Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Criminal Mind: Guest Post by John Verdon

Today I welcome best selling mystery writer John Verdon. John Verdon's THINK OF A NUMBER was released in 2010 when he was 65. A retired advertising executive, he had been a long-time fan of classic detective stories and became fascinated by the form and the mechanics of constructing the hidden crime and gradually exposing it. He decided to try his hand and introduced readers to the character of retired NYPD detective Dave Gurney. THINK OF A NUMBER was followed by SHUT YOUR EYES TIGHT (2011) and LET THE DEVIL SLEEP (2012). PETER PAN MUST DIE, the fourth in the series, is just out!

John Verdon:

What is it?

Well, it all depends on who you ask.

A police officer might say it was a mind characterized by a persistent tendency to violate the law. A religious person might see it as a mind antagonistic to moral and ethical principles. A neurologist might point to the abnormalities in brain wiring that are often characteristic of pathological behaviors. A psychiatrist might highlight the diagnostic criteria for “antisocial personality disorder” -- particularly lawbreaking, lying, manipulation, aggressiveness, and lack of remorse -- that general disregard for the rights and safety of others that creates so much havoc in the world.

There’s no doubt that the vast literatures of medicine, psychology, criminology, and religion can provide rich and varied portraits of individuals whose behaviors are sick, maladaptive, predatory, or just plain evil.

What could I possibly add to all that expertise?

Perhaps just a small twist in perspective. As a crime-fiction writer, I create the hearts and minds of the characters who populate my books. The only way I know to create valid characters is to create them from the inside out. The behavior of my villains is just the outer layer. To make that behavior credible -- to provide it with the vital energy and support it needs -- I have to build an internal structure first.

The way I see it, law-breaking criminality is the tip of an iceberg whose hidden mass consists of a set of self-centered, self-justifying attitudes -- a set of beliefs and feelings that enable and encourage the destructive behaviors.

As a writer, I find it helpful -- for reasons I’ll explain in a moment -- to articulate these attitudes from a first-person perspective. For example: The source of happiness is getting what I want.

I want what I want, and I want it now. 

The cost to others be damned. 

If everyone did what I told them to do, we’d all be better off. 

 I see things exactly the way they are. 

Most people are greedy, selfish, and stupid. 

Everybody is out for themselves, everybody’s got an angle. 

Trust is for infants and idiots. 

The world is a bloody jungle. 

Eat or be eaten. 

Other people are the cause of all my problems. 

I know some people who deserve to die. 

I do what I have to do. 

Justice is a joke. 

You’re either a winner or a loser. 

The only feeling you have that matters is how you feel about me. 

You’re either with me or against me. 

I know best. 

I could go on with this list of beliefs, but I’m sure you get the point I’m trying to make. At the heart of “the criminal mind” -- at least as I portray it in my novels -- there is a profound self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and grandiosity.

 I expressed the dysfunctional attitudes above in the first person for a simple reason. Despite their insanity, the fact is I have entertained virtually all of them myself at one time or another, and expressing them strictly in the third person would create an impression of too great a distance between me and the underlying flaws of my fictional villains. And, in a more general way, it would suggest too distinct a difference between the criminal mind and the non-criminal mind.

In my novels the same attitudes that drive literal law-breaking of the most terrible kind by my bad guys occur at lower levels of toxicity in all my characters, including my good guys. These flawed attitudes, far from being the unique definers of villains, are presented as part of everyone’s common humanity. Vice and virtue seem to me to be relative positions on a long continuum, a continuum that exists in each of us.

When I think about the so-called criminal mind, I can’t help but see a bit of it in all of us, more than a bit of it in some of us, and probably the worst of it in those of us who claim to have none of it at all.


Meg said...

This may be why Agatha Christie believed "everyone can be pushed to murder, depending on the circumstances." Great insight. Thanks.

pat janoff said...

A tongue-in-cheek quote I heard attributed to Billy Graham's wife noted that she never considered divorce - MURDER? YES!