The Sad Tale of Barney Simms

Atlanta Police appear to have some good leads in the murder of Barney Simms, a longtime community activist and leader who was murdered in his front yard on 09 April. Simms had a long record of working to help the less fortunate, on a hands-on as well as an institutional level, so while it is to be hoped that his murderer is caught and brought to justice, this still won’t make things better for Simms’ family or the vast number of impoverished people he served in his lifetime:

Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms called Simms a pillar of the community who would not only don T-shirt and jeans to pick up trash in his neighborhood but also wear the finest suits to meet with leaders who could be held accountable for change.

“I am simply heartbroken by the senseless killing of Barney Simms,” Bottoms said in a statement. “As an active and gracious leader of the Bonnybrook community, there was no task, too big or too small, that he engaged in to make his neighborhood, and city, a better place.”

It’s a sad story, and one I’ll follow as leads arise. But this is a crime fiction blog, and like a lot of other banal and brutal crimes, a death like this fits into the tropes and conventions of crime fiction.

Let us set up an analogous, fictional situation, where a universally-beloved, charitable community leader is killed with no apparent suspects nor motive. Usually, there are only five reasons someone commits murder: love, money, revenge, silencing a witness, or psychosis. You set up a crime novel with a public figure, all of the original reasons apply: he could be killed by a jilted partner (even in his seventies, it happens, especially if dementia is involved); he could be killed for an inheritance or something as simple as a robbery; he could have, e.g., pointed the police toward a crime suspect; in his position, he could have seen any number of crimes, from lowlife robberies to political corruption; or as a public figure, he’s that much more likely to attract the attention of a mentally ill person.

But with someone like this, we have to address the character of the person—and just to be extra clear, we stopped talking about the real Mr. Simms two paragraphs ago. It’s very common, especially among Gen Xers like myself, to look at someone who garners universal praise and immediately assume there’s something deeply wrong with them: the effort they have to make to be that saintly in everyone’s eyes forces them to conceal some Jungian shadow that’s just bent as hell. So while we could write a story about any of the five causes above, and do it well, the public nature of our hypothetical person almost demands that we integrate their public life into the story, and have it be something that at least contributes to getting them into the situation where they end up murdered.

A different sort of crime novel might take as its central narrative the story of the one person who was both victimized by the not-so-saintly figure and has the wherewithal to do something about it. Imagine the pent-up frustration at nobody listening to them because of the figure’s reputation. Imagine them hooking up with someone else who has one of the five usual motives and turning the story into that of the relationship between these two people. Imagine, say, a grandson who really needs that inheritance money using and framing a victim for the crime.

But the sort of cynicism that assumes a Jungian shadow is necessary isn’t itself necessary. Eye-rolling Gen Xers aside, there really are people who are genuinely good. So one way to write this story is to have the good person be unable to see the evil in another; as in, they’re used to dysfunction, but have a hard time grasping real evil. They try to help a person, not understanding that this person wants access, not help. This is problematic, however, because people in this position are generally fairly well acquainted with evil and the difference between it and dysfunction. Nobody spends decades as a community leader without developing a pretty good eye for this.

Another way to do it is to have the public figure willing to help a person, but just unable to do it: their power simply doesn’t extend that far, and can’t. Let’s say, a felon out of jail and trying to stay on the straight path, who has done all the right things but can’t get anywhere because of the conviction. They’re just convinced that this towering figure has the power to do this, and the figure can’t convince them otherwise.

Or, of course, it could all be a case of mistaken identity, something the cops only figure out long after they’ve spent months investigating everyone close to the figure, and finding all sorts of other, horrible, but fundamentally unrelated crimes.

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