Literature and Crime Research Paper

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Literature and crime live in happy symbiosis. Literature often depends on crime for a good story, and that story in turn frequently yields important insights about crime. If many of the Great Books involve crime, this comes as no surprise.

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Some Reasons Why

To reveal something deep and timeless about human nature, a writer needs a special tension for the story’s action and the characters’ development. What better than a plot that involves a broken taboo; a violation of natural, religious, or human law; sin, punishment, guilt and redemption? That is one reason why crime, with all these perennial characteristics in abundance, often serves as useful grist for the literary mill.

Storytellers also find crime lends itself to an ideal literary device: the trial. A crucial part of the criminal process, the trial is custom-made for literature. The adversary legal system has conflict and resolution. Consider John Mortimer’s stories about the veteran English criminal lawyer Rumpole of the Bailey. A criminal trial builds suspense and uncertainty, especially while the verdict is up in the air. Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books always have a criminal trial for a climax. ‘‘The Witness for the Prosecution,’’ a story of a criminal trial by Agatha Christie, ends with a famous surprise. In A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, a man is acquitted of rape but we never know if the rape actually occurred. And we have to wait until the end of Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Travers to find out if the defendant wins because he could not help but yield to an ‘‘irresistible impulse.’’

A trial in literature showcases eloquence. Robert Bolt gives some unforgettable lines to Thomas More during his trial in the play A Man for all Seasons. Atticus Finch, the southern lawyer who defends a poor African American on trial for raping a white woman in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, has moving courtroom lines. Ayn Rand makes Howard Roark a wonderful spokesman for individualism in his summation at the end of his trial for blowing up a housing project he designed in The Fountainhead.

There is drama too, as hopes are dashed or fulfilled, as serious penalties are imposed or escaped, as evil wins or loses, as the innocent or guilty get their not necessarily just rewards. Consider the military trials in Herman Wouk’s Caine Mutiny and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, or the trial in Walter Scott’s story ‘‘The Two Drovers.’’ And there is symbolism, as each participant— prosecutor, accused, victim, judge, witness, defense counsel—represents a larger idea in society. Playwright Arthur Miller used this technique to great effect in The Crucible, in which the Salem witch trials were a metaphor for the communist witch hunt of McCarthyism.

Crime easily lends itself to literary calls for reform. Many gifted writers of fiction have seared the consciences of their readers by describing how poverty, parental abuse, bad living conditions, prejudice, and other societal factors lead to crime. Think of Charles Dickens’s moving portraits in several of his novels, particularly Oliver Twist, or Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, driven by poverty to steal a loaf of bread for his family and for which he is sentenced to the gallows. E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate tells the story of a boy’s growing up amid Bronx gangsters in the 1930s.

Literature also shows how the legal system can err by convicting the innocent while following the forms of justice. Medieval justice, wrote Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, ‘‘had little concern for clarity and accuracy in criminal proceedings. The main thing was to see that the accused went to the gallows’’ (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 179–180 (Lowell Bair, trans. Bantam Books, 1981)). A memorable example of this flaw is George Bernard Shaw’s trial scene in St. Joan. No less memorable is the unjust conviction of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. In the twentieth century, Franz Kafka wedged his way into our consciousness with The Trial, in which the hero, Joseph K., is convicted and imprisoned for unknown crimes.

Kafka’s short story ‘‘In the Penal Colony’’ demonstrates how literature can display cruel, inhuman, and unacceptable prison conditions and how they can needlessly destroy without rehabilitating. Dantes’s twenty years in the Chateau d’If island prison haunts every reader’s mind, as do the unsettling scenes of prison life in Stalin’s Russia by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.

Equally important in explaining the literature-crime link is our ambivalence about criminals and the allure of evil. On the one hand, we occasionally, if paradoxically, admire those who break the law and, on the other, we often loathe them. One way to minimize the conflict is to endow criminals with virtues such as greatness or goodness. Robin Hood is a virtuous outlaw. The criminal can sometimes be attractive simply because he is an individual at odds with society, one against the many. And the successful criminal may, by definition, have superior mental or other powers, may be an evil genius. Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes respectfully call his nemesis Professor Moriarty the ‘‘Napoleon of Crime.’’ A criminal may often have an outsized, unusual, and interesting, if warped, personality. The villains in many of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, such as Dr. No, Auric Goldfinger, and Ernst Blofeld, fit this description. Glamour may even be attached to an elegant rogue.

