About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Should We Ask "Why" About Serial Killers?

David Levien, in his book Signature Kill, spends as much time within the twisted mind of the serial killer as he does inside the mind of the sleuth, Frank Behr. Part of the exploration of the killer is “why” he tortured and killed and dismembered and created sculptures of the body parts.

In my last post I quoted the killer’s reaction to seeing crime scene photos of his most recent creation, I cannot call it a work of art:

His works are his prayers, his testament to his own godliness and immortality, and that comes through.

I had kept reading a book which was repelling me with the detailed scenes of violence and torture partly because I wanted to see what “why” Levien could come up with for a serial killer.

After finishing the book I reflected on whether we should ask “why” horrific acts are committed.

I went back to my copy of Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. In the book, which is subtitled The Search for the Origins of His Evil, the author explores the efforts of 20 different biographers of Hitler to explain his murderous behaviour. 

Claude Lanzmann, the maker of the epic film, Shoah, has passionately argued the world must not ask “why”. Rosenbaum quotes Lanzmann:

And if you start to explain and to answer the question of Why you are led, whether you want it or not, to justification. The question as such shows its own obscenity: Why are the Jews being killed. Because there is no answer to the question of “why.” Because, in other words, any answer begins inevitably to legitimize, to make “understandable” that process.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Dr. Louis Micheels, a Holocaust survivor has argued there has to be a “why”:

“….. However, in the civilized world to which so few of us, including Primo Levi, returned, there should be – sa soll ein warum sein. Without an attempt, no matter how difficult and complex, at understanding, that very world, where truth is most important, could be lost again.”    

“Da soll ein warum sein”: There must be a why.

In Signature Kill the killer has been brutally treated as a youth. It is common to look to a killer’s cruel upbringing in explaining “why”. Yet only the tiniest fraction of abused youth become serial killers.

In Explaining Hitler, Rosenbaum takes that approach back to its most extreme in the attempted analysis of a baby photo of Hitler:

We could, considering what we know of what became of him, “backshadow” (the useful term coined by the scholar Michael Andre Bernstein to characterize this dubious but hard-to-resist habit of thought) into his dark, questioning eyes, into those lips pursed into what looks like a pout or a frown, a premonitory, melancholy, even a haunted and hurt expression. We could project upon that impressionable baby face the stirrings of some deep emotional disturbance in embryo. But we could just as easily see there not incipient demonism but a kind of gentleness and sensitivity. We could just as easily predict this child would turn out to be Albert Schweitzer.

The photo is at the top of this post.

In my work as a lawyer I spend a lot of time asking people “why”. Often their explanations do not make sense to me. I came to realize many years ago that when we ask “why” we are looking for a logical answer. Too often the answer is illogical. It makes sense to the person involved but is not logical. I have come to sum up that experience by telling clients “I cannot explain what does not make sense”. I say it every week at the office. I have learned to accept people commit illogical actions.

I will continue to ask “why” in real life and to look for explanations of “why” in crime fiction as I have an inherent desire to know “why” whether logical or illogical.
Levien, David - (2015) - Signature Kill and Reaction, Not Review, to Signature Kill


  1. Great post Bill.

    I think it's a complex issue which you have highlighted well. I am naturally curious and always want to know "why" - in real life and in crime fiction. But the older I get the less certain I am that there is always a "why". In my day job I've been involved as an observer with several Royal Commissions (a kind of public enquiry/hearing) including a current one into the sexual abuse that went on in various religious and public institutions in this country over many decades. Some of the stories are truly horrendous and I am especially at a loss to find a "why" to explain the many people who aren't mentally ill but who covered up abuse by their colleagues. I can't get my head around it at all

    1. Bernadette: Thanks for the comment. In the 1990's I spent over half of my time representing a group of hemophiliacs infected with AIDS who did not want to be part of the official hemophiliac organization at a Royal Commission Into the Canadian Blood System. It was a fascinating experience. There were many wrenching stories. Another day I may delve into the "why" of blood and AIDS.

    2. So you still have Royal Commissions in Canada eh? I wasn't sure - I know you're part of the Commonwealth but I figured since you went the independence route you guys might have gotten rid of them.

    3. Bernadette: They remain with us. From my experience Royal Commissions are one of the best ways to investigate great disasters, especially on a national scale.

  2. I think you have a good point, Bill, that the 'why' doesn't always make sense, even when there is one (e.g. when the person committing a crime gives you a reason). Like you, I always want to know why, too; perhaps it's part of why ended up in academia. And certainly, when you write crime fiction, you're supposed to create a killer (serial killers aside, perhaps) who has a plausible motive.

