- Crime in Literature: Sociology of Deviance and Fiction
Crimes are committed in a wide variety of social contexts, and much important literature uses the former to throw light on the latter. In Crime in Literature: Sociology of Deviance and Fiction, Vincenzo Ruggiero presents detailed synopses of some twenty classic works, interleaved or concluded with more rapid surveys of the sociological theories of crime to which they may be relevant. Thus Dostoevsky's The Devils and Camus's play The Just give contrasting views of revolutionary terrorism; Gay's Beggar's Opera and Brecht's Threepenny Opera are tellingly conjoined with Cervantes's story "Rinconete and Cortadillo" to explore clashes between organized and freelance crime; Baudelaire's drug-meditation Les Paradis Artificiels is linked with Jack London's ex-alcoholic confession John Barleycorn to consider legal responses to addiction; Zola's Nana displays a common scapegoating of the femme fatale as a source and emblem of criminality; James Baldwin's play Blues for Mr Charlie and Richard Wright's novel Native Son flesh out arguments about racial exclusion as a cause of crime; Melville's Moby Dick and Mann's Felix Krull show contrasting versions of economic individualism run riot; Mark Twain's story "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" unpicks the networks of self-interest underlying the American idyll of small-town honesty; and Hugo's Les Miserables, Octave Mirbeau's savage satire The Torture Garden and Allesandro Manzoni's novel of plague and mass-panic The Column of Infamy explore the willed cruelty underlying many if not all penal codes—with a concluding glance at the increasingly Inquisition-like anti-terrorism legislation of recent years.
Ruggiero recounts these stories of crime and punishment with great relish, and if it achieved nothing else his book made me, at least, eager to revisit the texts I knew, and plunge straight into those I did not. Ranging widely in national, temporal and generic provenance, they are all well chosen to provoke general thoughts on the issues to which Ruggiero links them. The more specific applications, however, sometimes seem less convincing. This may be because he is a sociologist and I am a literary scholar, trained to expect the application of theory to open up new complexities and ambiguities in the texts being explored. For Ruggiero, the main theoretical—i.e. sociological and criminological—debates have already taken place in another sphere, and the literary texts tend to be treated as univocal contributions to these debates. Mostly, the texts confirm current theories about the social origin of crime and/or our perception of it, though a few—such as The Devils and Nana—illustrate more outmoded and misguided ones. Readers are expected to be familiar with many sociological texts en bloc—the numerous references only give page numbers about half the time—and without this grounding some crucial nuances probably escape the non-specialist.
In the chapter on Dostoevsky and Camus, for example, we are expected to be familiar with "the shift from positivist to anomie theor[ies]" of political violence, and to broadly prefer "conflict theory" despite its lack of refinement, which Camus manages to surpass (20). It is not that these theories are entirely unexplained: it becomes clear that the first involves ideas of naturally evil personalities, the second a broader social loss of direction and the last a picture of lawmakers [End Page 850] in active conflict with other specific groups; but the first two are so clearly understood to be wrong that we only catch glimpses of their erstwhile raisons d'être before they whirl down the plughole of history, bearing one of Dostoevsky's major novels in their wake.
Heralded by an intriguing selection of positive accounts of drug-taking, from De Quincey and Conan Doyle to Walter Benjamin, the chapter on addiction involves considerable twisting of evidence to dovetail its two main texts into an argument about the wrongs of prohibition. In Les Paradis Artificiels, Baudelaire glowingly evokes the effects of wine, hashish and opium before concluding that hard work is preferable to...