Another way to reduce the psychological tension is repression, whereby we bar from consciousness our admiration for criminals and replace it with loathing. But such apparent loathing is just another form of fascination, which can lead to obsession. The self-appointed censor who obsessively reviews books, magazines, and films for obscenity falls into this category, as does Victor Hugo’s dogged fictional policeman Javert in Les Misérables.

Reading about crime is a good thing for a society. Reading is not doing, although some have argued that a culture’s portrayal of crime and violence in literary works (or on film or television) can breed more crime and violence. But this argument, so well portrayed in The Seven Minutes, Irving Wallace’s 1970 novel about a rapeobscenity trial, ignores not only freedom of expression but also how much the experience of literature can serve as a psychological safety valve. Most people slake their thirst for crime vicariously.

Examples Old and New

Whatever the reason, literature relies heavily on crime, but not always in the same way. Fiction writers use crime in their work in two different ways. In one type, represented by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, crime and its consequences are the primary focus. In the other, crime is a subordinate though often crucial theme of the literary work. Examples of both kinds of crime literature abound and go far back in time.

The Bible brims over with disobedience and punishment. Adam and Eve committed the first crime by disobeying God’s order not to eat the forbidden fruit. The first couple’s son Cain murders his innocent brother Abel. Soon humans so degenerate into evil that God feels it necessary to wipe out the whole race except for one extended family, which He saves on the Ark. But in time a massive crime problem again blights whole cities, which God obliterates, leaving the names of Sodom and Gomorrah to echo evilly through the millennia. And on and on, including evil King Ahab and Jezebel, the genocidal Haman, and even great King David with his weakness for Bathsheba.

Ancient Greek culture also laced its literature with crime. The Iliad and The Odyssey grew out of Paris’s crime of adultery and kidnapping of another man’s wife. Picking up where Homer leaves off, Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Sophocles’s Electra portray first the murder of the Greek King Agamemnon by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra and her draft-dodging lover Aegisthus, then Orestes’s fatal revenge, and finally the forgiveness of Orestes after mental torture by the Furies.

The Greeks did not stop there. Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus concerns a crime like Adam and Eve’s. Prometheus disobeys the gods by bringing fire to humans, which resembles the fire of knowledge Adam and Eve acquired from the forbidden fruit. For his violation, Prometheus earns eternal punishment. Sophocles’s Oedipus the King portrays the crimes of parricide and incest, the struggle between fate and free will, and the guilt and expiation that follow. In Antigone, Sophocles raises the issue of civil disobedience, that is, when a higher law requires you to disobey the law of the state. In Euripides’s Medea the main character murders her children because her husband has left her.

Dante’s three-part Divine Comedy, completed shortly before the author’s death in 1321, is an allegory about crime, punishment, and redemption. In The Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil go through the horrors of the nine circles of Hell, where anguished men and women expiate earthly sins of lust and greed, violence, malice, fraud, and betrayal, in varying degrees of memorable punishment suited to each crime. It is a journey to the depths of evil. Purgatorio and Paradiso allow for the possibility (but not certainty) of redemption after penance, suffering, and atonement. But it is Dante’s Inferno, with its vivid descriptions of sinners and their exquisite punishments, that stays in the mind (for example, the Envious have their eyes sewn shut, the Gluttonous starve).

Shakespeare’s plays are a whole course in criminal law. At the core of Measure for Measure, for example, lies the question: How much should law be used to enforce morality? In the play, a strict law banning nonmarital sex is enforced against an engaged couple. Embedded in the discussion are basic issues of privacy. According to a character in the play, criminal laws need widespread public respect, lest they become ‘‘more mocked than feared,’’ so that ‘‘liberty plucks Justice by the nose’’ (act 1, scene 3). But, as the play demonstrates, wooden enforcement of a bad law does not breed respect. One question in the play, which still nettles lawyers, is whether a criminal statute that has neither been enforced nor obeyed for many years can suddenly be resurrected and applied. Shakespeare’s antifornication law carries a death penalty, so that Measure for Measure also raises the issue of appropriate punishment.

The most basic legal theme in Hamlet explores the struggle for the rule of law. Hamlet depicts the uncertain battle within human nature between the punitive passion for revenge and the more civilized law against individual retaliation. Hamlet’s indecision about whether to kill Claudius for murdering Hamlet’s father, for which Hamlet has been often criticized, can be seen as an effort not to yield to the passion for revenge. It is a step in the evolution of law.

