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Why Human Beings Are Interested in Crime


SINCE she wrote “The Leavenworth Case,” forty-two years ago Anna Katharine Green has published more than thirty novels and as many short stories, all dealing with mysterious crimes. She is the most famous author of detective stories in this country; and although she is 72 years old, she is still writing with remarkable keenness and power of invention. In private life she is Mrs. Charles Rohlfs, and much more interested in her husband and her two sons than in mysterious murders. Her home is in Buffalo, New York; and the lovely garden there — in which this picture is taken — is always planted and cared for with her own hands.

A Bad Sign to Watch for in Children

ANNA KATHARINE GREEN, the famous American writer of detective stories, says, in the article beginning on this page, that the motive behind nine tenths of the crime in the world is Selfishness.

“All the crimes committed to gain money are rooted in selfishness. So are the crimes people commit to be freed from some obligation or duty which they are too selfish to meet . . . . It is self, self, self, all the way through. If mothers and fathers would analyze crime as I have, it would be a terrible warning to them not to bring up their children to think that their desires and their feelings are the supreme consideration.

“Root out Self and you would practically eliminate crime.”

I HAVE been writing detective stories for about forty years; and in that time I have come to believe that practically everybody is interested in crime. You may say that you are not. But if I could watch your reading and listen to your conversation for a few months, or a year, I could prove to you that you are decidedly interested in crime, provided it has certain characteristics.

If a drunken negro kills another negro, or an Italian section hand stabs a fellow workman, you take no notice of it. But if a crime is committed by people you know, it blots out every other subject in your mind. If your next-door neighbor kills his wife, you are more interested in that than in anything else he might do.

Just suppose that your neighbor’s young daughter a caught in the act of shoplifting. Do you mean to say that you wouldn’t be incredibly more interested than you would if the young lady won the highest honors at school, or announced her engagement, or even died? If a young man in the next block should poison his sweetheart, wouldn’t you be more excited than if he won a decoration on the battlefield? I don’t think there is the slightest doubt of it.

Even of a crime is committed, not by someone we know personally, but by people like ourselves, or like the kind of people we want to be, we are intensely stirred. If a society woman shoots her husband, or a college student murders a young girl, or a big business man is killed by one of his competitors, the story of it — in ordinary times — is the first thing we read in the papers.

And if, in addition, there is some mystery about the motive, or about the act itself, we follow every detail of the case with what is commonly called “morbid curiosity.”

It isn’t morbid. It is perfectly natural and legitimate. These people are like us; or, as I said before, they are what we perhaps only dream of being — rich, cultivated, powerful. That they should commit murder, for instance, seems as strange as that we should ourselves. It is this strangeness that interests us.

It is as if a member of our own family should suddenly betray an unexpected and terrible trait; should do something so grotesquely horrible that we cannot reconcile it with what we know of them. Crime must touch our imagination by showing people, like ourselves, but incredibly transformed by some overwhelming motive.

The thing which interests us most in human beings is their emotions, especially their hidden emotions. We know a good deal about what they do; but we don’t know much about what they feel. And we are always curious to get below the surface and to find out what is actually going on in their hearts. Crime in people who are normal and have been trained to self-control must be the result of some tremendous emotion. It happens because of some great upheaval in human nature. No wonder we are interested in it.

There is another thing about crime which interests an amazing number of people. It helps to account for the fact that so many people read detective stories and follow the newspaper accounts of strange criminal cases. In reading an ordinary novel, they simply let the current of the story flow through their minds. But when they read a detective story, they are all the time figuring on the solution of the mystery, trying to guess how it is coming out. And they do the same thing when they follow a criminal case in the papers.

 There is a rather general impression, I think, that men are more interested in this sort of thing than women are, but this is not my experience. And I believe that women are often more keen than men in sensing the solution of these mysteries. Women have more subtle intuitions than men have — a fact which should make them valuable in actual detective work.

