I only read murder mysteries if there is a nice, tidy, anonymous victim at the beginning and then there is a good story, preferably with a villain who was damaged by what happened to him, or was in some way not horrible. Tony Hillerman’s Navajo reservation stories, or Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries are about my speed. I have enjoyed some of Nevada Barr’s stories because of the different National Park setting of each one, but I would have given up on this, Destroyer Angel, had the alternative not been Dostoievski’s Brothers Karamazov, which I am really finding hard reading.
So I keep reading a story where every adult character is or finishes up embroiled in evil and murder.
Maybe that’s why my musing took me to choices and decisions for evil, and how people get there. Socrates (or Plato) avers that no-one does evil knowingly. ” For Socrates, hatred between people is the result of misunderstanding or miscommunication, and selfishness is the result of deficient self-knowledge. If we knew ourselves and others fully, and had a full understanding of the facts at hand, we would never commit an evil act.” This story does not support that, even if Socrates’ condemnation and death may still be read that way.
One character has an absolute conviction that his kidnapping and willingness to kill will be his way of helping his brother (who we discover is dead many years since.) Cognitive dissonance, superstitious religious convictions, end-justifying-means morality, all these are in his make-up. Another character in the kidnapping gang is just a scared street survivor, trying not to get killed, still unwilling to kill an animal or a child. One of the characters, though, is portrayed as having an aura of evil, perceptible, chilling and terrifying, which the author does in fact compare explicitly to demonic possession, so she claims, at least in this story, that evil is real and can take over a person. Some deaths (there are more than one, and not anonymously and tidily in the first chapter) are self-defense. Most people would regard that as morally acceptable. I cannot imagine what I would actually do in such a situation. One troubling murder is not self-defense, and is in fact delayed to beyond the end of the book. It gives the book its title. The most evil character, Mr. Big, is behind all the evil events- so when does he become responsible for what he has set in motion?
How will the characters live in the future with the memory of the trauma they have each suffered, and with the awareness of what actions they have taken? To live with the knowledge that one has killed another human being, even accidentally, can be mentally crippling, and much more so to have killed deliberately, or, even worse to not be able to justify one’s killing to oneself. Returning military personnel struggle with PTSD as do survivors of other terrors. The story is bracketed by Paul, the spouse of the ranger-detective Anna, so perhaps his presence before the events, and longed for presence after the events, is a setting where Anna at least can work through the trauma. Not coincidentally, Paul is an Episcopal priest.
So- not my favorite book. Disturbing. But it is making me think. Back to Crime and Punishment as seen in Brothers Karamazov