Even the insanity defense is part of Hamlet. Hamlet pleads it when Laertes, unhampered by the hesitancy that so plagues Hamlet, seeks revenge for the death of Polonius, his father. Face to face with Laertes’s wrath, Hamlet claims to be beset ‘‘with sore distraction’’ and ‘‘madness’’ (act 5, sc. 2). But Hamlet also at times feigns his ‘‘antic disposition’’ (act 1, sc. 5).

Richard III, as portrayed by Shakespeare, is almost everyone’s favorite villain. No less hateful is Iago, who schemes and plots to destroy Othello and Desdemona. In King Lear, Edmund spends his life contriving treachery against his family. Macbeth, goaded by his ambitious wife, betrays and murders his king and benefactor. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare shows us how law should be flexible rather than rigid, how hatred could lead a law-abiding man to criminal revenge, how pervasive prejudice could then mar his trial and lead to inappropriate punishments (such as forced religious conversion), and how an eloquent plea for ‘‘the quality of mercy’’ should not be rejected (act 4, sc. 1). Julius Caesar depends on a conspiracy to murder.

About fifty years after Shakespeare’s death, John Milton wrote the only other epic poem to rival Dante’s, and it also has crime and sin at its center. In Paradise Lost, Milton depicted disobedience on human and cosmic levels. The human disobedience was of course the fall of Adam and Eve, and in that regard Milton discusses free will and determinism. But the arch-criminal in Paradise Lost is not Adam or Eve; it is Satan, the apostate angel cast out of Heaven after leading an unsuccessful rebellion against God. Significantly, the poet makes Satan the strongest, most unforgettable, and most vital character in the poem. Milton’s Satan is the predecessor of another literary fallen angel: the Romantic outlaw.

The Romantic outlaw came on the cultural scene in the early nineteenth century. He grew out of the fertile soil of Romanticism, with its stress on introspective individualism. The Romantic outlaw is an outcast, brooding, moody, wronged by society or flawed in some deep way but has, like Milton’s fallen angel, redeeming qualities that fascinate us. The protagonists in Byron’s great poems—Manfred, Childe Harold, and Cain, for instance—are the quintessential Romantic outlaws. Like Byron himself, the Byronic hero is often irresistible precisely because he is ‘‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’’ as Lady Caroline Lamb confided to her diary, quoted in Berjan Evans, ‘‘Lord Byron’s Pilgrimage,’’ in Byron’s Poetry 344 (Frank D. McConnell, ed. 1978)).

The Mystery Novel

In the mid-nineteenth century, a new form of crime literature arose: the detective or mystery novel. Invented by Edgar Allan Poe in America, this genre usually has a crime or mystery to be solved and a highly intelligent hero who, through logic or patient investigation or preternatural understanding of the criminal mind, finds the solution. Poe’s stories ‘‘The Purloined Letter’’ and ‘‘The Gold Bug’’ and his clever detective Dupin started a popular literary trend that shows no sign of abating.

The mystery novel next flourished in England with The Moonstone and The Woman in White, both by Wilkie Collins. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales are classics of the form, as are the works of Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and P. D. James. In the United States in the twentieth century, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, and Rex Stout made, with their tough, lean prose, enormous contributions to the modern crime novel.

In France, the prolific Georges Simenon wrote psychologically penetrating books about crime with his fictional police inspector Maigret at the center. Books such as The Blue Knight and The Centurions made former policeman Joseph Wambaugh the dean of American police novelists. From the genre of true crime, Meyer Levin’s Compulsion, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, and Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision are sterling books.


Writers have long described prison as a state of mind rather than a place of confinement. Hamlet tells his false friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Denmark seems to be a prison. ‘‘We think not so, my lord,’’ says Rosencrantz. Replies Hamlet insightfully, ‘‘why, then ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.’’ Shakespeare’s melancholy but thoughtful Dane then adds: ‘‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a King of infinite space’’ (act 2, scene 2).

Such thoughts must have been in the English literary air in the seventeenth century. For Milton has Satan echo the same sentiment: ‘‘The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.’’ And of course Restoration poet Richard Lovelace, in ‘‘To Althea from Prison,’’ famously said: ‘‘Stone walls do not a prison make,/Nor iron bars a cage’’ (The Viking Book of Poetry of the English-speaking World 445–446 (Richard Aldington, ed. 1958)).

