Crime Fiction as Social Commentary

last updated: 28 March 2019 (approximate reading time: 11 minutes; 2295 words)

Crime fiction is wide-ranging genre with many subgenres. The genre can encompass “cops and robbers”, cozies, whodunnits, and beyond to serial killers, psychological thrillers, and more. But the genre can also be a lens through which to view society and to consider social issues.

Crime, the Genre

With most fiction, there is a transgression in the world of the story. When that transgression has been remedied, then the story has been told.

With crime fiction, the transgression is a crime. Once the crime has been resolved, then the story has been told. The resolution of the crime may happen in any number of ways, but the fundamental nature of the genre requires that there is some resolution to the specific transgression.

Other genres can have elements of the crime story. But simply having a crime occur within a story does not make the story fall into the crime genre. To be within the genre, the crime must be integral to the story.

Where the transgression is a crime, the story can be a straightforward morality tale—a crime was committed, and the wrongdoer received justice. But within the context of any crime story—including a morality tale—the narrative can examine a wide range of social and political issues. Since the victim and the perpetrator of a crime can come from any strata of society, the genre offers the storyteller great freedom at where they point their lens.

Motivation for the Criminal

Crime is not something that simply happens; it is not a malevolent unseen force. But rather, crime is an act committed by one person (or a group of people) which affects another person (or another group of people).

Every story is set in its own world. This world may be familiar in that it looks similar to our world, but each story world will have its own rules and its own constraints (maybe due to legislation, maybe due to culture, maybe due to geography, or maybe due to a range of other factors). These rules and constraints, and the situation within which the character finds themselves, will all have an influence on the actions of any character.

One of the first issues to consider with any crime is the motivation of the criminal (or criminals). In most jurisdictions, the motivation for a crime is irrelevant to the legal judgment of whether a crime was committed. But in fiction, simply labeling the criminal as bad or mad—without giving the context of motivation to humanize the perpetrator—will be unlikely to give a satisfying story.

Crime is committed for many reasons and those reason vary depending on the nature of the transgression. The motivation for breaking a speed limit or for murdering another person will differ.

Understanding the criminal’s motivation doesn’t make the crime any less significant and certainly doesn’t justify a crime. However, understanding an individual’s motivations for committing a crime can reflect back on wider societal issues. If an individual feels that their only option is to commit a crime—even if those motivations and the outcome are objectionable—then that speaks to the nature of the community in which the character lives.

So for instance, if a child is murdered, and the parent of that child believes that the only way to achieve justice is to kill the murderer, that second murder could highlight any number of societal issues. For instance:

  • It may highlight a failure by the society in which the story is set to apprehend murderers. This may arise through under-resourced policing, incompetence, or corruption.
  • Maybe the judicial system works in a way that makes it difficult to convict criminals. Of course, any judicial system could be equally flawed in the other direction.
  • The individual may have confidence in the society’s ability to apprehend a killer and find them guilty, but perhaps they perceive that the resulting sentence would be too lenient.

Once a story starts to consider the motivation behind the crime and the choices made by a character, then an interesting perspective arises: justification. Can the inciting motivation in any way justify the consequential action? And what about any further crimes?

Clearly, the criminal must take responsibility for their actions, and none of these reasons justify an act of violence. However, it’s not difficult to find a situation where the line between right and wrong is blurred, nor to find a situation where external factors have influenced an individual’s decisions.

Victim

With any crime, there is a perpetrator and there is a victim.

In the context of the crime, the victim will be vulnerable, but will be vulnerable on their own terms. The nature of that vulnerability will depend on the character.

In simple terms, the victim may be vulnerable because they are weak, outnumbered, or lack power. But they may also be vulnerable because of their attitude—for instance, their arrogance or their stupidity may make their perception of risk flawed, thereby making them vulnerable. And of course, they may be vulnerable because their previous actions.

Excluding cases of vengeance, the reasons victims are selected are varied, but in contemplating a crime the perpetrator doesn’t think they will come out the loser from their interaction with the victim.

Turning the lens to the societal issues, the storyteller can look at the two way interaction—the perceived power and the vulnerability—and ask:

  • What makes this victim vulnerable?
  • What makes the criminal choose this victim as their prey?

Clearly there may be individual or societal causes in both cases.

Exclusion from Justice

I’ll talk more about the justice system later in this piece. But before I move from the victims of crime, I want to highlight how the vulnerability of victims can be exacerbated.

The primary responsibility of any society is to protect its citizens. One tool of this protection is the police and justice system. But if an individual cannot approach the police to enlist their help, then in many ways they are excluded from the justice system, and therefore are denied the protection of society.

There are many reasons why an individual may not be able to (or may believe they cannot) approach the police—the most obvious being if they have committed a crime and would therefore be liable to be arrested.

Beyond the obvious criminals (such as thieves and murderers), there are many people who may be—or may feel they are—breaking the law, such as:

  • illegal immigrants who may—apart from their immigration status—be law-abiding citizens
  • people whose work has a perceived social stigma (for instance, sex workers)

Many individuals also feel unable to call on the police for fear of retribution.

People in these groups are likely to be particularly vulnerable. This vulnerability is then compounded by their inability to enlist the help of the state.