    But as you say, sometimes the motive doesn't make sense. And I'm sure you've encountered plenty of people who couldn't explain the 'why' of what they did. Some of the things that I've run into simply aren't easily explained, anyway. As to whether we should look for the 'why' in cases like the Holocaust, I can understand both sides of that question. I tend to be the kind of person who looks for explanations - who wants things to make sense. I think that's why it hits me especially hard when awful things happen that don't.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I think "why" is important even if not logical. If nothing else it is better to try to understand what drives someone to illogic than to simply accept it happens.

      On the Holocaust I think the world needs to see how mass killings take place to be better prepared to try to stop them though I find it frightening how thin is the veneer of civilization.

  3. I read somewhere that one of the things that makes Shakespeare so great is that he doesn't give people full motives, that he leaves it to the watcher to add their own thoughts. But I do always want an explanation, an answer to the question why... As a reporter (like you lawyers and academics) I always asked 'Why?'

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. We have lawyers, academics and reporters asking "why". Maybe we can keep expanding the "why" pool.

      I was glad to hear you asked "why". Too often I see reporters today, whether news or sports, content to ask "how do you feel". I think it is because we live in a media world that barely wants paragraph or 30 second answers and avoids letting interviewees actually give thoughtful answers.

  4. The question of why is really a sign that the questioner is looking for a fuller understanding of all human nature. The demand for logic when dealing with people, I have learned over time, is fruitless. Logic belongs to mathematics and science. Human nature is not logical. Joseph Campbell has said (and I will have to paraphrase here) "Everything you do is evil to someone else." I'm not saying that most of what is viewed as evil or amoral or whatever adjective you prefer to label "bad" is not bad. I'm trying point out as succinctly as I can that explaining away *any* human behavior is almost pointless. You're bound to create more questions than find any truly acceptable answers. To get an idea of how far ranging that seemingly simplistic statement is try doing the opposite of looking for the why of evil. Try coming up with the why for something as mysterious and irrational as Love. One of my favorite philosophies is that love is a form of madness -- and that can be interpreted both literally and figuratively.

    And as a coda can I just add that trying to explain a fictional serial killer's unconscionable acts of murder by blaming it on an abusive childhood is one of the most tiresome, lazy and uninformed motifs in crime fiction these days. A truly imaginative writer would never resort to what I think is a not only a cliche but a hollow truth.

    1. John: Thanks for a trenchant comment. I do not have a problem with coming up for a "why" to love. I believe it is inherent in human nature to want good relationships and special relationships. I do not believe there is an inherent desire to harm which is at the heart of evil which makes "why" evil a hard question.

  5. This post and the previous one were very interesting, addressing subjects that make us uncomfortable. The comments were helpful also.

    It seems to me that why a serial killer is motivated can only be guessed at. How can anyone really know the complexities of a person's mind or how they have become what they are? I am not suggesting that asking "why" is bad, just that it can only be a guess.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. It is hard to be honest about yourself and I expect serial killers are no different. For what goes on in the mind we either "guess" based on facts available and theories of human behaviour or we rely on whatever statements are made by the killer.

  6. I agree that there is not an innate desire to harm other people. The majority of human beings do not do that. Human beings had to band together and cooperate to survive throughout human history, to protect each other, to get food and so on.

    I do want to know why things happen, what are motives. I think those of us who read crime fiction want to know why crimes are committed. There are a lot of reasons.

    While I agree that few people who were abused as children become killers, a common thread of having been abused runs through the lives of those who are killers and sexual assaulters and pedophiles.

    A friend who is an anti-death penalty activist in Texas says that everyone she's ever known on death row and committed murder was horribly abused as a child. She's told me stories I can't listen to for long.

    And it was shown well in 'Dead Man Walking," the terrific anti-death penalty film with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It is about Sister Helen PreJean, a dedicated anti-death penalty activist here. She was the first person who ever cared about the killer that Penn played.

    I don't want to go into the "whys" of what the Germans did in WWII. It was not only one person, but an entire party, government and establishment. And much of Western Europe went along with this empire-building and genocide. The propaganda was enormous inside Germany.

    But what I hold onto is that there were 800,000 political prisoners in German jails meaning many people resisted. And they did so throughout Europe. That's what I remember most.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. Sister Helen is still working hard against the death penalty. I have a great deal of respect for her.

  7. I, do, too. She is very principled and hard-working. Though I am not religious and my opposition to the death penalty is based on humanitarian grounds, I think Sister Helen's arguments are quite persuasive.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I am a practising Catholic and believe she expresses well Catholic doctrine against the death penalty. I admire her willingness to participate in the Boston bombing trial. I expect it brought her public disdain from many Americans.