Okay, so this probably sounds like a really silly question, but I have to ask. Why do assassins get close to their target before killing them? Isn't it more efficient to kill their target immediately?
Depends. Okay, so there’s actually 3 different possible meanings of “getting close to their target,” and I’ll hit them in turn.
If you just mean physical proximity, then, they usually don’t. A trained, professional killer isn’t going to want to be anywhere near the victim when they’re dropped unless it’s absolutely necessary.
If the target can be dropped with a high-powered rifle six blocks away, that’s a much safer option than going in with a garotte. No matter what popular fiction, like The Professional or the Hitman games will tell you. (To be fair, The Professional is a fantastic film, but as with most of Luc Besson’s work it’s not terribly realistic.)
Getting physically close to the victim is about making a statement. The assassin is declaring they’re untouchable, or trying to tell the world, “hey, I did this thing!”
It’s not a silly question. A great deal of modern spy fiction and most of the action adventure genre dealing with professional assassins prime the audience to view them in a way that is inherently unrealistic. This also involves burdening them with approaches to their kills that are unsustainable without the aid of authorial fiat. The general emphasis ends up being on the assassin killing, not on all the other aspects of the job needed in order for them to be successful. This approach generally relies on negating or outright ignoring the police and the protectee’s security service in order to present the idea of “badass superkiller1!1!!!!!!1”. If your primary view of assassins is as the Anime Ninja, or the action adventure heroes from R.E.D., or even the Hitman games where an assassin is just the new code word for “human killing machine” then I can see where it might be confusing.
If the kind of assassin you’re planning on writing fits into the categories above then you can feel free to ignore this post.
In a world that takes into account all the people out there (including law enforcement) willing and able to get between an assassin and their target, the game of cat and mouse an assassin has to play in avoiding the local authorities, and finding an opening to take a shot at an important person who may have upwards of twenty bodyguards watching their every move then the prospect of actually murdering them (much less getting away afterwards) becomes much tougher.
Besides what some video games and books might tell you, walking into a house and murdering everyone inside is the sort of action which makes everything worse. It doesn’t make it better and it’s not even viable in the short run. Bodyguards don’t line up in a shooting gallery, instead they’ll do their job. Taking the time to deal with them (and it does take time) will end with the assassin missing their window of opportunity as the rest of the security detail gets their boss to safety. Once the window of opportunity is gone, the mission is over. Your assassin has one chance to dance, if they blow it then it’s over. The more people the assassin fights on the way to their target, the higher the likelihood the assassin will get made. If the assassin gets made then there’s a good chance they’ll either end up on the law enforcement radar (lucky) or a criminal organization’s (incredibly unlucky). Either way even if they do escape, they’ll spend the rest of their life running.
This is why you get “close” to your target.
Getting Physically Close: Hallmark of the Political Assassin
The guy who walks up to the President and puts three bullets in his/her chest only to get tackled by some very angry members of the Secret Service is a person who wants to get caught. This is the standard conventional assassin and the one we understand best because there have been so many of them. They do it because they want to make a political statement, their imprisonment or death will lead to them becoming a martyr. In the grand scheme, there’s no difference between John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln and an al-Qaeda suicide bomber. Both acts are politically motivated and both are types of assassinations meant to draw attention to their cause (whatever cause that is). Getting physically close to the victim is about making a statement. The assassin is declaring they’re untouchable, or trying to tell the world, “hey, I did this thing!”
It’s worth remembering that President Obama gets 30 death threats a day, that’s 210 a week, and somewhere around 900 a month. All those threats must be investigated by the Secret Service. The more powerful a person is, the more enemies they accumulate, and the more people there are who want them dead. This counters all the people surrounding them whose job it is to keep them alive. The act of killing is the simple and easy part, it’s everything leading up to it that’s difficult.
Preparation is Key
A trained, professional killer isn’t going to want to be anywhere near the victim when they’re dropped unless it’s absolutely necessary. If they can manage it with a high powered rifle on a rooftop six blocks away then they will. It’s cleaner, easier, and safer that way. Still, being in the right place at the right time involves knowing their target, their habits, their security plan, and where the holes are to find the opportunity necessary to take the shot. They also have to scout the environment ahead of time, locate a place to prepare their setup with an understanding that their target’s security will be looking for exactly that. You might think sitting up on rooftop with a rifle waiting to take a shot would be easy, but it’s not and, unlike in most movies, there’s no one who will do the work for them.
Your character will not automatically know where to go or what to do. The more they know about their target the better they can predict their movements, the better they can predict their movements, the more options they have if or, really, when things go wrong. An assassin must always be one step ahead of their target and they can’t stay ahead of them if they don’t know them.
Preparation is the key to success.
Is it really more efficient?