Detective

Every crime—if the crime is to be resolved within the context of the story—needs to be investigated, and hence there needs to be a detective of some form. It’s not necessary for the detective to be a police detective, or to be a licensed private investigator, or to have any previous investigative skills or training. Instead, there is a simple necessity for a character who will follow the crime, uncovering leads to create the conditions where the crime can be resolved within the context of the story.

There are many reasons for choosing to have a detective who is not a police officer. Perhaps the most compelling is that it avoids the need to then hold closely to the procedure the officers of a police service would be required to follow. That said, a police procedural (in other words, a story with a realistic fiction of the police at work) can be used to shine a light on many issues, such as:

  • police methods
  • resources (or lack of resources) allocated to police services
  • skill at a police managerial level in deploying the resources allocated by politicians
  • political interference in policing (including decisions that directly work against the aims behind policing)
  • ingrained institutional attitudes within a police service

Beyond avoiding the constraints of procedure there are many good reasons to have a non-police/non-licensed detective (such as a journalist or someone profoundly affected by the crime, maybe the parent of a murdered child). One of the prime reasons to have someone outside law enforcement is that the detective will not be constrained:

  • There will be no need for a law specifically governing how the individual must operate (in the way that there is such a law for police). The flip side of this is that there will be no law giving the individual specific powers (such as investigatory powers as is the case for police).
  • There will be no license/authorization to lose.
  • The aim may not be to bring a case to court where the rules of evidence may apply. Instead the aim may be justice as perceived by whoever is administering that justice.

Without constraints, the detective is free to act—they can cut corners and break laws. The breaking of laws, then asks the reader to consider whether the greater good is served by this approach.

Resolution of the Crime

The nature of the genre requires that the crime which is central to the story must be resolved. Once the crime is the resolved, the story is resolved and thereby ended (subject to tying up any loose ends).

The most straightforward resolution to a crime is for the perpetrator (of the crime) to be identified, arrested, and for a judicial process to apply a sanction. This may be a resolution by the forces of the state (the police, the courts, and prisons) or it may be a resolution through what might be euphemistically called a more community-based approach.

Where there is police involvement, most crime fiction ends before a formal, legal judicial process. It is usually sufficient that the perpetrator of a crime is identified and caught—the story will end before the case goes to court. However, where there is no police involvement, then justice (many times violent) will often be an integral part of the resolution.

The need to resolve the crime does not require a positive resolution, so, for instance, justice (formal or informal) may not be served, and the perpetrator of the crime may not be caught and punished. The story may be resolved with an uncomfortable ending, for instance, with a police case, the detective may be able to satisfy themselves that they have identified the perpetrator, but still are unable to achieve any measure of justice. Equally, the detective may be unable to identify the criminal.

The nature of the resolution of any crime will often be a consequence of the status of the characters and can speak to the wider social issues in which the story is set.

Justice

In most jurisdictions, a crime (rather than a civil dispute) must be proved in a court case beyond a reasonable doubt (or words to similar effect). This is a tough test.

Obtaining proof of a crime—proving, beyond a reasonable doubt that one specific individual performed a specific act, at a specific place, at a specific time—requires a considerable investment of time and resources. The evidence—physical evidence and witness statements—must be collected and then tested (so for instance, physical evidence will likely be assessed by scientists and other experts).

The high bar of beyond a reasonable doubt offers advantages to the wealthy, the powerful, and the unscrupulous.

  • The wealthy can hire lawyers to question every point and to challenge every witness. They can bring their own scientist and develop their own theories.
  • The powerful can apply pressure to law enforcement and the legal process, encouraging evidence to be lost or mistreated, or maybe added to. Equally, the legal process can be influenced.
  • The unscrupulous can ensure that witnesses are intimidated or disappear.

While most legal systems make sense on one level and operate well in theory, the practical challenges of achieving justice, and the alternative approaches that may therefore be considered, provide a rich seam to mine for social commentary.

That said, courtroom drama may be less engaging for a reader leading storytellers to avoid scenarios where the resolution of a story requires a court case. That’s not to say that there aren’t good courtroom dramas—there are many—simply that there is no necessity for the story to be resolved with a court case.

A Lens for Social Commentary

For the storyteller looking to social commentary, there are clear reasons to consider the crime fiction genre. First, the genre is a well-established (you can always find a crime section in a bookstore). There is a well-established readership and those readers (or at least a significant subset of those readers) are prepared to be exposed to the darker sides of society. Once in the genre, the author can then push their characters to extremes—character can literally be put into life and death situations.

Other genres work as a vehicle to discuss social issues—and there are certainly constraints for the author who wants to remain true to the genre—but crime is perhaps a more obvious place to discuss social issues.

Fiction, whatever the genre, allows an author to draw a picture for the reader. The author can shift the point of view, moving in close on characters to shine a light on the issues they want to highlight. While crime non-fiction has advantages (most specifically, it reflects the truth), by opting for fiction the author is not constrained by truth and context, and instead can give a story wrapping the social commentary.

There is a world for cops and robbers, police procedurals, and whodunnits—there’s nothing to complain about with pure entertainment, but there’s space for storytellers who want to explore wider issues and for readers who want to know more about lives that are very different from their own. That space is in the crime fiction genre.

Filed under

Category: writing
Tags: genre   crime fiction