‘How’s the novel doing?’
JD considered. ‘When you say How’s the novel doing, you could be referring to that collection of prose narratives that’ve been around for the last couple of hundred years, and which continue to pop up from time to time; or you could be making a personal inquiry about the book I’m writing.’
Sam said, ‘What do you think?’
‘I think I’d rather talk about The Novel in global terms than my own meagre efforts. People are forever telling us that the novel is dead, but that seems like supreme ignorance to me. The novel is the Gladstone Bag of literature; it’s adaptable, it’s pliable. There is no other literary form that can entertain an endless variety of topics and themes. Is this what you want to hear?’
‘I was being sociable,’ said Sam. ‘We’re sitting in a car together. We’re gonna be here for another half-hour. You write novels, I read them; maybe there’s some mileage in this, I tell myself. But I was wrong. I’ll think of something else. Gimme a minute.’
They were watching Sam’s house. Whoever wrote the note to Angeles had delivered it by hand, so there was a possibility they’d do it again. There was at least the chance that whoever was watching her might become visible if the sleuths looked in the right direction. That was JD’s idea. Sam had thought it was good when it was first postulated. Now he wasn’t so sure.
‘You wanna talk about Descartes again?’ Sam asked.
‘You ever wonder about killers?’ said JD. ‘How they justify the act to themselves? Like in war, for example, how all these guys, soldiers, are suddenly faced with the opposite concept. All their lives they’ve been told that killing is wrong, then they get a letter in the post and somebody gives them a uniform, and they can go ahead and kill as many people as they want and end up getting a medal for it.’
‘Yeah.’ Sam nodded.
‘And, even weirder,’ said JD. ‘After they’ve been on this killing spree, maybe three or four years, suddenly the war is over and all the rules are reversed again. They have to hand in their guns and take off the uniform and go back home to their wives and kids and start leading creative and productive lives. Killing’s gone back off limits, and everyone accepts that it’s best that way.’
‘Governments know how to do that,’ Sam said. ‘They bombard us with propaganda, bring the church into the equation, manipulate us.’
‘But we’re conditioned so absolutely, Sam. From the moment we’re born they start telling us how it’s got to be. How come they can turn the whole thing around overnight?’
A tall man with a leather bomber jacket came into the street and crossed over towards Sam’s house. The conversation in the car went on hold until he’d walked on by. He knocked on the door of another house further along the street and a woman answered and drew him inside.
‘You ever read The Red Badge of Courage?’ JD asked.
Sam shook his head.
‘I dunno,’ said JD. ‘Any anti-war book or movie, the kind of things, in peacetime, they illustrate the brutality of war, the mindlessness of it all. You read that stuff and you end up thinking that everyone else thinks the same way. War is really grim, innocent people, children, get their bodies and minds ripped apart. The people you live with, everybody you know seems to embrace the same thoughts, that war is never worth the candle. So why doesn’t it become impossible? Why don’t we all become committed pacifists? Just outlaw that kind of violence?’
‘Don’t ask me questions, JD. I’m here for answers.’
‘It’s because we have dual natures. At least all human males do; I’m not sure about women.’
‘There are two independent principles at work. In wartime, sane, socialized males can be turned into killing machines. They don’t protest about it, most of them, they go out on a spree. After the war’s over they turn back into civilized human beings again.’
‘There’s something about the word spree,’ Sam said. ‘Sounds like a lot of fun.’
‘It has to be; or if it isn’t, like in Flanders, say, then there has to be a promise of plenty of fun to come. We’re in the realm of the pleasure principle. We’re dealing with warriors.’
‘You’re a cynic, JD.’
‘This is true. I’d never deny it. But being a warrior doesn’t mean you suddenly acquire a title. It means you change your being. You become something else. Killing is legitimate, but not only that; it can also bring rewards and compensations. In wartime killing is what you do, what you’re supposed to do. If you don’t find something to like about it, take some pleasure in it, you’ll go out of your mind. And that happens, of course, some soldiers do go mad. But the vast majority of them get on with the job. They enjoy themselves; some of them find they can be creative about it.
‘Then there’s the camaraderie, the love between the men in the field. They’ve been looking forward to a life of drudgery as an accountant or a bricky, spending forty years in the catering industry, and now, suddenly, they can put all that behind them. They are given the freedom to care for each other.’
‘What about dying?’ Sam said. ‘They have to live with that every day.’
‘No they don’t. The first thing they establish among themselves is that the chances of being killed are small. They’re human beings; they’re not gonna face up to reality. Most of them are into some kind of role-playing. They’re Rambo or Clint Eastwood; they’re in a movie. Either that or they really do discover new values. They’ve been dragged out of the factory or the office and exposed to the big wide world. Either way there’s pleasure involved.
‘And then there’s sex. For some it’s the orgasmic sensation of being a killer, but mainly it’s the removal of the restraints about rape. When Russian troops moved into Berlin in forty-five they raped every female between eight and eighty; only a few escaped. American combat troops routinely kidnapped women from Vietnamese villages for gang rape. When they’d done the deed they killed the women if they felt like it then moved on to the next village for a repeat performance.’
Sam didn’t reply. He tapped his fingers on the rubber seal around the window. ‘You think this is a male thing? he asked eventually. ‘Doesn’t apply to women?’
‘I’m not sure. They don’t get off scot-free, though. They’re part of the mechanism that legitimizes war. They send the men and the boys off to do their duty, together with the priests and the military psychologists, and when it’s all over they welcome them back as heroes.’
‘You think the guy we’re looking for is a sexual killer? They said Maura was still fully dressed, didn’t look as though he was interested in her body. When he attacked Angeles he went straight for her throat.’
JD sniffed. ‘There’s always some element of sexuality at work between men and women. Why does he choose women?’
Sam was shaking his head. ‘The guy’s got a grudge, JD. He hasn’t chosen women, the people he wants to get happen to be women. They could just as easily be men.’
‘So how do we run him to ground, Sam? We’re no closer now than when we started this job.’
‘It’s a fishing situation,’ Sam said.
‘With Angeles as bait? I thought that was out of the question.’
Sam nursed his right hand. ‘I wish there was another way, but we don’t have any choice. We didn’t make up the rules; they were already in force before we came into the picture. But we have to be sure we’re around when the guy makes his move.’