I’ve spent the last twenty years involved in murder. Writing about it, that is. Writing novels in which murders happen and lives unravel, never to be the same again. Murder is always an excellent subject for drama, whether it immerses the reader in the intricacies of detection or in the psychological impact. Murder sits like a big fat spider in our lives, either as an actual horrifying event or as something to be feared. The violent killer is our nightmare and always has been, going back to Cain and Abel, so murder is a universal theme.
Or is it?
There are supposedly three things necessary for a murder to take place; three things a detective will identify in order to solve the crime. The culprit must have means – poison, knife, gun, silk cord, strong hands, or any other tool of violence. He or she must have motive – greed, jealousy, anger, love, fear or some other reason to kill. And there must be opportunity – the time, place and preferably lack of audience, when the deed can be done.
I would argue that the one far more important thing needed is the willingness, through desperation, internal dissolution or actual psychopathy, to break a taboo that has been drummed into us from birth.
But in reality, there is only one thing required for murder to be committed, and that is law. Without law, there can death, killing and all manner of nastiness, but not murder. The definition of murder (U.K. version) is ‘the unlawful killing of a human being in the Queen’s peace, with malice aforethought.’ Unlawful is the key word. I seem to recall an episode of Blake’s Seven (possibly the last one) where a character says, “It was murder, all right. It just wasn’t illegal.” Which is just plain wrong. Law can permit judicial killings, capital punishment, though fortunately ours doesn’t. It allows armed forces to kill, in battlefield situations. It allows people to kill themselves (though only since 1961 in England and Wales). All these killings require what you might call malice aforethought, but they are not unlawful, so they are not murder. It doesn’t make them any less traumatic, of course, or cause any less suffering.
I shall doubtless continue to write about murder and its consequences. In fact I have two such books in the pipeline. But I am taking a little sabbatical and going to plunge into a new genre with my next book. It will feature a storyline in which no murders happen. Not because the characters are all lovely. Not because society has progressed so far (it is Science Fiction, after all) that no one desires to kill. No murders happen because it takes place in a setting where there is no law. That is possibly the most frightening nightmare of all.