The Murderer Next Door: The Only Real Mystery is Why Nobody Stopped Her Sooner.

Like a lot of people who write mystery and suspense novels for a living, I regularly comb the news for true crime stories that might someday form the basis of either a down-the-road Mike McCabe thriller or
possibly a stand-alone. When I find one, I cut and paste it into something I
call my “What If?” file. When the news recently broke about the murders
recently committed by Dr. Amy Bishop, I thought to myself this might be the basis
of something interesting. Here was
an educated professor and scientist and a mother of four children who,
supposedly without warning, gunned down six of her colleagues at a University
of Alabama faculty meeting, killing three and wounding three others, two
critically.



The only problem with the story is that it wasn’t without warning. There was warning, lots of it, that Bishop was the kind of deranged person who would do almost anything to retaliate against people she felt had
wronged her. According to a report by Shaila
Dewan
, Stephanie Saul and Katie Zezima. in the New York
Times,
“Dr. Bishop had shown evidence that the smallest of slights
could set off a disproportionate and occasionally violent reaction, according
to numerous interviews with colleagues and others who know her. Her life seemed
to veer wildly between moments of cold fury and scientific brilliance, between
rage at perceived slights and empathy for her students.”



In 1986, when Bishop was twenty-one, she shot and killed her eighteen year old brother with a shotgun in their home allegedly after a family argument. It’s been chargesd that
the incident was never adequately investigated by local police, possibly
because Bishop came from a locally prominent family in Braintree, MA. Eight
years later, in 1994, Bishop and her husband were suspected as the culprits in
a mail bomb plot against a doctor she worked with at Harvard Medical School.
The bomb failed to go off and no one was ever charged here either. In 2002 she
finally was charged, this time with assault, after punching a woman in the face
in an IHOP restaurant because the woman had taken the last child booster seat.
She was never convicted.



According to those who knew her, Bishop flew into frequent rages over perceived slights. And after the Huntsville shooting, some in the University’s Biology Department feared that she might have booby-trapped the
science building with some kind of “Herpes Bomb.” Apparently, she had threatened to do just that.



The real mystery is why nobody chose to say or do anything about Bishop before she finally exploded in a frenzy of gunfire. She’d been hired by the University of
Alabama without anyone questioning or even being aware of her history of
irrational behavior. Why? My guess is, as my fictional hero, Detective Sergeant
Mike McCabe puts it In The Chill of Night, “It’s
a familiar scenario. Citizens not wanting to get involved. Too polite. Too
fearful. Too lazy. It was a problem for police departments across the
country. It bugged the hell out of
McCabe but it was tough to figure out what to do about it.”



The Amy Bishop killings were a preventable tragedy. Could they ever become the basis of a future novel? Some sort of female version of American Psycho? Maybe.
Well-educated female killers with a few screws loose often make interesting
villains. Just look at Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen Lowell and Basic Instinct’s
Catherine Tramell for proof.
However, for now, the cut and paste on Ms. Bishop will remain in my “What
If” pile. Her crimes are too
recent and the pain they caused too raw for me to do anything with them anytime
soon

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Comment by I. J. Parker on February 27, 2010 at 7:32am
Readers have different reactions. You like this sort of thing, Jon; I don't. I get angry.
Comment by Jon Loomis on February 27, 2010 at 4:34am
Who cares if Highsmith broke every rule in the book? That does not make her right.

I don't think right or wrong have anything to do with it. It makes her interesting, and it makes her books a lot of fun to read. I don't think it's the writer's job to teach morality to the poor benighted reading-class, or whatever.

To James--in the first Ripley novel, I actually found him very sympathetic. His two victims, Dickie and Freddie are spoiled and self-indulgent creatures of privilege. They may not deserve to die, but they're not doing much to improve the world, either. I even find myself hoping he'll give Marge a whack in the head, but he restrains himself. Really Tom only kills when he feels cornered--but he feels cornered a LOT. And he has no problem keeping the proceeds. Wouldn't you?

That "wouldn't you?" is what makes the Ripley novels so great, in my opinion. And their departure from "the rules" is what lifts them out of the realm of everyday crime writing into art.
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 27, 2010 at 4:26am
Complex characters are one thing, but making someone who does despicable things to hurt others attractive and perhaps having the reader root for him is quite another. Who cares if Highsmith broke every rule in the book? That does not make her right. It simply means that she felt safe enough to thumb her nose or thought it would make for good publicity. The latter worked.
Comment by James Hayman on February 27, 2010 at 2:42am
I agree with Jon that morally complex novels are more compelling than simplistic ones.

I'm not sure I'd call Ripley likable though. Devious and charming, yes. But likable? Not for me. In the end I found him utterly repellent.
Comment by Jon Loomis on February 27, 2010 at 1:50am
and Jon would argue that

Jon would argue that morally complex crime novels are more interesting than morally simplistic ones.

There's never any need to make a villain likable.

Again, it's about moral complexity, and the extent to which we're interested in implicating the reader. Highsmith is a master in this regard; we root for Tom Ripley even though we know he's a complete psychopath. It's ingenious, and much more engaging for me than the standard A,B,C murder plot in which innocent victim dies at hands of murderous thug, thug gets caught, order is restored. Ripley never gets caught, and profits handsomely from his crimes. It's very much a modernist re-invention of the crime novel, in which the old gods of justice are dead. But I go on.
Comment by James Hayman on February 27, 2010 at 1:38am
There's never any need to make a villain likable. All they have to be is frightening and and devious and believable enough to make the reader think they really could be real.
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 27, 2010 at 1:07am
Whenever someone's impulse takes out three or more innocent people, it seems to me impossible to make the character likable. In fact, and Jon would argue that, waffling about what is right or wrong or why we should forgive killers and let them live among us creates the sort of horror the rest of us face in this society all the time.
The most noticeable characteristic of Amy Bishop is her arrogance in thinking that she is better and more deserving than others and that those who don't agree need to be punished.
Comment by Allie on February 26, 2010 at 1:43pm
I think the challenge in fictionalizing this would be to make the character likable. Or make some main character in the book sympathetic. This might make a good mystery, a whodunnit, where she's an unsuspecting, brilliant scientist.
Comment by James Hayman on February 26, 2010 at 8:34am
It seems to me, to turn the story into good fiction a writer would have to somehow make the villain less predictable. the saddest thing about Amy Bishop is that anyone who looked closely enough could have seen the whole thing coming a mile away.
Comment by I. J. Parker on February 26, 2010 at 8:19am
Let's face it, the herpes bomb takes time and effort. The gun in the faculty meeting takes neither. Has nothing to do with maturity either way.

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