A prominent hired assassin of my acquaintance once described his profession as a restful one. Regrettably, he didn't linger to explain what he meant.
This comment may have reflected the fact that he had only minimal contact with his employers. It's unlikely that anyone ever stood over his shoulder finding fault with his work and giving unnecessary directions. And then, unlike many independently employed people, he seems to have been subject only to rather vague deadlines. It was always more important to do a good job than to do it quickly.
These benefits are significant. I happen myself to be in a position which allows me to understand and appreciate them. However, it takes more than a degree of independence to make a profession restful, particularly when it consists in cold- blooded murder. How could our gentleman, generally referred to as "Mr. X" by the newspapers, find it restful to perform acts repugnant to any civilized person? I can perhaps throw a little light on that seemingly rhetorical question.
It would be naive to suppose than an assassin has no morality. He may refuse to kill children. He may set his rates in such a way as to discourage the elimination of some persons and encourage that of others. He may, like many of our worthy doctors and lawyers, offer his services to the indigent at a reduced fee. What is undeniable is that the assassin has no widely acepted guidelines to follow. He must work out what amounts to a morality for himself.
Mr. X was an instrument neither of the political right nor the left. He dispatched politicians and statesmen of many stripes. There were, among his victims, labor leaders and businessmen. There were several men and women of ideas, and even a perfumed society hostess, found in her rose bed.
I happen to know that Mr. X refused some commissions, and not merely because he was otherwise engaged at the time. There is, indeed, a pattern that runs through all his work. One might say that his victims have been men and women who weren't quite serious enough for the positions that they occupied. The underlying principle here may not be one of the Ten Commandments, but it compares favorably with some of the absurdities numbered among them.
Moral principles are a luxury for the gentleman, particularly the old-fashioned sort of gentleman who lives a life of leisure. Mr. X, in fact, spends much less time in action than in stalking his victim and waiting for his opportunity. There must have been many quiet nights in obscure hotels, alone in front of the fire in the lounge. There can be no better setting for ethical reflection.
Having thus reached his conclusions, Mr. X has then had the satisfaction, a rather rare one for most people, of acting according to his beliefs. Perhaps that is what he found restful.
The killing of Mr. and Mrs. Martin Howison a few years ago in the May of 1947 may serve as an example of Mr. X's work. The Howisons were very rich, and Mrs. Howison was very beautiful. They played all day every day, and were often followed by news photographers whom they did little to discourage.
Mr. Howison had a nice infectious smile, and he smiled on and at everything and everyone. Childless and without any close relatives, they supported many charities and harmed no one. Charitable balls are meant to be enjoyable for the participants. Certainly. But those participants are supposed to be worldly and just a tiny bit bored. They aren't supposed to act like kids on vacation. Not only that, the donor has to be capable of a touch of heavy gravity when he's pictured handing a large check to the hostess. Martin Howison couldn't quite manage it. He seemed to have fun giving away money.
The Howisons met quite painless ends in their Miami Beach mansion on the servants' night off. Mr. Howison was shot with a silenced gun while reading a book, one of few that he had ever opened. Mrs. Howison, stretched out in a sea of bubble bath, actually had the expression of one pleasantly surprised by the naughty intrusion of a potential lover.
The police were, as usual, unable to trace anything to Mr. X. They didn't even know his name, and I will hardly enlighten them by revealing it here. The interesting question concerns the identity of Mr. X's employer and his motive.
The money went to Harvard University. It was well known that Mr. Howison was extremely grateful to the university that had managed to award him a degree, and it was hardly a secret that his will was intended to make good that debt in spades. There were many quasi-ceremonial visits to Cambridge, and I have in my possession a newspaper photograph of the Howisons on the steps of Widener Library with the president of the university. The president has a desperate look in the eyes, but Mr. Howison looks much happier. Mrs. Howison, her admirable knees revealed by the camera angle, appears to be giggling.
It is, of course, unthinkable that the university itself took out the contract that advanced its acquisition of the fortune by some fifty years. Could worthy administrators possibly discuss the needs of the Philosophy Department with such an idea in the back of their minds? Anyway, even if a suitable euphemism, and perhaps even a formula, had been found, who among them would have known how to approach Mr. X?
It may have been someone closely allied to the university, perhaps a loyal alumnus, who decided that the Howisons were not using their money to best advantage. But we must also remember that Mr. X had, by this time, been active for a good many years. He was quite comfortable financially. He may have acted without any commission at all. Men at peace with themselves are often far removed from greed.
I have always thought of my own profession as a potentially restful one. I, too, have principles, but mine have led me to discriminate against people who are a little too serious for their positions.
I have been, for almost as long as I can remember, a literary associate, in the vernacular a "ghostwriter." An American living in London, I specialize in writing "autobiographies" and other accounts for English persons of both sexes, often prominent ones of some fame or notoriety.
