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Does Rape Justify Murder?

Two novels with the same premise, one British one American.

An adolescent girl is raped by her violin teacher. The victim then murders her abuser. What happens next forms the substance of each of these novels. In both the murder takes place some time after the rape and is part of a desperate attempt to save a potential future victim.

In Diane Chamberlain’s The Silent Sister the rape victim is still a teenager at the time of her crime. Faced with prosecution she escapes to a new life by faking her suicide. Years later her much younger sister uncovers this and a series of related family secrets as she tackles the task of settling her father’s affairs following his death.

The novel alternates between the younger sister’s discoveries and the older sister’s new life. In the background are a couple who know the truth and threaten blackmail and a private eye who doesn’t believe the suicide story.

The protagonist in Christobel Kent‘s What We Did is older at the time of her crime. She has spent 20 years building a “normal” life after the abuse when the perpetrator reappears in her life. The book explores her feelings as she now has to conceal the body at the same time as preventing the secrets of the past tearing her family apart.

Meanwhile a hardened female journalist believes she is on to a scoop, aiming to reveal the violin teacher’s secret life as a paedophile.

I read both books recently, unaware until I began the second, of the similarities between the two. Both were page turners, hard to put down. There were passages in The Silent Sister that I found quite moving. I was certainly rooting for both sisters as the possibility of the murderer’s exposure came closer. Similarly, as the level of threat to the rape victim’s family in What We Did increased, I was in her corner, hoping that she would succeed in her poorly thought out quest.

Of the two, it was Kent’s novel I found most engaging, for the way it portrayed the inner life of the protagonist. Perhaps this was inevitable since writer, protagonist and I, as reader, are all British. Hiding our true feelings are common traits for us Brits. A character that does that and starts to fall apart as she faces the possibility of having to reveal the truth seems all to real to us.

There is also a strong sense of place in the (fictional) small university town in East Anglia with its cobbled lanes and looming towers.

Only after reading both books did I start to question the underlying assumption in each – that a victim of rape deserves to get away with murdering her abuser. The law, in the USA and the UK, does not excuse murder in cold blood, although the punishment may be reduced in circumstances such as these. Both books, however, rely on the murderer successfully evading the forces of law enforcement. And, as readers, we applaud.

Should we? I wonder. What do you think?

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