One of the most common tropes in classic murder mysteries is that the victim is a terrible person, whom most if not all the principal suspects want dead. No one mourns Colonel Smythe-Derrington’s violent demise; he was a bullying drunken skinflint who tyrannized his children, neglected his wife and abused the servants. Or maybe he was just your garden-variety a-hole who annoyed his neighbors and embarrassed his family.
In many classic mysteries, the sentiment that the killer has done everyone a favor and the world is well rid of the victim is freely expressed. Mystery novelist and philosopher G.K. Chesterton had various characters repeatedly express this theme in his Father Brown mystery stories, only to be chided (gently or not-so-gently) by his priest-detective for their hypocrisy and lack of humanity.
The most famous (infamous?) total jerkwad murder victim in British detective fiction is Samuel Ratchett, AKA Signor Cassetti, who is offed in chapter 2 of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Mr. Ratchett is traveling as a rich American businessman on the luxury train from Istanbul to Calais. But after his death (multiple stab wounds), brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot soon discovers that he was a ruthless gangster who kidnapped and murdered a baby girl, extracted a fortune in ransom from her parents, and was acquitted of the crime by paying off the jury.
So essentially Christie is daring us not to believe that Cassetti deserved what he got. If ever there was a brutish, evil monster in this world, it’s this guy. A heartless baby-killer…who got away with it! All the passengers on the Orient Express think so too.
“If ever a man deserved what he got, Ratchett or Cassetti is the man. I’m rejoiced at his end. Such a man wasn’t fit to live!” says Mr. McQueen, the dead man’s secretary. “I did so rejoice that that evil man was dead – that he could not any more kill or torture little children,” says Greta Ohlssen, a Swedish missionary. “Then in my opinion the swine deserved what he got,” declaims Colonel Arbuthnot, British Army.
But did he really? Did he really deserve to be drugged and then stabbed twelve times in the chest? In real life as in mysteries, we like to run around making pronouncements about who “deserves” to live and die, but we often don’t really think through what we’re saying.
It’s not surprising that classic mysteries should concern themselves with whether the murder victim deserved his fate. The golden age of the British detective novel, the 1920s and 30s, coincided with a surge in regard for the principles of social Darwinism, in which Great Minds went beyond a person’s right to live on moral grounds and right into whether he or she deserved life based on economic situation and ethnic background. Charles Darwin’s most famous work, On the Origin of the Species, was published in 1859 and focused largely on the environmental adaptation and natural selection in the animal world. However, Darwin and others, notably Herbert Spencer, soon took these concepts, pithily described by Spencer as “survival of the fittest,” and began applying them to human societies.
Influenced heavily by 18th century clergyman (!) Thomas Malthus, the social Darwinists proposed the idea of “stronger” and “weaker” races, as well as “stronger” and “weaker” social strata. According to the rule of “survival of the fittest,” being rich and Anglo-Saxon was an indication of superior evolutionary potential, while poverty indicated intrinsic weakness and non-whiteness meant genetic inferiority. In the interests of the furtherance and refinement of the species, therefore, “progress” came in the form of removal of the Other. In his The Descent of Man (1882), Darwin says:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes…will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
Yes, my friends, he really is saying that black people and Aborigines are more closely related to our ape ancestors than white people.
The ideas of social Darwinism (and eugenics, first conceptualized by Darwin’s first cousin Francis Galton) had already been freely used in the late 19th century to justify European imperial expansion. In the 1920s and 30s these ideas were intertwined with fascism and communism, endowed with quasi-scientific validity, and eventually applied with frightening dedication and scope in Hitler’s Final Solution. Under the Nazis, people didn’t just “deserve” death for moral failings or doing something wrong, as in murder mysteries (or societies with a criminal death penalty), they deserved it for being born Jewish, or Romany, or gay, or disabled, or with a genetic health condition. A 1938 Nazi propaganda poster proclaims that someone with a hereditary disease costs the state 60,000 marks over his lifetime: “Comrade, it’s your money too.”
Remnants of belief in the principles of social Darwinism still haunt us today. You don’t even have to research neo-Nazi fringe groups, just look at internet comment sections or Republican primary events. The idea that some people deserve to die – or, at the very least, to be prohibited from procreating – is still alive and well. Disposing of entire ethnic groups is now somewhat passé (except maybe in those aforementioned fringe groups), but the notion that poverty and want are an indication of weakness and moral inferiority still looms large in our national dialogue. Who can forget that shining moment in American history when audience members at a 2011 debate shouted “Kill him!” when Ron Paul was confronted with the theoretical example of a sick man with no health insurance? (Damn right you should’ve looked bemused, Ron.)
And the eugenics boogieman continually re-surfaces. Should people with life-threatening genetic conditions be saved? Or be allowed to pass on their DNA to a new generation? In the eyes of many people, no. Recently an article ran on Yahoo about a woman with a genetic heart condition, several of whose family members had died from the disease, and her efforts to raise awareness of it. Many of the comments talked about how “irresponsible” she was for having children, as if she’d suffered a moral lapse along with her arrhythmias. There is always talk of forced sterilization of whatever undesirable population shouldn’t be having babies – people with genetic conditions, or people with Down’s syndrome, or the mentally ill.
Fortunately, policy makers haven’t done anything about this…in the last decade or two, anyway. Which is prudent because, frankly, where would we draw the genetic line in the sand? As researchers learn more and more about the human genome, we are realizing just how many markers there are in our DNA for all kinds of ailments, from heart disease to breast cancer to male-pattern baldness (really). And even those without obvious conditions have glitches in their code; a geneticist told me recently that the process of DNA creation and replication via the genome is akin to reading the Bible once through and then trying to write it down word for word. It’s almost a wonder we get functioning bodies at all.
So OK, we’ve come a long way from the murder victims in mystery novels, but the question is still the same. Did Signor Cassetti deserve to die, drugged and stabbed on the Orient Express? Did paupers or native races deserve to die in the name of empire-building and “survival of the fittest”? Did the “genetic inferiority” of Jews and others merit a Holocaust? Do today’s poor people or those with genetic conditions deserve to die (or be barred from procreating)?
The answer may seem obvious, but the question keeps coming up, so I’ll just say, ad nauseum: no, and no, and no, and no.