I have often heard women say that they would like to be detectives; and they were women you could never have suspected of any such desire. I know of one woman, a member of the best society in one of our large cities, who helped in the investigation of a mysterious crime and was largely responsible for solving the case. Her name never appeared in connection with it, and her friends would be amazed if they knew she worked on it. She did it simply because she has the kind of mind which enjoys unraveling a mystery. And that kind of mind is by no means uncommon. The number of persons who have offered to help the Government in running down spies and uncovering plots would astonish you, I know, if the figures were given out. People love mystery. They like to think that they have “smelled a mouse.” In one city alone during the past year fifty-thousand “suspicious” incidents or persons were reported to the authorities. Of course, a patriotic desire to guard the country’s interests was partly responsible for this. But not altogether. There was also that common human interest in mystery and crime which is so strong in all of us.

I am constantly having proofs of the existence of this interest. Total strangers write to me about some “extraordinary crime” which has been committed in their own town. They are sure it will give me material for a “wonderful” book. As a rule, these letters only prove what I have been saying: that crime is intensely interesting to people, provided it comes close enough to them. For when people write me of some “extraordinary case” I almost invariably find that it is a very ordinary one indeed, without mystery in either the motive or the circumstances. The thing that made it interesting to my correspondent was that it came close to him or to her.

Then there are people who send me newspaper clippings. They are another proof that crime appeals to the human imagination; and from this source I do occasionally get valuable suggestions. My nephew once sent me a clipping which told of the deathbed confession of a physician in a small Western town. Years before, a woman patient of this doctor had died of some mysterious ailment and he had been so puzzled by it that the night after she was buried he went to the cemetery, bent on finding out the cause of her death.

He dug down until he reached the coffin, and was just about to open it, when he looked up and found himself face to face with the dead woman’s husband! In his fright at being discovered, he struck the man with a spade and killed him. Of course he was horrified by what he had done, and his only thought was to cover up his crime.

Can you guess what he did? Even in his terror he did not lose sight of the motive which had brought him there. He opened the coffin, took out the body of the woman, put the husband’s body there instead, filled up the grave, and carried the woman’s body home with him. Later, he buried it in his cellar.

The mystery of the man’s disappearance was never explained until the doctor confessed on his deathbed. I think they must have had very poor detectives. But they evidently accepted the natural theory that the man went off and committed suicide through grief over his wife’s death. The couple left two children and the doctor brought them up — which is an illustration of a point I want to make later.

THE interesting thing about my connection with this case is that three persons sent me copies of that clipping. At that time my books were published in Germany. But when this story was sent to my agents there, they wrote that they had just accepted a novel dealing with the same incident. And my agents in England wrote that they, too, had just produced a book on that theme. Evidently that clipping had traveled pretty widely. It is an example of the universal appeal of certain crimes.

Normal people are not so much interested in crime itself as they are in the motive behind the act, or in the person committing it, or in the mystery surrounding it, or in some extraordinary circumstance connected with it. To be interested simply in crime, merely as crime, is either morbid or scientific. Most of us are neither. We are just human; and with us it is the motive which rouses our curiosity. Acts are not especially interesting in themselves. But the motives back of the commonest act may be tremendously interesting. Apply this to your own lives and see if it is not true.

For example, suppose your daughter goes to see a friend in the evening and, instead of taking the shortest way, follows some roundabout route. If she does this simply because she wants fresh air and exercise, that isn’t interesting. But if she does it because she wanes to meet her lover, who has been forbidden the house, her simple act is at once full of exciting possibilities. If you go into the city to do some shopping, that is a very commonplace thing. But if you are going there to meet your son, in secret, and to give him your savings so that he may replace money he has stolen from his employer, your little journey is the most thrilling one you ever have taken.

AND consider his own act. If he tells you that he took the money to bet on the races, you are shocked and grieved, but there is no mystery in it. If, however, he will not tell you why he did it, if he seems haunted by some strange fear which he will not explain to you, his motive at once looms larger than the act itself. Why did he want the money? What did he do with it? What sinister influence is proving stronger than all your training?

