A. Be shot dead by a police sniper?
B. Blunder into a pit of agitated cobras with no escape?
C. Be imprisoned for life with zero hope of parole?
First off, there are no wrong answers, so think a moment about your rationale. Now let’s consider our choices.
Answer A – I suspect most folks, me included, find this conclusion unsatisfying. Although death is likely what the madman deserves, immediate death seems more an escape than a punishment. Nasty people need to know the game is lost and the end is nigh. I want rumination before the reaper arrives.
Answer B – Cobras? That’s rather nifty. We might even add a few large, round stones to the pit, the killer having to hop from stone to stone to avoid being bitten. Should we butter the stones?
Answer C – True, the killer lives. But depending on the character, this result can be even more satisfying than Answer B. Sociopaths are, by and large, cruel puppeteers. Lock the killer in a box with no one to control-solitary confinement, say-and the torment might be worse than death. Facing decades alone with the vacuity of a conscienceless mind and no one to manipulate, could this not be true justice? (If you disagree, the snakes are still waiting.)
I don’t often yell at books. When I do, it’s invariably because the author has allowed an odious villain to die immediately. Dispatching a child molester or serial torturer in an instant counters both rational and gut-level needs for punishments that fit hideous crimes.
Inflicting pain should buy pain, preferably with interest. I’ve tossed nasty folks into the sea with nothing to swim toward but the horizon, thrown them off tall cliffs so they can reflect on the way down, and yes, slammed hubris-laden monsters into prison forever, when that’s what they fear the most.
I actually come to detest vile characters while creating them, thinking, Laugh now, because you’re going to get yours, dog-breath. I also value redemption and occasionally permit a character to re-purchase his or her soul with the coinage of a truly good and selfless act.
This is not to say every malefactor in my stories gets a comeuppance: Foul creatures sometimes escape in service of the plot or further books. But if someone is uncompromisingly vicious and manages to get cornered or caught, well … the end ain’t gonna be pretty.
I can, however, guarantee it will be just.
Simply comment on this article and the five best answers will win a copy of J A Kerley’s new terrifying novel, Her Last Scream.