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In Michael Connelly’s taut thriller The Scarecrow, Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jack McEvoy is given his two-week notice and decides to spend his final days at the job chasing down the truth about Denise Babbit, an exotic dancer found dead in the trunk of her own car in the rough neighborhood of Rodia Gardens. McEvoy’s dogged investigation leads him to a cool, computer-genius, abasiophiliac serial killer known as “the Scarecrow,” who abducts women, straps them in leg braces, rapes them, then slowly asphyxiates them in a plastic bag. 

Around the same time I read Connelly’s novel, I picked up Ludwig Lewisohn’s The Case of Mr. Crump (1926), the story of the marriage of Anne and Herbert Crump. Anne was born in Britain and raised in a chaotic, violent, dirt-poor family in Kentucky. Though not pretty, she’s slim, lithe, well-read, and quick-witted, qualities that give her power over certain kinds of men. She’s married to Harrison Vilas and living in New York when she meets Herbert, a young, romantic composer and pianist who has migrated from his tidy German family in Queenshaven, South Carolina, to make his fortune in the big city. Anne is nearly old enough to be Herbert’s mother, but she lies about her age, initiates an affair with Herbert, and eventually leaves her husband and brings her three Vilas children into a mismatched and, in Thomas Mann’s words, “infuriating” marriage to Herbert. 

Of the two novels, Lewisohn’s is by far the more frightening. Connelly’s is full of danger and action. McEvoy is nearly killed twice, and his FBI-agent girlfriend, Rachel Walling, almost becomes one of the killer’s victims. The Scarecrow is uncanny. But Anne Crump? She’s blood-chilling. 

Anne sucks the naïve Mr. Crump and everyone around her into her maelstrom. She’s obsessively, aggressively, shamelessly possessive. She controls Herbert by threatening to cause scandal if he defies her. Her volatility dominates their home; the whole family is organized around one aim—to keep Anne from exploding. Herbert avoids quarrels because he knows it will make “a hectic evening, a lurid night and therefore a broken next day.” Anne bullies, then plays victim. She treats Herbert’s parents with contempt, then accuses them of mistreating her. Lazy and slovenly, a hypochondriac, she lounges around the house in a disheveled kimono, lamenting the burdens she bears for her family, too much for a “delicate woman” like herself. When Herbert stands up for himself, she and her children treat him like an ogre who needs to be propitiated with exaggerated obeisances. Anne runs up huge debts, but when Herbert confronts her, she complains about his stingy neglect. 

Anne resents Herbert’s musical successes and ruins them with outrageous public behavior. When she’s not being resentful and vengeful, she takes credit for Herbert’s career. Observing Anne and her growing children, Herbert “began to understand quite well the moral symbolism of the doctrine of original sin,” which was “the primordial failure to make any selection among one’s desires, the failure to face the consequences of one’s actions, the quite unreflective exertion of the unleashed will.”

Early in their relationship, Anne badgers Herbert into declaring his love, and she regularly holds him to his original declaration: “You said you loved me. Don’t you love me?” If he admits he doesn’t, he’s exposed as a liar; if he says he does, he knows he’s a liar. Herbert grows to hate Anne, then hates himself for hating her; even when he sees through her tactics, he instantly castigates himself for his lack of charity. After all, “she was no more evil than other people. . . . We’re all miserable sinners; the moral order of the world is neither white nor black but a prevalently dirty gray.” With pitiful desperation, he tries to convince himself his declaration of love was sincere: “How did he know at that moment that his affection for her and his compassion and his physical desire, still unblunted by satiety, did not constitute, at least, a kind of love?” After all, he’s no “subtle-souled psychologist.” When he finally admits he never loved her, “she threw herself on the floor and sobbed and writhed and beat the boards with her small, dry, shrivelled hands.” After she calms down, they go another round.

Anne is so maddening that the reader feels the relief of vindication when Herbert (twice) hits her. But it gradually dawns on us we’re seeing the entire marriage through Herbert’s jaundiced eye. He has his own techniques of self-justification that deflect any remorse when he has a drunken one-night stand with Anne’s cousin, or flirts with other women. Anne is an expert at victimhood, but Herbert knows the game too. He placates Anne with lies because he is too weak to tell her the truth about herself or himself. Our intimacy with his mind draws us in, until we realize he’s not the most reliable of narrators.

Comparing the two novels helps gauge the moral force of varieties of fiction. Like many thriller writers, Connelly explores extremes of cruelty and sin. The Scarecrow is a disturbing reminder of our capacity to take pleasure in others’ miseries. But Lewisohn’s novel is more unsettling because it mirrors everyday depravities with startling clarity. By creating a monstrous villain, Connelly paradoxically comforts the reader: At least we’re not as bad as that. But every one of us has exhibited aspects of Anne and Herbert's behavior at some point. The Crumps are scarier than a serial killer because their spiteful meanness and pathetic resentments are so trivial, so commonplace, so senseless, so us, because the stakes are so small. I wager I’ll never meet a Scarecrow, but I suspect there are several minor-league Annes and Herberts in my neighborhood, and yours.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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