I remember when the call came. This was 1996, January. I was a newspaper columnist and John was my best tipster, plugged into the police, nosy as a hound. The phone rang and John said, “Better get down to Silver Street. Somebody’s killing the nuns.” As usual, John was right.
A local man with a history of mental illness, Mark Bechard, had gone off his meds. He broke into a convent in Waterville, Maine, where the nuns of the Servants of Blessed Sacrament lived. They were all older women, living out their lives in prayer and contemplation. Bechard was having a severe psychotic episode and attacked the nuns in a chapel, stabbing and bludgeoning them and killing two outright. A third died later of her injuries; a fourth was paralyzed. It was a horrific scene, a sensational case. Bechard was found not guilty by reason of insanity and hospitalized. Until this week, when a judge approved a plan to send him to a group home. Surviving nuns showed up to emphasize the importance of people like Bechard staying on their medication.
This was a sad case for all sorts of reasons. The gentlest souls dying in the most horrible way. A reported bureaucratic snafu that kept Bechard from getting emergency help hours before the attack. His parents—law-abiding Catholics who had tried to help their son with his illness—having to live with this nightmare. Bechard himself, a young guy who had been a jazz musician, having to live with what he did. To this day.
It’s been a week for this sort of horror in northern New England. Next door in New Hampshire an 18-year-old named Steven Spader is on trial for the murder of a mother and brutal attack on her daughter, a fifth-grader. They were sleeping in mom’s bed because dad was on a business trip. Police say Spader and a buddy, Christopher Gribble, 21, hacked mom and daughter with machetes because they wanted to know what it was like to kill.
No psychotic episode here. Just a sociopathic lust for blood, a fascination with violence and cruelty. Alas, there is no death penalty in New Hampshire.
As someone who creates fictional villains, I have a particular interest in criminals and what makes them tick. But as I considered these two cases this week, it occurred to me that I’ve never created villains quite like these. Someone whose illness made him kill. Someone so evil that his actions defy explanation. If I were to create villains like these, what would there be to say? One has schizophrenia. One is a depraved sociopath. For me, that’s not enough to wrap a book around.
My villains kill to save themselves, to maintain a lie, for monetary gain. They don’t kill for fun or because they hear voices ordering them to kill the family next door. My villains tend to have redeeming qualities, though I seem to like them more than some of my readers do. (Fuller, the nasty schemer in PORT CITY SHAKEDOWN, comes to mind. I thought he was kind of engaging) I am intrigued by bad guys (and gals) who are a lot like us, just a bit off. Or could have been like us if their lives had taken a different turn.
There’s good and there’s evil, after all. But crime fiction trolls the waters in between.
As always, I welcome any of you who would like to weigh in.