In nine times out of ten the motive can be put down as Selfishness. It takes many forms. It is responsible for those crimes which have money as their object. The young man who cannot wait for some relative to die so that he may inherit property; the people who murder in order to collect life insurance; those who kill in order to rob; all the crimes committed to gain money — theft, embezzlement, forgery — all of these are rooted in selfishness, in greed for one’s own self.

So are the crimes people commit to be freed from some obligation or duty which they are too selfish to meet. Men kill their wives, women kill their husbands, because they want liberty to go with someone else. Young men kill the girls they have betrayed, because they want to escape the situation they have brought about. Or a man kills someone who possesses some secret which would disgrace the murderer if it were known. Jealous men, jealous women, kill because they can’t have the love they want. And they kill because they want revenge.

It is self, self, self, all the way through. If mothers and fathers would analyze
crime as I have, it would be a terrible warning to them not to bring up their children to think that their desires and their feelings are the supreme consideration. Root out Self and you would practically eliminate crime. Even those acts which are committed in sudden passion can be laid to the same fundamental cause — lack of training which makes us tolerant of things contrary to our convenience or liking.

CRIMES which are the result of sudden passion are less “interesting” than premeditated ones, because real motive is lacking. That is why I seldom use them in my books. But there may be poignant situations following such an act.

In “Dark Hollow,” for example, I took the case of the judge who, in a fit of anger, has killed a man twenty years before the story opens. But I make the man a close friend of the murderer. No one knows that the judge is a real criminal. He presides at the trial of a man who is wrongly accused; and when the man is convicted, he — the real murderer — pronounces sentence. He lacks courage to take the punishment himself; but he does penance secretly, for twenty years, in a convict’s cell of his own building in his house.

This attempt to compromise with conscience is absolutely true to life. That is the point I referred to in the case of the doctor who brought up the children of the man he murdered. That might have been a significant clue to a detective with imagination. I don’t mean that all kindhearted people who take care of the children of mysteriously missing parents are to be suspected of murder! I only say that this might have been an important point in that case.

But it seems tome that the ordinary detective is not gifted with an imagination. I am judging only by results, for I have known personally only one detective. Years ago, the man who was then chief of police in New York City was a friend of my father’s, and I remember his driving us out one day to his home on Long Island. On the way we passed a house with a plank nailed across the front door. As people were evidently living there, my imagination immediately seized on that curious feature and I asked the chief about it. He must have passed the place dozens of times. Yet apparently he had not felt the slightest curiosity about it. The barred door did not necessarily indicate crime. But the trained detective mind should be on the alert for the unusual, the mysterious, and should at least be curious about the motive behind the mystery. To this day, that barred door appeals to my imagination.

Certain houses, certain spots, have an atmosphere of mystery. And you cannot always trace it to a definite detail, such as that door. More often it is only a feeling. Just as some houses give you a feeling of comfort, others give you one of dread. Haven’t you ever exclaimed, “That house looks as if a crime had been committed there!”

I believe the impression can be accounted for — sometimes at least. The scene of a crime is scarcely a place loved by the people concerned. Yet it may be the old home of a family and they cannot, or will not, abandon it. So they go on living there. But the attention given it is an austere and unwilling thing. You feel it and you come under the same spell of repulsion which the people themselves must have.

Then there are the freak houses which always excite our curiosity. The house in “Dark Hollow” in which the judge tried to expiate his crime was enclosed in a double tight-board fence. I suppose people thought I invented that detail. Yet it was taken from real life. I have found that the incidents in books which people pick out as improbable are the very ones which are founded on fact. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Murder is the most interesting crime in the whole category; and for two reasons: First, it is the supreme crime. It is the only irreparable one. It may be true that he who filches from you your good name robs you of something better than life itself. But you always have the chance of getting your good name back again. Robbery, forgery, kidnapping — none of these is absolutely irretrievable. But a life that is taken can never be restored. There is complete finality about such a crime. And as the motive must be correspondingly overwhelming, it is, therefore, of the most vital interest.

