by Jeanne Matthews
This Valentine’s related post was first published on the Poisoned Pen blog site on February 13th, 2012.
As the comedian Chris Rock says, if you ain’t held a box of rat poison in your hands and thought real hard about killing your wife, you ain’t been in love. Thousands of men go to prison every year for killing their wives or their lovers – perfectly nice men who wouldn’t harm another living soul. So what is it about being in love that can stir a man to thoughts of murder?
When a woman is murdered, nine times out of ten it’s the husband. Defense lawyers argue that wife killers are just ordinary guys who snap in a moment of extreme provocation. The provocations most often cited are infidelity, nagging, disrespect and taunting. To quote Sean Connery, “There are some women who take it to the wire…they want a smack.” And to be sure, most wife killers have a history of smacking their wives around for a good long while before they “snap” and finish them off.
The most common reason why women kill their husbands or partners is to put a stop to the smacking. Of course, there are a few ladies who kill their husbands for money – the so-called “black widows–” and an increasing number of men who don’t care to divvy up the family assets with a soon-to-be-ex-wife have turned to murder as a substitute for divorce. But it’s mainly love – or the idealized, romantic notions we harbor about love – that make affairs of the heart so dangerous. As an old flame of mine once observed over a jigger of Jack Daniels, “In the heart of romanticism lurks the seed of morbidity.”
Romantic love imbues the object of one’s passion with impossibly wonderful qualities. She, or he, can do no wrong, until they do, of course. When reality intrudes, most of us come to terms with the fact that our mates are only human. We forgive them their foibles and carry on with our lives in a spirit of mutual tolerance. But some romantics are incorrigible. A sense of proportion and perspective never sinks in. Everything they care about is wrapped up in the single, irreplaceable package of The Beloved and they must possess this creature entirely and exclusively.
In both my first and second Dinah Pelerin mysteries, there are characters whose obsession with a beloved overwhelms rationality and leads them to commit terrible crimes. Some readers may wonder if this recurring theme suggests that the author has, herself, pondered over a box of rat poison. In the interest of plausible deniability, let’s not go there. But what I occasionally do ponder is the wife murderer I used to work for when I was a paralegal back in Denver. He was a bright, attractive, financially successful attorney, seemingly more balanced and low-key than the typical litigator. I liked David and admired his legal skills and his frequent pro bono representation of the poor and disadvantaged. He kept a framed photograph of his wife Debbie on his desk and spoke of her often and fondly. Once or twice, he asked me to order roses for her for Valentine’s Day or their anniversary. They were a lovely, seemingly loving, couple. And then Debbie decided to go to law school.
No one can ever know what that decision signified to David, but a month after Debbie enrolled, her body was found beaten, stabbed and shot twice (for good measure) in the covered parking lot of Denver University Law School. Another student who’d heard her screams and rushed to her aid was also killed. I never saw David again. The police interviewed him and were in the process of checking his alibi, which ultimately didn’t pan out. But before they could issue a warrant for his arrest, he packed his bags, jumped in his Miata convertible and hightailed it to California. While fleeing south along the Big Sur Coast Highway, he noticed the flashing lights of a state patrol car in his rear view mirror. Apparently not realizing that he was about to be stopped only for speeding, he pulled to the side of the road, took his gun from the glove compartment and blew out his brains.
Back at the law firm, all the talk was about how much in love he’d been.