Understanding a murderer’s motive

I read three reports on murders yesterday, which made for disturbing but also compelling reading. It’s a bit like not being able to take your eyes off a car wreck. I know I shouldn’t really look and that it will haunt me but I’m also intrigued as to the extent of the horror. The first one was a trans-Atlantic murder by a “seemingly ordinary” 27-year old Englishman while the other two were all-too-familiar robbery-related killings in South Africa.

Writing in the London Review of Books (14 August 2008), author Jonathan Raban provides a fascinatingly detailed account of the virtual life of Neil Entwistle, a “seemingly ordinary [read working-class] 27-year old Englishman with an honours degree from the University of York” who married up, ran into lots of debt and then took an extreme way out of his predicament. Entwistle, who had been living in Massachusetts in the US for barely four months, killed his wife Rachel and baby daughter Lillian with his father-in-law’s Colt .22 revolver while they lay sleeping in their new double-bed before fleeing back across the Atlantic to his parents in Worksop. In June this year a Massachusetts court sentenced him to two concurrent life sentences without parole.

Raban provides a brilliant account of the banal, largely internet-based life of the killer. Neil Entwistle was an internet scam artist and sleaze merchant but not a violent murderer (at least before the killings). So why did he do it? The judge commented that his crimes “defy comprehension”, an opinion shared by the lead prosecutor. Shortly after the verdict, the lead prosecutor was quoted as saying, “Sometimes you just don’t know why … No “why” would really explain this. There is no why.”

I imagine that Raban took this up as a challenge, to understand the why of Neil Entwistle’s actions. He puts the pieces together in a way that recalls (for me at any rate) the careful attention to detail of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. If I had the time and the resources, I would be interested to try and understand the why’s of two local murders, both of which received brief mentions in yesterday’s paper.

The Cape Times reported on the arrest of two suspects in the Van der Westhuizen murders in Kleinmond. Last Sunday the small seaside town was shocked by the fatal stabbing of Shalk, 78, and Marie van der Westhuizen, 73, a couple who were known for their generosity and charitable work and who had just celebrated Marie’s birthday with family and friends. Two men, aged 22 and 23, who used to do casual labour for the couple, were arrested in the Overhills informal settlement and the police recovered items taken from the couple’s house. The Cape Times also reported the murder of well-known businessman and business publisher Robin McGregor, 79, founder of the Who Owns Whom publication, who was found stabbed to death in his house in Tulbagh on Tuesday. The Tulbagh police found McGregor’s body after their Bellville counterparts stopped and arrested three suspects, aged 28, 29 and 30, who were driving McGregor’s grey Mercedez Benz Compressor in Neethling street in Bellville South.

While short on details, these two stories suggest a similar pattern. In both incidents the victims were elderly whites who lived in small rural towns in the Western Cape, the suspects are male and almost certainly coloured or black and the primary motive for the killings appears to be robbery. Reading these short news items I had a lot of unanswered questions. Immediately I thought of drugs, gangs, poverty and a culture of violence and also racial inequality. I wondered about the effects of the fuel-price hikes and the global (and local) recession on already-struggling, long-term unemployed youths.

It would be heartening to read what someone like Jonny Steinberg, whose award-winning writing on crime includes Midlands and The Number, would make of these two brutal murders. Steinberg has a way of weaving multiple elements together in a way that illustrates broader problems through attention to a single narrative. Just as Jonathan Raban helps to dispel stereotypes that Entwistle, the son of a coalminer who was struggling to live beyond his means, was therefore somehow suspicious and bound to come to no good, Steinberg enables us to see beyond the stereotypes to the complexity of South African criminology. It’s not only the Najwa Pietersens (or the Neil Entwistles) of this world that deserve detailed coverage. But in a country which has roughly 18,000 murders a year, what are the chances of getting to the bottom of the latest tragic killings?

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5 Responses to Understanding a murderer’s motive

  1. An excellent post, Pete. I haven’t read the number, but I thought Midlands was a superb book. I can’t understand murder, but I admire journalists and writers like Capote and Steinberg who try to, and who do it so well.

  2. Pete says:

    Thanks Charlotte. You should read The Number if you get a chance. It explains the prison numbers thing very well (the 27s and the 26s etc.) and provides an empathic and (nuanced) story of the main character, explaining how he landed up in prison and the developing friendship / collaboration between him and Steinberg on the book. Steinberg really makes criminology come alive.

  3. bloglily says:

    In my work, I read and consider a lot of murder cases. Many of them are terribly banal: generally involving people who’re doing drugs that make them even more irrational, violent and unable to see the humanity in others than they might othewise be. What interests me is that there are a lot of narratives that have a murder at their heart, and do very different things with these stories. The mystery form, for example, is about reasserting order over the disorder created by the seemingly unnatural act of killing someone. Nonfiction examinations of the path to murder are also about finding order, but the best of them do so by trying to understand where things go wrong and what can be done about it. I admire that kind of writing very much and thank you for this interesting and thought-provoking post.

  4. couchtrip says:

    Bloglily, thanks very much for this. I like the idea of trying to reassert order over the disorder of killing but, as you say, the really interesting writing on this topic tries to dig a little deeper and work out what went wrong. How do people’s lives derail so badly that they can end up killing someone? I want to come back to this topic – even thought of doing a writing project on it. Something like “Ten Murderer’s Tales”.

  5. Litlove says:

    How very intriguing. It reminds me that I must read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I am reading Mother, Missing by Joyce Carol Oates and that details a similar murder of a woman in her fifties, very charitable, very friendly, who is brutally murdered by a young offender she is helping. The story is told from the perspective of her daughter and is essentially a study in mourning, so the murder hasn’t yet recevied much attention (it still might). But there are all kinds of patterns that play around it, of ambiguous love and resentment in the mother-daughter relationship, that seem to make the awfulness of the killing supernaturally infused with an anger towards maternal generosity (so reckless! so indiscriminating!) that cannot be properly faced. I’m interested in the webs of envy and rage and power that surround these killings, but then again, there is the sense that narrative doesn’t always touch the reality of the crime, which is why violence is often the quietest place of a story, where the chattering hushes and the act takes over.

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