Worthy Victims

Worthy victims? Aren’t victims characterized as innocent? In mystery fiction, the character of the victim often follows the sub-genre. The crazy serial killers of ‘Criminal Minds’—and the dozens of profiler-driven crime stories that come out each year— focus on specific categories of people. The Jack the Ripper killers go after “low risk” victims (prostitutes, the homeless, runaway teens) while more “ambitious” killers are drawn to victims with higher profiles. In other words—victims who will be missed by families, friends, colleagues, employers—you might include celebrities, but their killers, in both fiction and reality, are often set apart in another group with its own set of killer criteria.

What do I mean by describing some victims as worthy of their demise? No, I’m not advocating killing people. I’m just acknowledging that there is a large body of mystery fiction devoted to mysteries in which the killer is, to a certain extent, justified in choosing murder. The victim in these stories is terrible in their own right. They could be a Nazi hiding in plain sight posing as a small town minister, an abusive madam running a brothel & blackmail business, or a pedophile that has managed to evade justice.

In life, there are many petty “criminals” earning the wrath—if not an outright violent response—from the rest of us. I’ve been struck a couple of times by the way some people use casual conversation to torture each other.

I know that I was particularly sensitive shortly after my mother passed away, but when a casual acquaintance insisted that my hair was “so much lighter than before” (it wasn’t) and followed up by asking, “What do your parents think of your new hair color?” I burst into tears. It wasn’t until almost an hour later that I realized how inappropriate her query had been. Why would one ask an adult what her parents ‘thought of her hair color (clothes, gym selection, boyfriend, career), except to poke about until she hit a vein of emotion? That time she hit the mother lode.

With all the probing and poking, I began to see her as the prototype for a victim in one of those mid-20th century cozy mysteries. A character based on her would eventually hit unexpected pay dirt, disturb the wrong person, and wind up dead.

A few days ago, a nice, older woman complimented me on a dress I wore to a Tango event. She made a point of saying, “You’re not afraid of showing your arms” in a tone not from if I were baring my breasts. I replied that my arms were my arms, and she replied with something positive about body acceptance, but the wheels were already turning. She’d managed to make me self-conscious about my chubby, white arms and that’s an incipient body-shaming scenario.

Perhaps SHE could be the prototype for an intriguing worthy victim? A stray comment, made to the wrong ears, can be an invitation to MURDER!

In a mystery by Agatha Christie, I might be tempted to dispatch a worthy victim.

In a mystery by Agatha Christie, I might be tempted to dispatch a worthy victim.


  1. Casual conversation really can be used to torture another person, and your examples are great. Words really do have a lot of power to provoke and disturb, especially when said to someone at the wrong time.

    • Candy Korman

      Not being inclined toward murder and violence, it’s interesting to imagine how another kind of character might respond to “minor” provocations. Would another woman slip poison into a drink after a body shaming comment? Maybe…

  2. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
    That used to be a saying in my day, but now you’ve made me wonder whether those kind of backhanded comments were a way to get around it. Definitely worthy. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      A dear friend of mine who grew up in the New York City area, but wound up moving down to Virginia when she married right out of school, tells hilarious stories about the sweet, southern ladies with surgical sharp tongues! With a smile and a sweet preamble, i.e. “Lord love her but…” or “Who am I to say anything, but…” they slay everyone with double-edged word swords. Coming from a more direct—and directly aggressive—region. She never ceases to be amazed at the impact these sugar coated, killer comments elicit.

      The more I listen to off-hand remarks, the more conscious I become, noting what would be called evidence passive aggression or just plain slippery statements that leave me wondering… “Did she mean that the way I’m hearing it?” Men do this too, but I think there are women that grew up hearing “If you can’t say something nice…” (I remember it) and learned to counter it with a devious verbal strategy. Traditionally, men are given more leeway to be verbally aggressive. But the more I think about it, the more “dangerous” the duplicity becomes.

      Beware of false compliments. They may inspire revenge!