There’s a choice every character must make for themselves: do I want to kill the once or do I want to kill multiple times? If you decided to become an assassin tomorrow then you’d probably follow the protocols that media has prepared for you as do most would be assassins. It’s what gets them caught. “What would I do if I were an assassin?” is a great opener for crafting a newbie.
Ignoring law enforcement agencies and desire for retribution on the part of the surrounding individuals who might not be too happy that their friend, loved one, hero, or source of paycheck just got offed is a mistake and it’s an easy one to make.
Take some time and investigate the other side of the equation. Watch some Law and Order. Then think about it from the perspective of all the people who are going to investigate and hunt your assassin down. Collateral and Lucky Number Slevin are great movies to watch on this account because they’re all about the shell game involved in an assassin covering their tracks or getting close to their target. In Collateral, the assassin (Tom Cruise) pays cab driver (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around the city as he performs his hits. While the assassin’s behavior toward the cab driver is friendly and amiable, we learn from the cops investigating the initial murders about a cab driver who went nuts and killed a whole bunch of random people in one night before committing suicide. I’ll give you three guesses for who really killed those people.
The goal is going to be get in, get out, without anyone the wiser. Often leaving a fall guy to take the blame (like the cab driver) or covering the killings by using another rational explanation. The first season of Elementary for example involved two assassins who covered their tracks in different ways. The first one murdered people in the exact same way every single time in order to make it look like a serial killer doing the deed, some of the people he killed on his spree were his targets but others were just random innocents who fit the profile. He only popped up every few years and each time in different places. Because the cops were looking for a serial killer and not an assassin, they missed the key motivations necessary for uncovering his identity. Thus, the assassin was able to continue his business while the cops chased their tails looking for a pattern that wasn’t there.
The second assassin covered his kills by using conveniently timed accidents to do the deed. He pushed an air conditioner off a three story building onto a passing man below (freak accident), cultivated a colony of particularly nasty bees along the workout route of a woman who had a deadly allergy (natural death), and murdered a man by disrupting the signal to his pacemaker and giving him a heart attack (hardware failure). If you look at all these victims as individuals and not at their relationships to each other then each appears to be a random accident. In that case, there’s no need to investigate further. (It’s always worth remembering that most law enforcement agencies are buried in cases that cross their desk. Homicide is a great look into the life of a homicide detective and the world of unsolved cases.)
Of the three, Collateral is the most realistic which is why I recommend watching it once and then with the commentary turned on. It’s very helpful.
For Your Assassins:
Ronin, I know we’ve plugged this one a bunch lately. It’s not a fantastic film, but it is a fantastic thing to watch to get a look at operational preparation. That is to say, the things your assassin needs to do in order to get access to and kill their target.
Collateral is a pretty good look at both assassin and general criminal psychology. Again, we’ve plugged enough lately you should be familiar with it.
Lucky Number Slevin is a bit off-beat, but the entire film sets up a shell game to hide what’s actually going on. It’s a decent example of someone getting close to the target without blowing their cover.
Hitman: Blood Money is a murder playground. This is one of the very rare times I’ll actually recommend a video game for anything. There’s some seriously puerile elements, but it does basically leave the player with free reign to deal with the environment as they see fit. If you’re wanting to see why someone might try to pass themselves off as a member of the cleaning staff to get into a facility instead of camping outside with a rifle, this might be a good thing to look at.
For Your Investigators:
Elementary,Technically almost any faithful representation of Sherlock Holmes will work, but if it’s not Elementary then your best bet will probably be the Jeremy Brett series from the 80s and 90s. Also, if all else fails, and you’ve never read them, you should probably look at the original stories.
Law & Order is an absolute must view, probably in binges, for getting a feel for your cops. The show is slathered in it’s New York City identity, but a lot of it carries over elsewhere. In my opinion, the series really gets going in the third season, but feel free to look at some of the other seasons for a different mix of Police and members of the DA’s Office. Southland is a decent primer to update you to the current climate.
Homicide: Life on the Street is the unpleasant cousin of Law & Order. Again, you’re looking at street level detective work in the mid-90s. But the show is focused more on the psychological strain of the job, as opposed to the procedural techniques. These shows should really be watched together as two sides of the same coin. I’m told The Wire is the decent update to 20 years later, but I’ve never gotten around to it.
Not So Helpful, But Good Movies Anyway:
The Professional is like most most Luc Besson films, not terribly realistic, but it entertaining and quite good. Jean Reno’s character is, unfortunately, a major part of the modern myth of a professional assassin.
Red, this is actually an adaptation of a comic by Warren Ellis. Keep an eye on Helen Mirren and Karl Urban, they’re good references, and their characters don’t really exist in the comic. Especially the way Urban’s character preps and cleans crime scenes.