The Fourth Deadly Sin Themes
by Lawrence Sanders

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Fourth Deadly Sin belongs to a subgenre of the mystery story called the "police procedural," which focuses on professional police methods to solve crimes. Typically, they emphasize the seamier, more physically demanding aspects of everyday life within a community, usually a large city. Thus, The Fourth Deadly Sin touches on police brutality, sexual dysfunctions, adultery, homosexuality, and greed, and features characters such as thugs, prostitutes, psychotic Vietnam War veterans, inner-city priests, as well as a cross-section of society: homeless, butchers, clerical workers, government employees, and rich psychologists. The social ills presented by the novel serve primarily as background to the solving of the mystery and are not discussed in depth.

Mental illness is presented in some detail because the novel's mystery focuses on the murder of a psychiatrist, probably by one of his patients. Six of his patients are presented, each with his or her own special psychological problem. For instance, there is Joan Yesell, who has tried to commit suicide; she is a retiring, lonely woman who is constantly bullied by her overbearing mother. The whys and wherefore of her suicidal tendencies are not explored in depth, but are presented as motivation for her actions related to the murder. Each patient is dealt with similarly, not in depth but for motivation. Together, they form a picture of the ills that result from the stress created by living in a society that is too complex and too unforgiving of unusual behavior. Sanders adds a twist by using psychology to point out the unsuspected murderer.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In The Fourth Deadly Sin, Sanders develops three principal themes: psychology, self-image, and police politics. It is the last one that gets the plot moving. Deputy Commissioner Ivar Thorsen is, as always, embroiled in political intrigues in the New York police department. He has been shepherding his proteges up the departmental ladder to positions of authority, and one of his favorites, Acting Chief of Detectives Michael Ramon Suarez, who is a good administrator but a poor detective, is in trouble because he is having difficulty solving a high-profile murder case; if he fails to solve it by the end of the year, he will not become the permanent Chief of Detectives. To help Suarez, Thorsen turns to former Chief of Detectives Edward X. Delaney, the master of detection, and asks Delaney to run an independent investigation of the murder in order to solve it before year's end, and Delaney, to help an old friend and because he likes to solve mysteries, takes on the task of organizing a small group of police officers into an investigation team.

Psychology as a profession is an important aspect of the mystery. Throughout the novel, psychology is presented as a valuable aid to people who have been marred in some way by their experiences. The murder victim, Simon Ellerbee, is portrayed as a wonderful man who helped his patients cope with their lives and to heal some of their deep psychological wounds. These wounds are primarily important to the plot in terms of self-image. Each of the prime suspects suffers from a poor, even hateful self-image that could have motivated them to kill Dr. Ellerbee — when he revealed too much of his inner self to one of his patients, that patient murdered him in outrage. The blows to Ellerbee's eyes could thus be accounted for — he had seen more of the murderer's self than the murderer could tolerate.

As part of their investigation, the detectives pry into the self-images of the suspects. A few of the officers are bad at this because they cannot see past their own preconceptions of their suspects. One officer suffers a beating in part because he just could not see into the personality of the man he was tailing. Another manages to get over his distaste for homosexuals to understand that the man he was investigating could not commit a violent act. In general, the investigators carefully match alibis against evidence, but they work hard to understand their suspects, in order to develop the motivations of each. This latter effort proves important in eliminating the false confession of a man filled with self-loathing. Their failure to penetrate one person's self-image results in their overlooking the murderer.