Like Mr. X, I have always insisted that good work cannot be hurried. The employer must, at least to that extent, have trust. In this connection it may surprise the reader to learn that I have had scarcely more contact with my employers than Mr. X had with his. Prominent persons are often as reluctant to be seen with a literary associate as with a professional assassin.
The literary associate is ordinarily engaged by a secretary, generally male, who gives him such facts as he is thought to need. The secretary then typically tells the associate what he thinks his principal wants. The secretary is usually mistaken. At best, the associate may be able to guess, by the personality of the other, in which direction he errs. These interviews are then followed by another, with the person whose life is to be depicted for the edification of the masses.
This interview is also misleading, but in a more instructive way. The associate is enjoined to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The associate who takes these instructions literally would do well to enter another profession. No one ever wants the truth. It is necessary to quickly assess the employer's temperament and guess what he really wants. If one is right, the rest is child's play.
Unless the employer is an unusual one, the commissioned work will have modest literary merit. There can be no ambiguity of motive and no development of character. The motives must be clear-cut, if not righteous. A development of character, even if it results in a person of the highest rectitude, would imply a former weakness.
Unfortunately, at least from the point of view of the employer, the commissioned autobiography lacks, not only literary merit, but persuasiveness. It fools only fools. Others are informed, at one stroke, of all the things the "author" wants to be. If they have some independent knowledge of his real character, they are thereby informed of his conceits.
It's ironic that such an account almost invariably portrays the central character to be less interesting than he really is. Where Mr. X puts an end to the life of the body, often quite gently, I assassinate character, sometimes rather violently.
Mr. X's victim and his employer were never the same. While he may hardly have known his employer, his method of work was to get to know his victims. His extraordinary success was accounted for by the fact that, in his mature period, he was trusted by his victims. The final stroke was often ridiculously easy, hardly enough to make a ripple in a quiet Sunday afternoon. By comparison, my employer and my victim are invariably identical. I know both only too well.
It's almost as if a successful man, tired of life but shrinking from suicide, called for Mr. X. In the interview he might tell the latter that he wanted protection. He might, indeed, tell him almost anything. But, whatever he said, Mr. X would have understood. Like myself a man of honor, Mr. X would have acted in such a way as to ensure his employer the least possible pain.
That brings us, then, to the present case. I am again working for commission. I can hardly remember what it was to write without one. But, this time, there are differences. This is meant to be a genuine history, not a pseudo- autobiography! The lady in question has most explicitly enjoined me not to write what I might think she wants to read. I've heard that before, but, this time, I am persuaded that she really does want to know what I think.
The present account isn't to be published. Even Brenda Sanderson might not want my view of her character to be available at any bookshop. Instead, a dozen or so copies are to be struck off, bound handsomely, and made available for her cousin, Ralph, her adopted daughter, Maria, and future members of the Sanderson family.
Another difference, one that will make even more difference, is that Miss Sanderson has commissioned me to write, not an account of her life, but a history of her fortune. She is a realist, and she knows that I couldn't write anything revealing about her without making clear her exact connection with the money. Not only that, she is a modest woman who thinks the fortune more important than herself.
No one who is rich is very much like anyone who isn't. The wealth makes it possible to do some things, but also makes it impossible to do many others. Rich people often discover that the money has more control over them than they have over it. They can have as close friends only those few persons who will assuredly never ask them for money, or even accept it as a gift. Marriages have often been dictated by the need to merge capital. Children have been conceived with little reason other than to provide a caretaker for money. People say to one another,
"All this money, and no one to inherit it. We must do something about that."
The people who do do something about it think they are acting of their own free will.
Fortunes arise out of such things as oil, steel, or undertaking, but the large ones tend to shake off their origins to become independent forces in the world of finance. These masses of money, continually gobbling up lesser amounts, develop their own momentum, and even their own direction. To those who may wander accidentally into its path a fortune can be a frightening thing.
A man who sets out to chronicle a fortune finds himself in a position rather like that of an ancient Norsemen who, in a hut filled with smoke, attempted to tell his audience what the gods were like. Like those gods, fortunes thrash angrily and blindly, with little concern for the insignificant members of our species. Even when young, the modest sum of money that eventually becomes a fortune has a special mark. It's like a young god, capricious and uncontrolled, bent on either destroying itself or destroying others.
A full-grown fortune flouts the laws of any country. The legislators who try to control it have as little chance as other humans. The giant simply snaps his fetters and strolls across a frontier. It's inevitable that a mature fortune becomes international. To the people who invest it, the world comes to seem a small place. They wish only that they could find suitable opportunities for investment in Mars or Saturn.
Needless to say, moral principles have no more effect on a fortune than the products of legislators. Fortunes aren't immoral. It's only that they have nothing to do with morality. That's probably just as well. I'm no moralist, but I may finally find a resting place in the account that follows