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Learning to Live with Crime

American Crime Narrative in the Neoconservative Turn

Christopher P. Wilson

Publication Year: 2010

Since the mid-1960s, the war on crime has reshaped public attitudes about state authority, criminal behavior, and the responsibilities of citizenship. But how have American writers grappled with these changes? What happens when a journalist approaches the workings of organized crime not through its legendary Godfathers but through a workaday, low-level figure who informs on his mob? Why is it that interrogation scenes have become so central to prime-time police dramas of late? What is behind writers’ recent fascination with “cold case” homicides, with private security, or with prisons? In Learning to Live with Crime, Christopher P. Wilson examines this war on crime and how it has made its way into cultural representation and public consciousness. Under the sway of neoconservative approaches to criminal justice and public safety, Americans have been urged to see crime as an inevitable risk of modern living and to accept ever more aggressive approaches to policing, private security, and punishment. The idea has been not simply to fight crime but to manage its risks; to inculcate personal vigilance in citizens; and to incorporate criminals’ knowledge through informants and intelligence gathering. At its most scandalous, this study suggests, contemporary law enforcement has even come to mimic crime’s own operations.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

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pp. vii-ix

Although book projects always have many origin points, the central arguments of this one first took shape in the classroom, in an interdisciplinary course entitled “Crime Stories” that I taught from the mid-1990s to 2007. My greatest debt is to the students who have enrolled in that course...

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pp. 1-20

This is an interdisciplinary study of the contemporary war on crime, and how that war has made its way into cultural representation and public consciousness. In particular, it is about the real-world tactics of this campaign—strategies that, surprisingly, have not often occupied much space in...

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1. Getting Wise(guys): The Witness Protection Narrative

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pp. 21-48

At the close of the twentieth century, few stories about American crime received the attention accorded the scandal of the Boston-based gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. The story emerged from reporting in the local Boston Globe, from prosecutions in U.S. District Court—and then, most...

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2. The Box in the Box: Putting Interrogation in Prime Time

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pp. 49-76

Throughout the years of the war on crime, contemporary police melodrama on prime-time television has been largely about establishing “street cred” with increasingly cosmopolitan and crime-conscious audiences. Especially in earlier decades, police shows commonly imitated the...

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3. The Time of the Crime: Cold Case Squads and Neoconservative Social Memory

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pp. 77-97

In “A Crown of Feathers” (1972), Isaac Bashevis Singer tells the story of an orphan named Akhsa Holishitzer, doted upon by Polish grandparents who manage the estate of a local gentile Prince inside the Pale. Akhsa grows into a young woman so attached to her grandparents that she cannot...

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4. Risk Management: Frank Abagnale Jr. and the Shadowing of Pleasure

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pp. 98-122

It was a particularly telling moment in the neoconservative turn when, in the early 1990s, a public-private collaborative of Philadelphia investigators, psychologists, and forensic sculptors began to reopen cold homicide cases from around the country. They called themselves the...

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5. “Doing Time”: Keepers, Brothers, and the Prison Exposé

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pp. 123-152

In the fifth chapter of his Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000), undercover journalist Ted Conover pauses, as many authors of prison exposé will, for a long historical interlude. Breaking stride from recounting his enlistment in the state of New York’s training program for corrections...

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Epilogue. Public Secrets

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pp. 153-164

During the writing of this book, I often found myself thinking about a scene from Danish author Peter Høeg’s international crime thriller, the mystery entitled Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1993). In fact, it is a moment cited by Philip Gourevitch in the book (A Cold Case) I discuss in chapter...


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pp. 165-194


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pp. 195-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780814270936
E-ISBN-10: 081427093X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814211373
Print-ISBN-10: 0814211372

Page Count: 202
Publication Year: 2010