28 September 2018

Social Issues in Crime Fiction, and a Farewell

I honestly believe—that the crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel. That's the place to go. --Dennis Lehane, from an interview at Powells.com

 I agree with Mr Lehane and it is one of the reasons I chose crime fiction as the method to tell my stories. That and realizing that I wasn't finding stories about my family or the people I knew in "literary" fiction, except on rare occasions. I don't think you can write about crime without staking your position on many social issues. Even if you don't comment on them directly, you are affirming the status quo in one way or another--stating that "all is well" or "what ya gonna do, that's the way things are." Even the definition of crime is a social issue statement. At Bouchercon, I attended the criminals in fiction panel, and during the Q&A I asked, "How do you define a criminal?"

I asked the question because first of all, actual questions are rare at any writer panel. Most of the time they are manifestos or statements twisted into the form of a question, such as "the unpublished novel about my pet squirrel's ghost solving crimes would be bigger than The DaVinci Code, don't you agree?" So I wanted to give the writers something to chew on, but unfortunately I didn't get any good answers.

One writer used the legal definition, which means anyone never charged with a crime--either because they eluded police or their status and privilege acted as a Get Out of Jail Free card--isn't a "criminal." Which makes no sense at all. Jack the Ripper isn't a criminal, he was never caught. Is someone who is pardoned a criminal? Are you a criminal for life if you've done your time, but an upstanding citizen if you've been acquitted because your victims signed NDAs or disappeared? Our heroic protagonists often break dozens of laws, but they're okay. The most popular genre today, superheroes, act as vigilantes, above the law either by government sanction or their own moral code, and we cheer them on. They are criminals.

As for Get Out of Jail Free cards, police unions give out paper or gold cards to their members to give to friends and family for preferential treatment, and badges to put on windshields to avoid traffic stops, so I guess anyone who's good friends with an American police officer is unlikely to be a criminal by the legal definition, "just don't kill anybody," one recipient was told. We permit this and think it won't lead to abuse. I'm sure the strict moral codes of all involved come into play.

People from the "underbelly of society" as Lehane calls it don't get these too often, they are the hidden tax base that American municipalities leech for revenue, keeping them in a cycle of probation to give jobs to our bloated drug-war-fueled criminal injustice system, but whenever I read about corruption it's about a few "bad apples" like the guys in Don Winslow's The Force. We always forget the other half of that adage: they spoil the whole bunch. I know that's sacrilege these days, saying that our warrior caste of Heroes are complicit in a corrupt system and anyone who says "I hate bad cops! They make my job harder!" but can't produce a list of cops they got jailed for corruption is helping rot the barrel, but yes, that's what I'm saying. And when we write stories about police that ignore that unarmed black men are shot in their homes and turned into criminals, that prosecutors withhold evidence to make their cases, that judges take kickbacks to send kids to private prisons, we are the bad apples, too. Oh, that's unpleasant? That can't be entertainment? The fantasy section is over there.

Am I without sin? Hardly. I've been that cowardly guy who chuckled nervously when a man with power over me said something terrible about women and confessed to mistreating them. It's the same thing. We perpetuate it. It's our problem, not women's. I've tried to do better. I've helped train police to constrain violent people without having to shoot them, tase them, or choke them to death for selling cigarettes. I've tried to write that whether you wear blue uniforms or prison sweatpants, that you are human and have your reasons for what you do, whether those reasons are for the greater good or for personal gain, and make it entertaining in the process. They are not mutually exclusive. If you think they are, take it up with Lehane, Hammett, Hughes, Himes, Chandler, Paretsky, Mosley, and Block--who gave us openly corrupt cops in both Scudder and his cozy Burglar series.

The young bloods in crime fiction are not shoving "social issues" down your throat. It has been the crux since Hammett "took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley," as Chandler said. Even cozies today take on social issues. It is in crime fiction's DNA. Maybe we don't quote scripture, maybe we prefer Lil Wayne. He's sold 100 million albums, do you know who he is? Big as George Harrison (RIP, my favorite of the fab four). If you think "kids today" are stupid when they are the most active young generation in politics since the late '60s because you saw some edited crap on the Jay Leno show, my suggestion is to get out more. Take your head out of the Venetian vase and put it on the streets.

Thanks for listening to this rant. It will be my last for SleuthSayers. Thank you to Robert and Leigh for letting me speak here, and for all of you for reading and commenting. Fare well.


  1. A timely piece- we will miss you! Thanks for contributing to Sleuthsayers.

  2. A thought-provoking piece, as usual, Tom.

    We're going to miss you.

  3. You are correct about this. So is Dennis Lehane - "I honestly believe—that the crime novel is where the social novel went."

    I find I'm putting in more social issues in my novels, especially my private eye books.

    Sorry to see you go.

  4. Great post. I think most people go to crime and mystery novels because it's the one place where (usually) the crime is solved, and there is some semblance of moral justice. Where even the corrupt cops have to wrestle with what they're doing. (I still think that Annabeth's speech to Jimmy Markum in "Mystic River" is one of the most amazing I've ever read, transforming a crime into moral justice and making Jimmy's future life possible. Whether you like that or not.)
    We'll miss you. Come back and visit.

  5. Oh no! Why?! I'm so sorry to hear you are leaving.

    I'm also sorry you didn't like my pet squirrel's ghost. It's a bit much for some when he's poking around with his tiny spyglass.

  6. I'm sorry to hear this is your last post at SleuthSayers.

    We have a couple of police stickers on our car. Husband contributes a small amount of money every year & they mail us a sticker to thank us. We haven't gotten out of a ticket that way, but a couple of times another driver was going to pass us on the right at high speed, spotted the police sticker & changed his mind!

  7. Love the Lehane quote. And yes - even those of us who write on the comic heist end of the scale are deep in the muck of social issues. Very best to you, Thomas!

  8. A week ago in the Orange County Courthouse garage, an SUV raced down the ramps. A couple of ladies had to jump out of the path and I would have been hit had I attempted to cross to the elevator. As he screeched around the next corner, he was forced to a halt by a car backing out. As I was a few feet away, I strode over and rapped on his window. It was then I saw his police uniform. He ignored me and burned rubber getting out of there, an apparent case of entitlement.

    Early this year, the PBA for City of New York, reduced their 'courtesy cards' (get out of jail free) per officer and retiree from 30 to 20 because of the negative perceptions it created of favoritism, especially among minor city officials who sought them. There are other tricks. A friend gave me a copy of the PBA magazine to place on my dashboard as a hint for meter readers not to ticket.

    Sometimes the good guys (gals) take hits: Here in Florida a woman officer arrested a state trooper for reckless driving and speeding. When he lost his job, all hell broke loose. She was stalked, received threatening calls, and quite reasonably felt her life was in danger because she took a dangerous driver off the road.

    George Harrison may not have been my favorite, but he definitely wrote my all time favorite, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. He was also a great Traveling Wilbury.

    Thomas, we're gonna miss you. Come back soon!

  9. Thomas, thanks for this; and for all the columns!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>