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Literature and Crime - Some Reasons Why

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To reveal something deep and timeless about human nature, a writer needs a special tension for the story's action and the characters' development. What better than a plot that involves a broken taboo; a violation of natural, religious, or human law; sin, punishment, guilt and redemption? That is one reason why crime, with all these perennial characteristics in abundance, often serves as useful grist for the literary mill.

Storytellers also find crime lends itself to an ideal literary device: the trial. A crucial part of the criminal process, the trial is custom-made for literature. The adversary legal system has conflict and resolution. Consider John Mortimer's stories about the veteran English criminal lawyer Rumpole of the Bailey. A criminal trial builds suspense and uncertainty, especially while the verdict is up in the air. Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason books always have a criminal trial for a climax. "The Witness for the Prosecution," a story of a criminal trial by Agatha Christie, ends with a famous surprise. In A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, a man is acquitted of rape but we never know if the rape actually occurred. And we have to wait until the end of Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Travers to find out if the defendant wins because he could not help but yield to an "irresistible impulse."

A trial in literature showcases eloquence. Robert Bolt gives some unforgettable lines to Thomas More during his trial in the play A Man for all Seasons. Atticus Finch, the southern lawyer who defends a poor African American on trial for raping a white woman in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, has moving courtroom lines. Ayn Rand makes Howard Roark a wonderful spokesman for individualism in his summation at the end of his trial for blowing up a housing project he designed in The Fountainhead.

There is drama too, as hopes are dashed or fulfilled, as serious penalties are imposed or escaped, as evil wins or loses, as the innocent or guilty get their not necessarily just rewards. Consider the military trials in Herman Wouk's Caine Mutiny and Herman Melville's Billy Budd, or the trial in Walter Scott's story "The Two Drovers." And there is symbolism, as each participant—prosecutor, accused, victim, judge, witness, defense counsel—represents a larger idea in society. Playwright Arthur Miller used this technique to great effect in The Crucible, in which the Salem witch trials were a metaphor for the communist witch hunt of McCarthyism.

Crime easily lends itself to literary calls for reform. Many gifted writers of fiction have seared the consciences of their readers by describing how poverty, parental abuse, bad living conditions, prejudice, and other societal factors lead to crime. Think of Charles Dickens's moving portraits in several of his novels, particularly Oliver Twist, or Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, driven by poverty to steal a loaf of bread for his family and for which he is sentenced to the gallows. E. L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate tells the story of a boy's growing up amid Bronx gangsters in the 1930s.

Literature also shows how the legal system can err by convicting the innocent while following the forms of justice. Medieval justice, wrote Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, "had little concern for clarity and accuracy in criminal proceedings. The main thing was to see that the accused went to the gallows" (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 179–180 (Lowell Bair, trans. Bantam Books, 1981)). A memorable example of this flaw is George Bernard Shaw's trial scene in St. Joan. No less memorable is the unjust conviction of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. In the twentieth century, Franz Kafka wedged his way into our consciousness with The Trial, in which the hero, Joseph K., is convicted and imprisoned for unknown crimes.

Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony" demonstrates how literature can display cruel, inhuman, and unacceptable prison conditions and how they can needlessly destroy without rehabilitating. Dantes's twenty years in the Chateau d'If island prison haunts every reader's mind, as do the unsettling scenes of prison life in Stalin's Russia by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.

Equally important in explaining the literature-crime link is our ambivalence about criminals and the allure of evil. On the one hand, we occasionally, if paradoxically, admire those who break the law and, on the other, we often loathe them. One way to minimize the conflict is to endow criminals with virtues such as greatness or goodness. Robin Hood is a virtuous outlaw. The criminal can sometimes be attractive simply because he is an individual at odds with society, one against the many. And the successful criminal may, by definition, have superior mental or other powers, may be an evil genius. Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes respectfully call his nemesis Professor Moriarty the "Napoleon of Crime." A criminal may often have an outsized, unusual, and interesting, if warped, personality. The villains in many of Ian Fleming's James Bond books, such as Dr. No, Auric Goldfinger, and Ernst Blofeld, fit this description. Glamour may even be attached to an elegant rogue.

Another way to reduce the psychological tension is repression, whereby we bar from consciousness our admiration for criminals and replace it with loathing. But such apparent loathing is just another form of fascination, which can lead to obsession. The self-appointed censor who obsessively reviews books, magazines, and films for obscenity falls into this category, as does Victor Hugo's dogged fictional policeman Javert in Les Misérables.

Reading about crime is a good thing for a society. Reading is not doing, although some have argued that a culture's portrayal of crime and violence in literary works (or on film or television) can breed more crime and violence. But this argument, so well portrayed in The Seven Minutes, Irving Wallace's 1970 novel about a rapeobscenity trial, ignores not only freedom of expression but also how much the experience of literature can serve as a psychological safety valve. Most people slake their thirst for crime vicariously.

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