This blog post revisits an idea that I first brought in my first post for MurderBooks, seven months ago. Have we really been at this for seven months, already? In any event, I’m in one of my contemplative moods––a not uncommon occurrence. What provoked this one was browsing through some old photos on my phone. The one you see at the top of this post is the one that caught my eye. It’s a moth that I encountered (actually, nearly stepped on) in my driveway. I was amazed at how the moth’s coloration so closely matched that of the concrete, so I began to wonder whether this was the moth’s original look, or whether it had evolved to match something in its environment. It’s slightly depressing to think that a species might evolve to look like concrete, but who am I to judge? To be fair, it’s also a pretty good match for some of the silvery plaque lichens that grow on trees and rocks around here. Regardless, it got me to thinking about all the examples I’ve read about of other animals that undergo rapid changes in color. For example, the dark haired rabbit that turns white when transplanted into a snowy clime, or the moth that went from black (so it could blend in with the soot colored buildings of Victorian England) to white and grey (so it could blend in with those same cleaned-up buildings after coal-burning in homes was outlawed). But most of those––at least according to what I’ve read––seem geared toward allowing the creature to evade predators by blending into the background. And this all seems very logical to me, in an adaptive-trait sort of way. The less obvious prey is to its predator, the more likely it is to survive and propagate, thus increasing the likelihood the species will continue. That, in turn, got me to thinking about the darker, flip-side of camouflage––the predator using camouflage to get closer to their prey––the better to eat you with, my dear. One of the most frightening, to me, is the gaboon viper, that looks like leaf litter––until it bears it two inch fangs, that is. Another is the cuttle fish, which can use special color glands in its skin to bring about almost instantaneous changes in its appearance. Some varieties can even produce video-like images that move across its skin––such as the passing-cloud effect––which they use to mesmerize their prey while gearing up for a lethal strike. Again, the better to eat you with, my dear. But what about us––people? Perhaps the most sinister of all, when it comes to camouflage, because, unlike the lower animals, we can change our behavior very quickly, and very easily appear to be the kind of person we are not. While some of this is clearly benign––like adopting styles of dress and speech in order to fit in––some of it is not. This made me think of a book I recently read The Sociopath Next Door, which chronicles how certain (conscienceless) people are amazingly adept at using behavioral camouflage to draw their victims near and then to mesmerize them into an emotionally disarmed state in preparation for some kind of exploitation. There’s even a chapter on how to recognize and avoid such people. By one estimate, 1 in 25 Americans has no conscience. That virtually guarantees that on any given day, when you’re out in public, you’ll be brushing up against these folks. I wonder which country has the highest rate of sociopathy. The lowest? Perhaps the tourism bureau in the country with the lowest rate should make use of such statistics. Perhaps the tourism bureau in the country with the highest rate already has, and isn’t telling us the truth. Hmmm. Some sociopaths, perhaps unaware of the power of their tendencies, play on a very small stage for rather inconsequential stakes. Others, however, wake up to the full potential of their powers and engage in campaigns of terrible personal, economic, and physical destruction. These forms of behavioral camouflage can last for years and they can be used to carry out plans that go on for years. This is perfect fodder for crime fiction. I (and, I suspect, many others among us) am fascinated by someone’s ability to essentially live two (or more) lives, simultaneously, to somehow sense that their true nature is so repellant that they must keep it forever hidden behind a veneer of pleasantness. But what happens when mistakes are made and holes start to appear in the façade? At what point does our perception of such people change from acceptance to suspicion to understanding? What must that feel like to undergo the changes required for our perceptions to change so dramatically? Most people, I believe, will be slow to make such changes, especially if they have a lot invested in the status quo. Again, perfect fodder for crime fiction.
Author of Dark River Rising
St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books [August 29, 2017]