Can books kill? I’ve been thinking about how to answer that strange question because this month in New York, as he has been every two years since 2000, Mark Chapman will yet again be considered for parole.

Chapman was sentenced to 20 years for killing John Lennon in December 1980 outside of The Dakota - the Upper West Side apartment buildings where the former Beatle lived with his wife Yoko Ono and Sean, their five-year old son – by shooting him four times in the back, as Lennon walked into the building.

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Rather than try to flee from the crime scene after the murder, Chapman calmly removed his overcoat – perhaps to show that he had no further weapons – and then took out a copy of J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye which he then proceeded to read until he was apprehended by the police. It was obvious that he wanted to be caught.

Inside that copy of the book he had written “To Holden Caulfield, from Holden Caulfield” and then underneath “This is my statement”.

Holden Caulfield is the 16-year-old narrator of Salinger’s 1951 novel who, like many teenagers, rails against the adult world and about all the “phonies” who inhabit it and who have conspired to expel him from his boarding school just before Christmas. The novel takes us on Caulfield’s journey home from school to his parent’s house in New York and allows us to glimpse the mental turmoil that he’s experiencing about who he is and his questioning about what might be his purpose in life.

His conclusion is that he just keeps picturing “all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…I have to come out of somewhere and catch them.”

When the judge asked him if he had anything that he would like to say, after he was found guilty of murder, Chapman read out this passage from the book and would later suggest in one of his many interviews that, for him, Lennon was a “phoney” who sang about imagining a world without possessions when he had $250 million dollars in the bank. Chapman had become, he suggested, the Holden Caulfield of his generation.

The Herald: Mark ChapmanMark Chapman (Image: free)

The Catcher in the Rye is not the only novel to have inspired murder. In a recent discussion with my friend Marcel Theroux, who has published seven novels, we came up with some twenty books that have been cited by murderers such as the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik and a host of less well known killers as being their motivation to kill.

From A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess to The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad there was an uncanny connection between some plots, themes and fictional characters and real life murder. In fact, The Catcher in the Rye has been linked to at least two murders, a number of suicides and the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley in 1981.

I asked Marcel how he might feel if one of his novels had been cited as inspiration for two murders and a Presidential assassination attempt. “Yes,” he replied, “that would have to give you pause for thought.”

But should we simply accept what Chapman and other murderers have suggested inspired them to kill and, in doing so, have the novelist accept the responsibility for their crimes?

That proposition seems ludicrous and clearly, for me, there was much more going on in Chapman’s life that led him down the road to murder than simply his fixation on Holden Caulfield and the plot of The Catcher in the Rye. Brought up by an abusive father who would regularly beat him and experimenting with drugs from the age of 14 – during one LSD trip he claimed to have met Christ – Chapman was and remains a decidedly odd and troubling man, irrespective of the novels that he read.

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Not necessarily mentally ill, even if he did not always act rationally, he would appear to have had a personality disorder characterised by emotional instability, disassociation, depression and feelings of emptiness. Today I’d suggest that he had borderline personality disorder, compounded by inappropriate anger and impulsivity. Nor would I ignore his narcissism, surely expressed in his belief that he had become the Holden Caulfield for his generation.

I feel confident about making these loose diagnostic suggestions because, in one of those curious ironies of recent history, while J D Salinger became a virtual recluse and refused to give any public interviews, Chapman is rarely out of the media and has been interviewed on camera many times, including by, for example, Barbara Walters and Larry King – interviews which can still be accessed online.

Of course, this leaves unanswered the question of whether Chapman should be given parole – a question which is perhaps given added importance when it’s remembered that John Hinckley was released in 2022. However, Hinckley was found not guilty of the assassination attempt on President Reagan by reason of insanity and therefore was institutionalised in a closed, psychiatric facility.

The Herald: The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye (Image: free)

His release was only allowed when it was deemed that he was no longer a danger to himself, or to others. That doesn’t seem to me to fit with what we know about the circumstances related to Chapman who was found fit to plead – in killing Lennon he knew what he was doing was wrong – and who has, as far as I am aware, never accessed help in relation to his personality disorder.

In other words, I would be reluctant to grant Chapman parole because I wouldn’t risk that he had ceased to be a danger to others and so I couldn’t be certain that he might not be inspired to kill again either as Holden Caulfield, or as Mark Chapman.