- The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction
Exploring the depiction of crime in fiction is a task that could be undertaken, among others, by literary critics, sociologists, criminologists, moral philosophers, and members of criminal organizations. Associates of La Cosa Nostra, for example, are reported to have watched "The [End Page 851] Godfather" films, enjoyed the series, and found surprising how close the cinematographic rendition was to the reality of their lifestyle and day-to-day entrepreneurial behavior. This collection is mainly the result of efforts by lecturers of English or American literature, cultural theorists, and media studies experts. This is not necessarily bad, as most of the experts contributing to this book display some sociological and criminological knowledge, though they cannot claim that crime is the main object of their academic expertise, nor that this object of study plays a relevant part in their lifestyle and day-to-day behavior.
The book discusses the depiction of crime in fiction, but focuses particularly on the detective form of the genre, namely on the mystery whodunit form. There is a traditional analysis of the growth of detective fiction, which prevailed until recently, and which unleashed more recent debates and emphases. According to this tradition, the detective story was invented by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841, and the form pioneered in his short stories was then developed by a number of authors before reaching its highest expression in Doyle's creation of Sherlock Holmes. It took some time for this form to move from short stories to inspire novels, and this was achieved in what is regarded as a Golden Age dominated by Agatha Christie and a variety of somewhat minor authors. Simultaneously, the literary form evolving in the U.S., which is said to be in conscious opposition to this genteelly "English" model, took the shape of the hardboiled private eye fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. "In some accounts, that is virtually the end of the story; in others, later developments are either seen as continuations of these two great national traditions, or as deplorable fallings-off from them" (2). Readers may now become aware that this book, in effect, is not an analysis of crime fiction, but of Anglophone crime fiction. Again, this may not necessarily be bad, because Defoe and Fielding have certainly contributed to the understanding of eighteenth-century criminal activity and the philosophies and strategies of crime control, but surely the European debate on the same issues did have something to say in this respect, adding perhaps an array of more sophisticated concepts than those we find in Anglophone "Moll Flanders" and "Tom Jones." Let us consider one example.
In the excellent first chapter of this book, Ian Bell deals with crime in eighteenth-century literature and notes how the penal and policing systems were largely privatized, so that crime victims who thought they were hiring investigators to get their property back ended up hiring thief-catchers who, in fact, were part of the same criminal enterprise compensating victims while encouraging victimization. In this respect, the story of Jonathan Wild is well known, and an original piece of work on this overused topic would have related the story to the debate on penal reform taking place mainly outside of England, namely in Italy and France. There, Beccaria and Voltaire were discussing exactly what Bell describes as the contrast between the "atavistic" and "ameliorist" views of crime. These two adjectives may sound inadequate to sociologists, because the former echoes positivist "innatism" while the latter does not echo very much. Nonetheless the point is properly made that eighteenth-century fiction expresses competing views of crime as the result of the dark and selfish components of human nature, and crime as social behavior that could be altered through institutional reform. However, Bell does not make the qualification that "innatism" was only applied to certain social groups, and criminal behavior was therefore deemed to be transmitted via socio-biological traits only within those groups. On the other hand, Bell comments optimistically that some writers...