Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ethics and crime stories?

Clea Simon posed some questions on this subject last month on her blog. Her queries included:

Do you think mysteries have or promote ethical systems?
Do you care if justice is served?
and, perhaps most provocative,
can a book be moral or immoral?

I'll pass those questions on to you, but I won't let you off with any yes/no answers. Instead, I'll ask how a crime novel or story can express its ethics in ways other than simply the good guy winning in the end. Is ethics the same as justice? What about stories in which a villain wins or no one wins? What can one say about the ethics systems of such stories? Be sure to give examples!

Such writers as Yasmina Khadra, Jean-Claude Izzo, Jean-Patrick Manchette and perhaps Matt Rees upend or put novel spins on the good-guy-wins-in-the-end ending. One variant is the good-guy-left-standing-alone ending. What others can you think of?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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20 Comments:

Blogger Kerrie said...

One book that upset people a few years back was Simon Kernick's THE BUSINESS OF DYING. which was written from the point of view of a hired assassin.

From his site:
On a cold and wet November night, DS Dennis Milne is waiting to kill three unarmed men. Cynical and jaded, Milne earns money on the side by doing what he does best: punishing the bad guys. But this time he’s been duped. Instead of shooting drug dealers, he kills two respectable customs officers and an accountant, their deaths starting off an investigation that sees him, his sideline and what remains of his conscience heading for serious trouble.

Less than twelve hours later, he’s out on the streets of Kings Cross trying to solve the gruesome murder of a teenage prostitute who’s been found dead by Regents Canal, her throat slashed.

Increasingly desperate to find the girl’s killer, and with his own crimes returning to haunt him, Milne uncovers a web of depravity more shocking- and more terrifying- than he could ever have imagined.

Another one was Jeff Lindsay's DARkLY DREAMING DEXTER. Once again written from the point of view of a murderer.

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

The question from an ethical point of view is what attitude the author takes toward the murderer, I suppose, and what he expects us to take. In any case, I've just read the opening pages of The Business of Dying, and wow, it's unexpectedly and darkly humorous. I shall track down this book!

January 17, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

I don't think novels have any obligation to espouse any particular ethical system - indeed, I'd probably be uncomfortable with one that did. I do think that novelists have an obligation to try to reflect the messiness and ambiguity of life. But the conventions of crime fiction tend to require a positive resolution - the good guys win, the bad guys get punished. You can (and should) play with those conventions, but you can't just ignore them - or, if you do, in my view you've written something other than crime fiction (on reflection, I don't agree with Declan Burke's suggestion that 'crime fiction' is, in effect, any fiction that deals with crime - my definition would include some consideration of the form and its conventions, but that's a debate for another day).

For me, much of the fun of crime fiction comes from the tension between the imperfections of real life and the disciplines of the genre. Kernick's book uses that tension very cleverly, but I think maybe pushes the form close to its limits. Your favourite Bill James strikes a more delicate (if that's ever the right word for a James novel...) balance, often to superb effect. And the best example I've read recently is Gene Kerrigan's excellent 'The Midnight Choir'. It's difficult to say much without spoiling the plot, but it's one of the most interesting and moving variations on the theme of the 'man who is not himself mean' that I've read in a while.

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

I was going to bring up The Midnight Choir. It certainly threw me off balance and made me think. It demonstrates what to me is the essential ethical code of good crime fiction - which is, to say something meaningful and true about the world and do it in a way that engages the reader fully without simply manipulating him or her. (I haven't given this enough thought, so it could be bollocks.) I don't want to be rocked off my balance every time I read a book, as I was with the Kerrigan, but even when I'm just having a bit of fun I'd like a side of thought with that, please.

I think it is important to be true in fiction, which seems contradictory. But what I mean is to help us think about the world we live in and not promote falsehoods(all will be well if the police are allowed to do their jobs without interference, crazy people are extremely dangerous, torture/murder/blank check is moral so long as you're doing it to the bad guys, who have nothing in common with us good guys.... and so forth.)

I have to admit the Kernick bugged me because it felt manipulative. Aw, come on, you like me anyway, right? You'd do it too. No, actually. Or if I would, I hope I wouldn't be so smug about it.

The first Dexter was interesting because the writing was so weirdly poetic and seeing the world from a very different perspective was refreshing - a neurotypical's holiday from social interaction as we know it. The fact he was a killer (and why) was not nearly as original and unfortunately too many people have seized on the least interesting issue - "but it's okay, because he's choosy about who he murders, so yay for Dexter!"

I love what Michael says about the tension between real, messy life and the order inherent in the genre (or, maybe, in any form of art?). But I'd also venture to say that what he says earlier, after saying there's no obligation to espouse any particular ethical system - that the "obligation to reflect the messiness and ambiguity of life" is probably what I mean by ethics.