Actual prison life rarely fares well in literature. The Bible describes Joseph’s relatively easy prison sojourn in an Egyptian prison but makes us feel for the blind Samson imprisoned by the Philistines, ‘‘eyeless in Gaza.’’ Drawing once again on the Bible, Milton used Samson’s prison plight as the basis of his poem Samson Agonistes. Dickens’s descriptions of imprisonment for debt are unforgettable, as are Solzhenitzyn’s of the gulag. And Oscar Wilde used poetry to tell the world of his prison experience in The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

The Criminal Mind

Literature has a rich tapestry of criminal identities, and is particularly good at depicting the guilty conscience. In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark has a play about a murder performed to see if Claudius will betray his guilt, which he does. Similarly, Macbeth strains out loud under the burden of his heavy conscience. And, of course, we have Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Raskolnikov’s eventual unburdening of his guiltridden conscience in Crime and Punishment.

Raskolnikov’s confession comes after a series of interviews with the psychologically astute prosecutor Porfiry. In the most striking of those sessions, the young, intellectual murderer explains his distressing theory that great men— presumably including himself—are above the law and that they have the moral right to take the lives of others. Merely to be exposed to that theory is to glimpse how the mind of a criminal works in distorted ways.

No one theory explains the variety of the criminal mind. Robert Louis Stevenson gave the world Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and thereby tried to show that all human beings are simultaneously made up of good and evil. In Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the sexually repressed priest Claude Frollo vents his passions: ‘‘when one does evil it’s madness to stop halfway. The extremity of crime has a certain delirium of joy. . . . But an evil thought is inexorable and strives to become an action’’ (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame 173–174 (Lowell Bair, trans. Bantam Books, 1981)). In The Stranger, Albert Camus depicts how the criminal mind may simply be alienated. In Balzac’s Père Goriot, Vautrin is an articulate, intelligent escaped convict, full of practical experience and honorable to his own code.

The Human Condition

Crime in literature helps us better understand crime in life. ‘‘A crime is, in the first instance, a defect in the reasoning powers,’’ wrote Balzac in Cousin Bette, and that mid-nineteenth century literary insight is both piercing and fruitful (Honore de Balzac, Cousin Bette 422 (James Waring, trans. Everyman’s Library, 1991)). Much of crime can be explained by Balzac’s theory—by reason losing control—with a few illustrations drawn from the vast body of crime literature.

Many crimes, for instance, are the result of sexual passion, where sound rational judgment flees, as demonstrated by Baron Hulot’s exploits in Cousin Bette, Claude Frollo’s in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hester Prynne’s in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Closely related to crimes of sexual passion are crimes of irrational jealousy, such as Othello’s murder of Desdemona and the murder in Somerset Maugham’s short story ‘‘The Letter.’’ Then we have crimes of revenge—for matters of pride or harm to friend or relative—that are reflected in a genre actually called revenge literature, exemplified by Hamlet and The Oresteia. Desire for money or what money can buy is another major cause of crime, whether resulting from poverty, hunger (Dickens, Hugo), or blind avarice (Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet).

Other assaults on rationality that can cause crime are extreme political, social, or religious causes, and an inordinate need for power. Consider Shakespeare’s various kings and warriors and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Ambition led Julian Sorel to murder in The Red and the Black by Stendhal. Then of course there is the sociopath or the insane person, whose mind is so defective, either temporarily or permanently, that he or she commits crime. We ought not to forget the temperamentally violent or the retarded who for those reasons commit crime, however unwittingly, like Lenny in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. In short, crime literature has much of value to teach lawyers, judges, the police, criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists.

A Reciprocal Relationship

Thus, the close relationship between literature and crime, while at first a seeming paradox, is really mutually beneficial. True, one may be initially surprised by the unexpected nexus between high creative art and low antisocial behavior. But the relationship is indeed symbiotic and even synergistic. Literature draws on crime for subjects and stories. In their turn, criminology and criminal law—and the public—depend on literature for insights, criticism, and ideas needed for changes in outlook and attitude toward understanding, preventing, and punishing crime.


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  2. LADSWOON, LENORA, ed. Law and Literature: Text and Theory. New York: Garland, 1996.
  3. POSNER, RICHARD Law and Literature: A Misunderstood Relation. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988.
  4. ROCKWOOD, BRUCE, ed. Law and Literature Perspectives. New York: Peter Corp., 1996.
  5. WEISBERG, RICHARD The Failure of the Word. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
  6. WEISBERG, RICHARD Poethics: And Other Strategies of Law and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
  7. ZIOLKOWSKI, THEODORE. The Mirror of Justice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
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