The thing I like most about crime novels is the way right always triumphs in the end. It kind of helps you believe that the world isn’t such a bad place after all – that it’s possible for the bad guys to get what they deserve despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary out there in the real world.
I’ve just finished reading one of those novels in which right triumphs over the legal system because a cop is willing to bend the rules to make sure of the right result. And the other night I watched a cop show on TV in which someone was found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit, but no one really minded because they knew he’d committed plenty of others without being caught.
And so was launched a train of thought. Apologies in advance if this gets a bit heavy; it’s the way I’m feeling today.
Is there really any clear definition of right and wrong? How helpful is any legal system when it comes to ensuring that right wins out? Are we all at the mercy of human nature with all its flaws and inconsistencies? And does crime fiction help us to understand any of it?
Let’s take the third question first. Human nature: is it just another way to describe self-interest? For instance, take the noisy, smelly, dirty, disruptive building site opposite my house, which used to be a peaceful stretch of green land where horses lived. The transformation has taken place courtesy of legislation formulated two hundred miles away by bureaucrats who have never visited this area or taken the trouble to acquaint themselves with a few salient facts, and despite the best efforts of several hundred people who live close by and have probably forgotten more about the area’s housing needs than those bureaucrats.
Emotive language, you’re thinking, and you’d be right; I do get pretty emotional about it, since I was at the centre of the fight to stop the building. But the other side of the coin, the bigger picture if you like, is the development company, who need to build and sell the houses in order to stay in business and do their bit towards regenerating the national economy – and, of course, to line the pockets of their shareholders, who also live a long way away. Whether it will work remains to be seen; houses still aren’t selling well, and these aren’t low-cost houses. But maybe best not to get me started on that; there are two sides to the coin after all.
There are always two sides to the coin, however dull and/or twisted one side may seem. The most hardened or sociopathic criminal operates according to his/her own internal logic. I had to kill her, says the serial murderer; the voices in my head told me to. Why shouldn’t we rob the old lady who carelessly leaves her door open while we lure her outside, ask the small-time villains; we have no jobs, nothing else to do. Of course I have to blow myself up and take fifty people with me, says the suicide bomber; I do it to destroy the infidels who don’t worship (insert name of deity who probably doesn't even require said worship) who everyone in the world should believe in.
Fortunately most people don’t think like that. At least, most of the people who pass through my life.
Let’s look at the other three questions. I suppose that when it comes to crime, we are at the mercy of the nature of a few humans; and there’s not much doubt that the law fails to do the right thing for all the people all the time, and sometimes just completely fails. But right and wrong? Who knows? I can think of a few people of my acquaintance who are absolutely convinced that what they believe about certain things is incontrovertibly right; and others who are absolutely convinced of something which contradicts them.
And crime fiction? I sometimes wonder if I should stop reading it; it fosters illusions, creates a fantasy world in which the good guys always come out on top, and it can be hard to come back to a reality in which ordinary people suffer through wars between two sets of bad guys, and smaller-fry bad guys rob old ladies of property laden with memories and are never caught because the police clear-up rates are more important and drunk drivers are easier to catch.
And then I think, no; I won’t stop. Those illusions aren’t really illusory: they’re reminders that good can triumph. Even if the rules have to be bent sometimes.