By Reason of Insanity, a novel from 1979, tells the story of a truly terrifying killer.
Institutionalized for murdering his own mother, Thomas Bishop manages to escape from the asylum and proceeds to travel across the United States, murdering almost every woman he meets. For all of Bishop’s attempts to justify his homicidal impulses, it mostly appears that he kills because he enjoys it. It’s what he’s good at. It’s what comes naturally to him. Bishop is a clever and meticulous killer but he’s hardly super human. That’s what makes him so disturbing. Unlike someone like Dr. Hannibal Lecter or any of the fictional killers that have been spawned by his popularity, Bishop isn’t some sort of erudite, witty genius with a gimmick and a tendency to only kill the unsympathetic. He’s just someone who is very good at what he does. He’s a believable killer and all the more frightening because of it.
The novel, however, isn’t just about Thomas Bishop. Thank God for that because Bishop is such a nihilistic and misogynistic character that, if this rather lengthy novel took place entirely in his head, it would probably be almost impossible to actually get through it. The novel also explores the lives of the people who are effected by Bishop’s crimes. We meet the reporter that follows his crime spree and the detectives who want to stop him. We meet the ambitious politician who thinks that he can use Bishop’s notoriety as a stepping stone to the White House. New characters are constantly entering the narrative, some staying for the entire length of the novel and some ducking out almost as quickly as they arrived. Sometimes, it can be difficult to keep track of everyone but their presence reminds us that the actions of someone like Thomas Bishop do not occur in a vacuum. They create a ripple effect that eventually touches everyone.
Throughout the book, Bishop obsesses on the identity of his father. He believes that his father was Caryl Chessman, a real-life criminal who, in the 50s, became a cause celebre for some when he was sentenced to death after being convicted on 17 counts of kidnapping and rape. (Though Chessman confessed to being the infamous “Red Light Bandit,” he later said that he did so only after being beaten and tortured by the cops.) From his cell in San Quentin, Chessman protested his innocence and wrote books about his life both outside and inside of prison. Chessman was eventually executed in 1960. Bishop, who has spent his entire life under the impression that Chessman was his father, feels that he’s continuing the family legacy. However, the book’s brilliant final line leaves it to the reader to decide not only whether Bishop was correct in his belief but also as to whether it would have made any difference. If Thomas Bishop had grown up believing that his father was Pat Brown, the governor who eventually oversaw Chessman’s execution, would he have still become a murderer or would he have instead felt he was destined for a career in politics? It’s an interesting question.
By Reason of Insanity is a well-written and nightmare-inducing serial killer novel. With its straight-ahead approach and refusal to try to turn Bishop into an antihero, it’s quite a contrast to the serial killer novels that would follow. Read it but keep the lights on.