Monday, June 18, 2012

The (Im)Perfect Crime

As a writer of mystery fiction - even if mostly wordless for the past year - I am, like most of my writerly colleagues more than a little interested in the concept of the "perfect crime". The perfect crime, by at least one definition, is defined as a crime committed by someone, and recognised as a crime by the authorities and the general public, but which is never "solved". Evidence is in hand, clues of greater or lesser import abound, but no one can identify the perpetrator. Or if he/she is identified, even arrested, arraigned and brought to trial, he/she is acquitted and walks away. Possibly even to enjoy the "spoils" of his/her criminal act. A near infinity of variations on this theme abound in print and on film. (Or, citing modern technology, on disc, or in digital format.)

Before taking a brief look at the perfect - or imperfect - crime, though, I will go back to my last post. The one on Luka Rocco Magnotta - real name, Eric Clinton Kirk Newman - the Ontario native, soon to be 30 years old, who committed a heinous crime by murdering a Chinese student named Jun Lin - also known as Lin Jun. And then dismembering the victim's body and mailing parts to various places in Canada. And also apparently filming the murder and the mutilation, and posting the gruesome images online. A horrendous crime for sure. And one that originally gave authorities, and the public, real concern that this might be the start of something really terrible - a series of like murders. Magnotta even posted a how-to "manual" on how to disappear, and there were legitimate fears that he might do just that. As it turned out, though, Magnotta did not commit anything like a perfect crime. He left a container load of clues behind him, was videotaped entering an airport in Paris, and was arrested scant days later in an internet cafe in Berlin, reading articles about himself on the internet. A most imperfect crime by a most imperfect individual.


German police mugshot of Magnotta taken following his arrest in Berlin.

The Berlin Police mugshot of Luka
Magnotta taken following his arrest.

Just what motivated Magnotta to do what he did is a subject that will be studied and debated for years to come. The word "narcissist" was used in a number of artcles. And there's not much doubt that this was a factor. Perhaps even the factor in the crime. If so, he has now achieved a degree of ghastly fame: he even has an extensive profile on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luka_Magnotta

This past week, the Canadian public was horrified by another horrendous murder. And one that was as imperfect as the Magnotta crime.

On the mroning of Friday, June 22, Travis Brandon Baumgartner, an employee with a security company in Edmonton, Alberta, gunned down four co-workers while delivering cash to an ATM in a mall attached to the University of Alberta. Three of the people who were shot died at the scene; one is still in critical condition in hospital.


Apprehended: Travis Baumgartner was stopped near a border crossing in Lynden, Washington

            Travis Brandon Baumgartner

Baumgartner's crime, was, if anything, even less "perfect" than Magnotta's. He was arrested the next afternoon, Saturday, when he tried to enter the United States at a border crossing at Lynden, Washington, near Abbotsford, B.C. Technically - if that's not an inappropriate term to use in a crime as awful as this - Baumgartner did everything wrong. He arrived at the broder crossing in the same blue Ford F-150 pickup that the police had issued a description of. The truck had Baumgartner's mother's licence plate on the back, and that plate number had been entered into an electronic file that was shared with U.S. and Canadian authorities. He used his own driver's licence as identification at the border. The truck's licence plate was scanned by an automated system at the border crossing and set off a security alarm. The some $330,000 that Baumgartner had in his backpack in the truck would do him no good at all.

The U.S.Customs and Border Protection agent on duty at the time commented: "Sometimes you have to scratch your head and wonder why people (wanted by the police) would knowingly come up and make contact with law enforcement."

Which brings up an interesting point. Where writers of crime fiction often (usually?) create criminals who are intelligent and thoughtful individuals who plan their crimes carefully, in real life that is exactly what does not usually transpire. I can recall a lecture our local writers' group - Ottawa's Capital Crime Writers - received some years ago from a police officer. His principal point? Most criminals are not very bright people. They possess aberrant personalities, they act on impulse, they really don't think very much about what they are doing, and they leave plenty of evidence behind that leads to their arrest and conviction. And thank heavens for that. As much as we loathe and fear the Luka Magnottas and the Travis Baumgartners of the world, we can at least be grateful that their stupidity and carelessness - and vanity? - does them in, and rather quickly.

But to go back to the concept of the perfect crime. It has been argued that the really "perfect crime" is one that takes place without anyone knowing that a crime has been committed. For example, a wife murders her husband - or vice versa - and it presents as an unfortunate accident. Which brings an end to the investigation. Perfect, indeed!

A variation could involve a company employee who embezzles a large amount of money and hides it in the accounting records. No one ever knows that a crime has been committed. Or - a variation on that theme -the company does find out, but hushes the whole thing up rather than face the embarrassment - and loss of business - that would come with the public's finding out that the embezzlement actually took place.

Along this line, some would argue that the financial "meltdown" that occurred starting in about 2008 constituted a series of "perfect crimes"; the banking systems in various countries - notably the United States - lost billions of dollars in speculative activities, the taxpayer reimbursed the banks through government bailouts, and many of the executives involved went on to receive large bonuses. And few if any of the leading individuals were ever punished. Damn near perfect, a cynic might say.

The stories abound. Books are written, documentaries are filmed. Writers, actors, producers, directors and technicians all make money from the "enterprise". As the late Kurt Vonnegut might have intoned, "So it goes."

And - since I am something of a movie buff - at least one very good film has come out of the experience - Margin Call:




A film really worth catching.

Wikipedia - of course - has an entry on the "perfect crime":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_crime

It's worth looking at. One interesting example is the "locked room" murder. The body is inside the room, and the door is locked, apparently from the inside. Dr. Gideon Fell, the fictional creation of John Dickson Carr, is a master at solving locked-room mysteries. Carr's The Hollow Man has been selected (by 17 reviewers) as the best locked-room mystery ever. (It is now on my to-read list.) Carr, however, selected the French writer Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room as his personal favourite.

In The Hollow Man, Dr. Fell explains how a crime of this sort could be set up and carried out:
An illusion, simple but effective. The murderer, after committing his crime, has locked the door from the outside and kept the key. It is assumed, however, that the key is still in the lock on the inside. The murderer, who is first to raise a scare and find the body, smashes the upper glass panel of the door, puts his hand through with the key concealed in it, and finds the key in the lock inside, by which he opens the door. This device has also been used with the breaking of a panel out of an ordinary wooden door.
I hope I am not giving anything away by providing this quote. I guess I will find out when I have an opportunity to read Carr's novel.

4 comments:

aaron said...

Thomas,

Thanks for such a fascinating, insightful and informative post!! The "perfect" crime is, to my mind at least, a fictional aspiration, a metaphor, rather than a realistic situation. We humans are fractured and fallible, therefore far from perfect, but we do love larger-than-life characters!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

A really interesting post, Thomas. I mentioned Leopold and Loeb in an article I was writing the other day. I'm still fascinated by their bumbling attempt to commit the perfect crime.

I used to read Carr, but somehow missed that book. Have to look for it.

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