I'm not saying "pure" entertainment that has no interest in reflecting or commenting on reality is unethical - say, a serial killer yarn that is exciting and predictable and in which all the bad guys are strong, the protagonists are good looking, and any resemblance to real people, situations, emotions, or events is carefully expunged to increase your reading pleasure. It's just not one bit interesting to me (and if it promotes simplistic thinking about social order - the show 24 making it easier to accept torture - or demonizes people who suffer from mental illness actually does seem unethical to me).

The fact is, people learn from the fiction they read. Popular culture in all forms gets mixed into people's knowledge base. So it matters, even if it's only good, clean fun.

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"The fact is, people learn from the fiction they read. Popular culture in all forms gets mixed into people's knowledge base. So it matters, even if it's only good, clean fun."

Hence the frighteningly ambiguous public attitudes toward torture, since "it works on 24," you think?

I think the producers of the show are belatedly recognizing the impact it's having on those attitudes; I seem to recall them saying recently "It's a TV show, dammit!"

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Michael, it seems to me you're right to consider generic forms and conventions. Such conventions are present by their absence in a crime story that eschews them. Give me enough time, and I might even think of an example. But you know what I mean: If a killer escapes or the detective/protagonist dies, one does not just consider this on its own terms. Such a resolution works (or does not) in part according to how it plays out against conventional crime-story resolutions.

One supposes that litereate societies where Western-style crime fiction has not made headway could provide interesting laboratories in this regard. And such societies do exist.

I have made several attempts at The Midnight Choir, but I have been put off by an annoying stylistic quirk that Gene Kerrigan shows in the first few chapters. Perhaps I should just grit my teeth and plough past it. In retrospect, that quirk could be an example of Kerrigan playing with generic conventions.

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

"It's a TV show, dammit!" There's an interesting thing going on with popular culture, perhaps more so in crime fiction than other forms. It picks up on and magnifies our anxiety du jour because we want crime fiction to provide an adrenaline rush while providing some sort of reassurance - not necessarily that everything will be okay, and good will triumph over evil, but that our fears can have a coherent form, a beginning and an end.

So those fears played out in popular culture aren't invented by it. On the other hand, the way they are handled in fiction (or on TV) can get mixed up in people's factual grasp of things. A politician will claim that we can't categorically define torture in a way that will exclude, say, waterboarding, because terrible things could happen without recourse to that technique. And of course we've seen those terrible things threatened and prevented routinely in a fictional work that's feeding off our fears, and it makes it all easier to swallow, even if it's otherwise morally abhorrent.

Interestingly, I don't think people who watch The Shield become more tolerant of corrupt cops. That's just a more honest (if in many ways unrealistic) show.

Now I'm really babbling....

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Hmmm, and did Dexter become a television series based on that least interesting of its aspects?

And you're not babbling! You are responsing to a thought-provoking discussion. There is a difference, though the line is sometimes fine!

Linkmeister, it's hard to trust what anyone says once an issue goes public on a wide scale. I've never seen 24, but it's hard not to believe that the producers try to calibrate public anger, bidding for notoriety, but making conciliatory statements when, say, Republican congressmen start calling for hearings.

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Here's one person's take on what she calls "The Jack Bauer Effect." Bauer is the lead character on 24; there are quotes in her article from US flag officers saying the show's depiction of torture is regrettable (paraphrasing).

It's pretty good background.

January 17, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

I'm still trying to come to grips with some of the issues being raised here, but I think Barbara makes an excellent point about manipulation. There's something here about the integrity with which themes are handled. I've felt uncomfortable with '24' because I feel there's a populist political agenda being peddled (albeit probably only for commercial reasons). And I shared some of the unease with Simon Kernick's book because the narrative seemed to demand an empathy with the lead character that I couldn't feel - by contrast with, say, Manchette's 'The Prone Gunman' which seeks no empathy for its assassin protagonist but nevertheless (therefore?) drags you into his world.

As for Peter's query about crime fiction that upends the conventions, my first thought was 'Chinatown' which starts as gumshoe noir and ends as Greek tragedy.

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

I started a string, and a symposium broke out. Manchette is the crime writer most subversive of crime-fiction conventions that I can think of. He drags the reader into his fictional world without empathy, but with, what? Fascination? Horror? Pity? Certainly he brings his stories to no comforting resolution.

One is wary of dictating what fiction about unpleasant subjects such as crime should and should not do, but a mix of fascination and horror seems as close as anything to an ethically proper reaction to hope for from readers. Ken Bruen elicits something like that with respect to violence in Ammunition.

Chinatown makes an interesting subject for discussion of genre. On the one hand, it starts as gumshoe noir and ends as something akin to Greek tragedy (but with fewer deaths). On the other, the dark family secret was a motif of American crime fiction from maybe the 1920s through the 1950s. So, if Robert Towne broke generic conventions, he did so from a base within the genre.

