I recently finished reading a crime novel set in the 1950s, where the motivation behind the murder was a woman's desperate efforts to prevent information from seeping out regarding a child she'd had out of wedlock a decade earlier. In a different book by the same writer, a man murders his gay lover to prevent himself from being "outed" to his wife and children.
These days, these motives don't seem quite like realistic "reasons" for a murder. We've come to a place in our society where out-of-wedlock births are so common, and gay people are so visible, that books set in a time earlier than our own seem impossibly outdated. Yet murders do happen in the real world as well as the fictional one, which has me thinking about motives, and what works for me and what doesn't. Herewith a not-at-all-exhaustive list of motives.
1. MONEY AND GREED. The love of money never goes out of style, as the activities of Bernie Madoff and a slew of others have demonstrated. (I actually like money myself, believe it or not.) Killing someone to get an inheritance, or to prevent them from getting an inheritance you think you deserve, makes complete sense to me. (Disclaimer: Everything I say here is within the realm of fiction.) We live in a society that has become utterly dominated by money, which makes it the single best reason to kill someone.
2. CRIMES OF PASSION. Even the most mild-mannered among us can turn into savages when our buttons are pushed properly. For example, I have a dear friend (who does not know I write this blog, fortunately) who is simply a wonderful person. And yet, when he is dating a woman, he turns into a completely obsessive nut. I'm not saying he'd ever go so far as to murder anyone, but sometimes human beings just snap, which makes crimes of passion "understandable" in fiction. Fictional murderers often say "I didn't mean to kill him/her," and they are often speaking the truth.
3. PSYCHOSIS/SOCIOPATHY. I admit that these are overdone in the serial killer genre (and, interestingly, I find that as diverse as mystery readers are, most of us dislike serial killer books. I wonder why that is?) And yet I see strangers on a not infrequent basis (on the street, in the supermarket) who have that look in their eye--the type of person you see and think, "I'd better give him a wide berth, because he looks like he'd kill someone without a second thought." Such people DO exist. In a recent book, The Sociopath Next Door (quite a disturbing read), Martha Stout estimates that as much as 4% of the population is composed of people without a conscience or any claim to morality.
4. REVENGE. This is one of my favorites. Revenge is a complicated thing and allows for good character development, as well as interesting philosophical ruminations. I don't think I know a single person who hasn't been hurt, cheated, or lied to, and who hasn't at some point thought of getting revenge on the perpetrator. And there's no statute of limitations on revenge; people can carry hurt around for decades before they decide to do something about it. A superb example of this is Stanley Ellin's Very Old Money.
5. "THEORY" OR BELIEF SYSTEMS. My wife and I have friends--a married couple--who never fight about mundane things like who will take out the trash or who will empty the dishwasher. Instead, their fights are deeply theoretical, vicious arguments over the proper way to read Kant or how to interpret a particular line from Paradise Lost. They are forever screaming at each other over the way things "should" be. Which brings me to my point, which is that extremely doctrinaire people (and I include religious zealots in that category) can become so carried away with their belief system that they believe murder is justified. In university, I had a couple of very good friends who I feel confident would absolutely have murdered me if doing so would further their "cause."
6. SELF-DEFENSE. This is a good one in psychological thrillers, exploring the idea of what is threatening and how circumstances can be misperceived in ways that lead to tragedy. It wasn't a mystery, but Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities was very clever in this regard. In the initiating incident, were those young urban men brandishing a tire iron coming to help our hero with his car, or were they planning to beat the hell out of him? We'll never know.
7. BLACKMAIL. Blackmailers set themself up to get killed. It's as simple as that. What makes it interesting is what information, exactly, the blackmailer has on the blackmailee.
8. POWER PLAYS. These types of murders are the result of a play for alpha dominance--think street crimes, Mafia stories, gang-related murders, etc. They're brutal and ugly, but a good opportunity for social observation and criticism.
9. WHISTLEBLOWING. This is probably related to #1 above (money). Those who blow the whistle on massive wrongdoing expose themselves to serious danger, anti-retaliation laws notwithstanding. The people hired to do the murders probably fit into category #3, who always manage to find people willing to retain their services.
10. INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE AND LOVE OF COUNTRY. We all know that spies kill one another--it's in their job description. And, of course, the stakes are extremely high when we feel that someone is threatening our country. I remember my ethics professor asking the question, "If you had known Hitler was going to do what he did, could you have put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger?" Everyone in my class at the time nodded vigorously that we would have delightedly assassinated the man. How many of you reading this would put a bullet in the head of Kim Jong Il or Osama Bin Laden?