The Joy of Killing, the first non-fiction work by master crime fiction novelist Harry N. MacLean, contains not one, but three references to the book’s titular phrase, each separate and occurring at entirely different moments in the time and space afforded by the story’s unfocused and highly unconventional narrator.
The first appears before the story begins, before even the dedication, and by a name no less large than Mark Twain: “The joy of killing! the joy of seeing killing done – these are traits of the human race at large.” The quote comes from Twain’s Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, a largely non-fictional work that weaves the occasional fiction into a narrative that’s otherwise presented as fact.
I’ll leave the obvious parallels for those who survive to the end, and there’s definitely a reward waiting for those who do, but in offering a critique of MacLean’s latest work I’ll be careful not to give away too much, even incidentally, as such a transgression might spoil the careful and methodical way he’s laid things out. You can thank me later.
MacLean begins his tale in a style that’s practically normal, in light of things to come, albeit one that reads more like a police statement than narrative fiction. “I extricated a weed from the pack and whacked in on the back of my Zippo”, writes the unnamed narrator as he eyes the pretty blonde sitting across from him on the train ride home.
Pay attention: it’s critical that we understand our narrator is, in fact, writing – recounting really – the first real sexual adventure of his young life. Time and space soon shift events toward the present, and it’s here we find him, middle-aged and typing away on an ancient Underwood mechanical typewriter.
But don’t get too comfortable; events soon shift back to the train, then skip along throughout his life, jumping back and forth indiscriminately, often without even the faintest guide where events may end up. This stream-of-consciousness recalls the psychedelia of authors like David Lynch; the book’s publisher admits as such and would have you believe. As would I, if only I’d stopped reading after the first few sections (the book forgoes chapters in lieu of sectionals, here presented as time-space descriptors to help wayward readers gain some bearing, I believe)
No, I think the real intent of these rambles is more orthodox, more deductive. MacLean, a crime novelist with a gift for psychological analysis of the criminal mind, shifts his hodgepodge verbiage as he delves deeper into the darkness, disentangling one memory from the next, taking readers on a literary deconstruction – and then reconstruction – of the narrator’s fragmented imagery from start to finish. Like a good detective, MacLean sets out to interrogate, calculate, and, if successful, present the events of a crime in a way that makes sense, both structurally and logically.
The second mention of the phrase happens about midway through, just as the narrator contemplates why he had written a novel about murder, and not committed the act itself. Such an act might have denied him “the belief that the crime would ruin the rest of my days,” adding that “the joy of killing would be smothered in remorse and guilt.”
As the narrator jumps in and out of time, from one event to the next, he leaves clues to help us piece together a workable image of who he is. Or, at least, what’s led him to this point. Maybe. An interlude about him having sex with actress Shelley Duvall, decapitated and bloodied, suggests he may not be the most reliable witness, either. As such, we’re forced to pick and choose for ourselves, piecing what we can from what we have.
As a young boy he may have witnessed the accidental drowning of his best friend. He may have also been involved, in some fashion, with a local pervert’s exploitation of neighborhood boys; these events may even be tied together in some way or another.
As an adult he’s now a college professor, one specializing in psychology and crime, and a controversial one at that. He’d written a handful of short stories and one novel, the latter about a professor who had developed a belief system that humans, like animals, were essentially amoral creatures, each of them conforming to social norms they believed in their best interest. The novel’s professor posits that, given the right situation, “we will all commit murder, without hesitation”; a belief that’s tested after catching his wife having sex with their neighbor, killing her by slicing her neck with a straight razor.
The rest of the novel – the narrator’s novel – details the Professor’s calm, logical defense of his actions as both normal and justified; a rational response that, as he explained to the jury, most anyone would ascribe had they been in his situation. He defended himself at trial, was convicted, and sentenced to death.
But was the novel true-crime or purely fiction? Again, I must be cautious treading forth from this point, as MacLean’s narrator mentions the existence of another book, The Joy of Killing, which is the memoir written by the Professor himself – and the third and final appearance of the phrase in this book. Here the Professor gives his own careful accounting of his wife’s murder and “the consequences inside his head.” It sold well, our narrator states, adding “people respect honesty in others, even if they don’t live it themselves.”
The Joy of Killing may be Harry N. MacLean’s first purely fictional work, but its presentation is anything but routine. By forcing a nearly indecipherable narrative style upfront, at least initially, it presents itself as a rambling, inchoate mass of information, only to cautiously reveal its darkest secrets for the patient and interested in an agonizingly slow unfurl. What a rare treat to experience a work of the imagination treated like a thorough psychological reconstruction, especially by someone with a gift for the real thing.