Monday, 15 October 2012

Penguin no. 1210: The Bad Seed
by William March

There was a type of criminal he was particularly interested in... In this sort of criminal, which seemed different from all others, there seemed to be as many women as men, which was unusual to begin with. His type, if they weren't too stupid or too unlucky, ended up as murderers on a grand scale. They never killed for those reasons that so often sway warm but foolish humans: they never killed for passion, since they seemed incapable of feeling it, or jealousy, or thwarted love, or even revenge. There seemed to be no element of sexual cruelty in them. They killed for two reasons only: for profit, since they all had an unconquerable desire for possessions, and for the elimination of danger when their safety was threatened.

William March died within a month of the publication of The Bad Seed, and so didn't live to see its success. It was nominated for the 1955 Book Award for Fiction, and within a few years it had formed the basis of both a play and a film. It is a story about serial killers, and although it is fictional it is still quite disturbing to read, because the situation it portrays  is not unimaginable, and there are references to similar cases which did occur. It considers the nature of evil, examining the qualities which individuals with a particular murderous inclination share, or perhaps lack. But William March seems to have an additional purpose, in that he seems to be to questioning a contemporary faith in psychiatry as a solution to this problem of evil. Perhaps some problems are not so easily solved, or not solvable at all.

Christine Pembrock is the mother of a remarkable daughter. In some ways Rhoda's behaviour cannot be faulted, for she is neat, and hard-working and determined. She has an abundance of qualities which many parents would hope for, working diligently on her penmanship, studying her bible lessons, reading, and practicing piano without prompting. She is fawned over by the adults who know her, and yet she is not popular amongst her peers, and she has other qualities which are a little disturbing. She tolerates her mother's displays of affection, and she knows how to be charming when it suits her purposes, but her mother sees through her, recognising that any returned displays of affection are simulated rather than heartfelt. Christine sees that Rhoda practices at being charming, and that over time her efforts are becoming more convincing, and it worries her.

But she is even more worried by the suspicion that her daughter may have played some part in the death of Claude Daigle. It is not something she wants to believe, and Rhoda certainly feigns innocence when questioned, but Christine's doubts persist. Claude had been the unfortunate recipient of a penmanship prize which Rhoda had coveted, and Rhoda had tormented him as a result, following him around at a school picnic demanding that he surrender the medal to herself.

Claude's drowned body is recovered from the lake later that afternoon, and no one suspects Rhoda, even though she had been seen in the vicinity of the wharf when the tragedy occurred, and even though there are strange marks and bruises on Claude's head and hands. Rhoda is only a child, and the idea that she could be involved in some way seems ridiculous to those who know her. And yet something nags at Christine, and in time she remembers what it is: Rhoda had also been around when an old woman had died mysteriously the year before.

In the background of the story there are references to other murders which share this quality of one person associated over time with a number of suspicious deaths. The individuals involved tend to be pitied, and the sequence of deaths ascribed to coincidence and bad luck, until eventually someone becomes suspicious, and the murderous tendency is uncovered.

But what if it is the mother who realises, and what if she realises when the inclination to kill for gain is only in its infancy? Christine must choose between two competing desires: an innate inclination to protect her child, and an awareness that others must be protected from the evil Rhoda represents. At first she resents the problem, and then she tries to hope for the best, but the problem remains. She tries affection; she tries watching the child constantly - but she realises in the end that these are not solutions. There simply is no acceptable solution, and the story is about how she faces the conundrum, and what she chooses to do in the end.


  1. Sounds like powerful stuff. I must look out for this -- thanks.

  2. What a bleak conundrum to attempt to solve, I'll be looking out for it too I think.

  3. I wonder if Nick Cave has read this book? ;)

    1. I wondered the same thing, Jeremy. I've never seen the film this book inspired, but I understand it to be a 1950s horror film, so perhaps he saw that.

  4. Another excellent book review. I always enjoy dropping by to see what surprises you've left for us!

  5. This sounds like a great book Karyn. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  6. If there are any Penguins that you're particularly keen to get, let me know the titles and I can look out for them. I have lorry loads of books delivered, some of which are Penguin paperbacks. Many of them are worth very little and I only keep them for sentimental reasons.

  7. This is one of the few vintage Penguins that I own!

  8. Sounds like professional stuff. I need to look out for this -- thank you very much.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...