Linkmeister, I noticed that the students quoted in that Jack Bauer article were all too ready to say Go for it! to torture and that the people expressing wariness and caution were military officers, albeit retired -- the ones, in other words, to whom the matter is of more than theoretical interest. In this case, it's tempting to suggest that the American public, to the degree that it favors torture, is more like the students than the retired officers.

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Right. Elsewhere, some serving officers made a point of saying that some of their younger officers and EMs were enthusiastic about it as well, and that the older guys were having to rein them in.

I can't cite an article because it was a while back, but that's my memory of what I read.

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

That's what scared me, that men who presumably know what they're doing have to rein in gung-ho newbies who don't. OK, so, what role, if any, does televised fictional torture play in this?

January 17, 2008  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Hi Peter, sorry it has been a while since I've written. Great post, as is the norm here.

I had to write a negative review of On, Off by Colleen McCullough in part because of ethical issues. I felt that she exploited the crimes against the young girls in this book: the scenarios revealed by autopsy were simply too horrific and unnecessary (I won't go into details). My stomach is plenty strong, at least for the most part, but the violence here was so gratuitous it was like what modern film-makers substitute for substance. However, books are more powerful than movies (to an individual reader), and I saw this as a bunch good characters being wasted on a text that the author was too lazy to tighten up, and where excessive violence was used, in part, to try to hide the fact that the story just didn't hang together.

Thursday's Doonesbury gives a "nice" example of the Jack Bauer effect. Yikes.

In contrast to exploitation, we have the opposite with Mankell's "Before the Frost", which I just reviewed, where he reminds us that not all terrorists or dangerous religious fanatics come from the Middle East. This is a "Jack Bauer effect" antidote because the bad guys look like "us", except of course it isn't on TV, being seen by millions.

January 19, 2008  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

I imagine American Psycho belongs in any discussion of ethics here, but I never read it. Any insight from one who has?

January 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Welcome back. I haven't read that novel, so I can't comment. Perhaps gratuitous violence is like that famous judicial definition of obscenity: I know it when I see it. The argument that graphic violence can serve the useful purpose of shocking a reader is valid in theory, of course, and sometimes in practice as well. It's probably useful, too, to keep in mind that shocking and clinically detailed are not necessaily synonymous.

I flipped through American Psycho once. The violent scenes were hyper-violent, of course, but their utter affectlessness made them funny in an odd way, which arguably makes them a powerful social commentary and this something more than mere pornography.

I've posted comments here and here that might be of interest.

January 19, 2008  
Blogger Barbara said...

I haven't read American Psycho, but it does have the distinction of being the only book someone asked us to remove from our library (a college library, where challenges are very rare). A faculty member felt it degraded women. (It was a big controversy at the time.) In fact, it seems to be about degraded values - 1980s consumerism, mingling horrific violence (against women, children, homeless people, dogs, whatever...) with constant reference to acquisition of brand-name luxury goods. It was about ethics (or the lack) in a way that pushed the ethical envelope.

There were protests in Toronto when that was going to be used for the film of the movie - serial killer Paul Bernardo had a copy of the book on his bedside table, and while I believe it was not admitted in court as evidence, it was widely reported in the court of public opinion.

As for Dexter - I only saw part of the show once, so can't really judge, but it did seem to capture the aspect of the book I didn't like without mastering the part I did.

I'll have to read the Mankell. It's curious how, when Americans picture religious terrorists they almost never think of Oklahoma City.

January 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

The parts of American Psycho that I read certainly depicted horrifying acts of violence against women, but the deadpan description of the acts lend credence to your suggestion that the book was more about degraded values and lack of ethics.

I've read several of Henning Mankell's novels, but not Before the Frost. It will be interesting to see how he links Jonestown and Sweden without going off the deep end. Having read The White Lioness, which its South African and Swedish settings, I think he can pull it off.

January 20, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

I've been watching the Danish series 'The Eagle' on DVD recently, and the ethical factor came up there in an interesting way - in attempting to track down a particularly nasty villain, whom we learn has also trafficked nuclear material, the hero forces the pace and is warned by a colleague that the thus targeted informant may well end up dead. It's a direct reflection on the rather tricky question of today's society - what's the difference between 'us' and 'them' if the methods are the same?

There's a related frustration at the end of many Donna Leon novels, when the villain is protected by power/the state/wealth/incompetence. I like her novels, but the relentless inability of justice to triumph in cases of day to day crime (we're rarely talking about global terror) is somewhat depressing. Realism sometimes lacks the ethical catharis that literature demands, I suspect - intellectually I think Aurelio Zen should have been kicked off the force years ago - artistically I'm often delighted when he does something incredibly dodgy to catch an otherwise untouchable baddy. (I'm thinking particularly of Dibdin's Medusa here - Commissario Brunetti would have been horrified!)

January 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

One might say that certain crime-fiction and other protagonists act ethically by acting unethically. The trick is remain Aurelio Zen without becoming some dumb, rabble-rousing Rambo.

January 24, 2008  

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