Basically every society ever agrees: murder is bad.
. . . but what counts as murder?
When you stop and think, we have an astonishing number of carve-outs on the whole “don’t kill people” thing. Murder is bad, but it’s okay to kill people in war. Murder is bad, but if you kill someone in self-defense, that’s excusable. Murder is bad, but it’s not as bad if you kill somebody by accident, without meaning to. Depending on where and when you live, murder is bad, but we’ll look the other way or even applaud if you kill someone in a duel, or as part of a blood feud over something they did first, or some other reason that lets us file the whole thing under “honor” and call it a day.
Or — as in our last essay — murder is bad, but only if you kill the wrong kind of person. Is it all right to kill slaves? In many slave-owning societies, no . . . theoretically . . . but the law will often shrug and let it pass unless you have a notorious track record for that kind of thing. In other societies (Sparta), go right ahead. Even in the modern U.S., we’ve seen the “gay panic defense” — according to which being hit on by someone of the same sex is so terrifying that your lawyer argues you should be absolved of murder on the grounds of self-defense and/or temporary insanity — and the spread of “stand your ground” laws that relieve people of the duty to retreat if possible instead of using deadly force . . . laws that may be unequally applied to White killers of Black victims and Black killers of White victims. Nowhere has this issue become more fraught than in the realm of police violence, where use of deadly force is all too frequently given a free pass.
Even when we all agree that what happened was murder, though, remember: what that means is still not universal. As I’ve mentioned in the past (when discussing legal systems in Year Three), murder hasn’t always been seen as a crime for the state to get involved with. When the government has limited capacity for enforcing laws, and/or society believes that what one ordinary person does to another is not really the government’s business, then you won’t see a police officer, constable, gendarme, magistrate, or any other such official person dispatched to investigate and arrest. Instead, it’s the responsibility of the victim’s friends and family to track down the killer — and as for what they do then, well. If there’s anything like a functioning legal system, ideally they drag the (alleged) perpetrator before a judge themselves. But if not, then see above re: it not counting as murder if it counts as a feud instead.
Regardless of how the law handled it, I strongly suspect that 99.999% of murders in the pre-modern past didn’t look like the kind of thing you see in a mystery novel nowadays. Mystery as a genre is designed to present the sleuth (and through them, the reader) with an engaging puzzle, sometimes to the point of becoming downright baroque. Especially when the murder takes place in the present day, the writer has to come up with reasons why our arsenal of investigative techniques — everything from fingerprinting to toxicology to DNA analysis — don’t simply hand the detective the answer right away. Sadly, the real-life reason is usually something like “the investigator was sloppy” or “there wasn’t enough money to do anything fancy” or “the backlog of unprocessed tests meant it took six months to get a result, by which time the culprit was gone,” but in stories, we find that profoundly unsatisfying. We’d rather hear that the murderer had a clever plan, foiled only by the investigator being even more clever.
But take away the DNA profiling (first developed in 1984), the fingerprinting (first case solved that way in 1892, though the Chinese — ever pioneers in the realm of forensics — have been using prints of multiple kinds for investigation since the third century B.C.), and even the detective . . . who exactly is the murderer trying to fool, and how hard do they have to try? Unless there was an witness or the killer left some truly obvious evidence, like their own knife sticking out of the body, most societies would have a hard time proving a connection between the perpetrator and the victim. The evidence presented to a judge might consist of no more than motive (“he was heard making threats”) and opportunity (“and he can’t prove where he was that night”). Even alibis become mushy things, without the ability to accurately calculate when the death most likely occurred.
Then again, you might not need an airtight case. After all, even in our fragmented and urbanized society, most people are killed by someone they know, not by strangers. It often wouldn’t be hard to find a plausible culprit in the victim’s orbit, and the law might or might not care too much whether “plausible culprit” was the same thing as “guilty party.” If a confession was needed . . . well, we’ll talk about torture another day.
Meanwhile, having discussed the fantasy of the thieves’ guild before, I want to take a moment here to talk about its slightly less common counterpart, the assassins’ guild. (Spoiler: it’s even more nonsensical.)
The term “assassin” comes to us from the Nizari Ismaili state founded in the late eleventh century. I’m not going to recap its full history here, but the short form is that the state survived in part by murdering key political enemies — and may, at points, have accepted money or favors from outside powers (Middle Eastern or European) to take out certain targets. But many of these murders were extremely public rather than stealthy, and to put the political context in perspective: it’s as if the Basques targeted specific French and Spanish enemies to protect their independence, and once or twice struck a deal with England or the Ottomans for similar activities. It’s not a guild made up entirely of expert killers for hire; it’s a breakaway polity that included farmers, crafters, merchants, clergy, and also some people who committed murder on behalf of the government. The Order of Assassins was more like a religious CIA or MI6 than what you see in fantasy novels and games.
Because when you stop to think about it, an assassins’ guild makes no sense. How do all these hypothetical assassins earn enough money to stay fed, let alone enjoy the luxurious lifestyle often depicted? Who would bother paying their fees, instead of tossing a much smaller sum at some out-of-work soldier or committing the murder themself and then pinning it on a scapegoat vagrant seen passing through the day before? How is it that the assassins’ prospective employers know how to find them, in the absence of modern communications methods? Why, if they’re so findable, does the government not come down on them like the hammer of God? These days the answer might be “because law enforcement needs to assemble enough evidence to convict them,” but that’s usually not the case for the types of societies shown as having assassins’ guilds. And the idea that they’re too dangerous to attack is laughable, when the government has an army at its disposal.
Contract killing exists, certainly, but when it’s been run as a business, it’s usually in the context of organized crime (and remember, that’s a modern phenomenon). Most of the time, it’s looked more like that out-of-work soldier mentioned above: find an individual with loose morals and some experience in killing, offer him a bit of money for the job, and call it a day. No guild with elaborate training and internal ranks necessary — not unless that “guild” is actually part of the governmental apparatus.
But when the killers belong to the government, we circle back to our starting question. Is it really murder if it’s performed with legal sanction? From a moral standpoint, you and I might well say yes . . . but meanwhile, the law looks the other way.