty nasty psychopathic killers.

The bad guy in my first book, The Cutting, surgically removed the hearts of innocent young women sans anesthetic to provide “inventory” for his highly profitable illegal transplant business. My villain in The Chill of Night merely killed to cover up his predilection for abusing runaway teenaged girls.

And while both my guys were pretty nasty fellows, neither came close to some of the characters created by other writers, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lechter and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho being among my favorite.

Yet in my view neither Lechter or Bateman, as evil as they are, come close to equaling truly ugly insanity of a self proclaimed right wing, Christian fundamentalist named Anders Behring Breivik.

As we all know, on July 22nd  Breivik slaughtered 76 people in Norway including 68 mostly teenagers and young adults whom he systematically gunned down at a summer camp off Norway’s coast.

As he was coolly aiming at and shooting to death child after child, Breivik was reportedly tuned in to his Ipod and listening to a composition by British musician Clint Mansell called lux aeterna which he described as an “incredibly powerful song” that would help suppress his fear.

Who was this guy?

A couple of quotes from Breivik himself may bring this real life villain more clearly into focus.

Reporter Victoria Ward writing in the British paper the Telegraph quotes Breivik describing his preparations for his deadly rampage. “I can’t possibly imagine how my state of mind will be during the time of the operation, though. It will be during a steroid cycle and on top of that; during an ephedrine rush, which will increase my aggressiveness, physical performance and mental focus with at least 50-60 per cent but possibly up to 100 per cent.

“In addition, I will put my iPod on max volume as a tool to suppress fear if needed. I might just put Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell on repeat as it is an incredibly powerful song. The combination of these factors (when added on top of intense training, simulation, superior armour and weaponry) basically turns you into an extremely focused and deadly force, a one-man-army.”

 Yet almost at the same time, Breivik was apparently blogging, “There was a relatively hot girl on(sic) the restaurant today checking me out. Refined individuals like myself is (sic) a rare commodity here so I notice I do get a lot of attention in both the southern and the northern town. It’s the way I dress and look.”

Reading stuff like this, I find myself wondering if my skills as a writer are good enough to allow me to create a bad guy either as weird or as evil as Anders Behring Breivik.  The most honest answer is I really don’t know. But the truth of the matter is I’m not sure I really want to.

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7 Responses to True Evil: Sometimes Fiction is No Match for Real Life. By James Hayman

  1. Paul Doiron says:

    One of the things that I find fascinating about crime writing is that not all successful crime novelists are interested in the problem of evil. Agatha Christie used the word “evil” a lot in her books, but I am not sure I ever finished a Poirot novel with a deeper understanding of the complexities of moral corruption. But that’s OK! Christie had other perfectly sound concerns, and she was a terrific storyteller and puzzlemaker. To your point, I haven’t read Thomas Harris, so all I know of him comes from the movie adaptations. But I’ve never seen Lecter as more of a cartoon that anything else. Bateman in American Psycho is another story; he’s meant to be a figure of satire (albeit a horrifying one) and yet he did prompt me to do some soul searching about the way self-centeredness and materialism can lead inevitably to murder.

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  2. It’s hard and sickening to try and make sense of this. In my own fiction I find that understanding the antagonist’s motives provide something of a way out of the horror–why s/he is the way s/he is–but I also must admit I don’t create serial killers or sadists. It’s not that they’re unrealistic or don’t exist. It’s that they do.

    I admire writers who can inhabit such people’s heads and spirits for a whole book. Maybe through understanding will come solutions–or at least earlier identifications.

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  3. Pat Brown says:

    Ah, but then try to add a second lunatic character like Glenn Beck and his comments about comparing the children killed as being like the Hitler Youths. There are different types of evil in the world.

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  4. MCWriTers says:

    Getting into the minds of monsters is a huge challenge. Val McDermid does it very well in The Mermaids Singing. I tend to focus on the implications of crime for those left behind–the way it reverberates through the lives that are affected like ripples through a pond. I think it’s important for us not to lose sight of the moral implications of crime and evil.

    Writing true crime has really brought that home. When we read the paper, or when we’re imagining it, we can wonder what shapes someone to become a murderer. And it turns out that even when we’re dealing with the real…we still have the challenge of imagining it.

    Shortly after 9/11, my friend Hallie Ephron had a book out, and decided to go ahead with her launch party. She arrived and reported that earlier that day, during an interview, a reporter had asked her how she could do what she did–glorifying killers and death that way–given what has happened in the world. And Hallie responded that we should all wish the real world were more like the world of the mystery, where crimes are solved and good triumphs over evil in the end.

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  5. Sarah Graves says:

    In real life, even the skewering of the evil-doer is rarely (dare I say never) satisfying, unlike in fiction, where actual poetic justice can be delivered and have an effect.

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  6. lil Gluckstern says:

    It seems to me you guys do a very good job of depicting crazy, delusional killers which this man surely is. The horror is that people like this exist and the hate spewed on TV and the internet can effect some people and push them over the edge. It is sick making that, in the name of free speech, so much vitriol has to be tolerated. One thing is very clear to me, I’m glad there is justice in your books where there does seem some restoring of order.

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  7. Gerry Boyle says:

    A perennial question, Jim. I’ve given up on trying to surpass real evil. In fact, I’m sort of a wimp when it comes to reading about serial killers, torturers, child molesters. And if I don’t have a stomach for it, I figure my readers don’t either. So I try to create characters who are more rotten than evil, weak when it comes to morals, engaging when they aren’t doing bad things. Maybe it’s the constant barrage of bad news, but I don’t think I can or want to try to surpass the evil that we see every day in real life. In the end, even in so-called gritty crime novels, I’m trying in some way to escape.

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