THE other reason why murder is the most interesting theme for a mystery story is that the act involves two persons. They alone have held the explanation. And one of them has been silenced forever! That lifeless body, with its lips sealed on the great secret, becomes an object of thrilling interest. There is no other crime in which you have that situation. That in itself appeals with tremendous force to your imagination. You feel that you must know what those silent lips would tell if they could only speak. And when, in the story, you come to the actual telling of just how the murder was committed, you read it as if it were being spoken by the dead man himself. Isn’t that true? Haven’t you felt, when reading, perhaps, the account of a mysterious murder: “Oh! if only the dead could speak!” And you try to think, to imagine, what they would have to tell.

There is an old saying that “Murder will out;” and it has been confirmed in the vast majority of cases. Even when the criminal has not been convicted in the courts, I believe you would find, if you knew the inner history of these cases, that he is known to certain persons. I have in mind now certain murders, sensational trials, where the accused persons were not convicted; but there is no doubt in my mind as to their guilt.

However, I think it is very rare for a murderer to escape detection. No matter how carefully a crime may be planned, or covered up, the criminal almost invariably forgets some significant detail. Curiously enough, Nature herself seems to be in league with circumstances to convict him. She puts a little muddy spot in his path so that he leaves a footprint. Or she blows a curtain aside at the very instant that a passer-by can catch a glimpse of his face. Or she twists the current of a stream so that some evidence of his guilt floats to the surface. Crime is contrary to Nature. And Nature often seems bent on punishing it.

In writing detective stories, the less one resorts to arbitrary helps in the mystery, the better. I mean that people are not interested in a crime that depends on some imaginary mechanical device, some unknown poison, or some legendary animal. To resort to such expedients for your mystery is a weakness. To employ imagination in making use of natural laws, however, is another matter.

Take the famous French story of a man found in a studio with a bullet through his heart. It was supposed to be a mysterious murder. But the solution was that a manikin, which the artist used as a model in painting, had held a pistol — placed there by the artist himself — in its wooden hand; that there was a leak in the skylight; and that the water dropping on the mechanical hand had caused the fingers to contract, pulling the trigger. The pistol happened to be pointed at the man asleep on the couch and the bullet went through his heart. The pistol dropped on the floor. The story was an ingenious one, but the interest in it was chiefly one of curiosity, because there was no motive, no deep human feeling there.

I HAVE been asked whether I am not afraid that real criminals will study my stories to get pointers on committing and concealing crimes. No, I am not; because I do not put the emphasis on the manner of the act, but on the motives behind it and on the novel and strange situations which come in working out the mystery.

Once I did write a story about which I had anxious moments after it was published. In that story a murder was committed with a hatpin; and at that time I had never heard of such a case. It worried me lest I had suggested a new way of crime. When I found that murders had actually been committed in that way before I wrote the book, I was intensely relieved. That was the only time I ever suggested what I thought was a new instrument for crime, and I shall never do it again.

It is curious how the “mechanism” of detective stories has changed since I began writing them. Sometimes I think that no one can appreciate, as the writer of detective stories does, the march of science in the past four decades. For he must make use of every one of these modern inventions in building up his plots. When I began writing, we used gas for illumination, carriages for riding, and so on. Now we have electricity, telephones, wireless telegraph, automobiles, airplanes, submarines, motor boats, and so on. Do you realize how completely the machinery of life has changed in forty years? You would if you had been writing mystery novels.

But motives do not change! Character remains the same — built of the eternal qualities of good and evil. And the great truth which I have learned through my study of crime and its motives is that evil qualities are inevitably those which center in Self. They are overweening ambition, avarice, covetousness, jealousy, revenge, passion. Someone of these is in command when the ship of your life drives on to the rocks. Wipe out Self, and you will wipe out crime.