WHY DO CRIMINALS FASCINATE US SO MUCH?
I’ve asked a number of authors I admire to answer the same question–why do criminals fascinate us so much?–and I will be posting each response here on my blog. It’s a question all writers–especially crime writers–should consider every once in a while. In my debut novel, Toxicity, I’ve dug deep into the minds of criminals. I have written about the bad guys. The ones we love but hate at the same time. If you haven’t pre-ordered a copy yet, I highly recommend you doing so for purely selfish reasons.
And now that you’ve done that, we will pass the time hearing what other writers in the industry have to say about the posed question.
Today we have Kit Power. Mr. Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. His debut e-novellla ‘The Loving Husband and the Faithful Wife’ (plus short story ‘The Debt’) contains copious criminal activities, and is now available. His short stories also appear in anthologies published by MonkeyKettle Books and Burnt Offering Books – the latter tale is also non-supernatural horror featuring a criminal act.
In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo, www.disciplesofgonzo.com.
Watcha got for us today, Kit?
“I Think I’m Trying to Say Something About the Duality of Man, SIR!”
by Kit Power
why do criminals fascinate us so much?
Such a great question! I’m going to rephrase it – why do criminals fascinate me so much?
Let’s back up one more step – do criminals fascinate me?
Of the twenty five stories I’ve written in the last eighteen months, eighteen contain criminals or criminal activity, often pretty serious crimes of violence and/or murder.
I’d say that’s a yes. Okay, so what the hell?
I think of myself as a non-supernatural horror writer, in that I tend to write about what scares me, and most of what scares me exists in the real world in one form or another. I’m not against the genre of supernatural horror at all, I read there widely and even visit on occasion – it’s just not where my muse seems to spend a lot of time.
Given that, the attraction of crime seems obvious. Crime is dangerous, inherently transgressive in nature, a breaking of the societal covenant. We make things criminal, in large part, because we don’t want them to happen to us. We don’t want to be beaten, or stabbed, or robbed or locked into the trunk of a car and driven into a lake (say), so we make those things illegal.
It follows pretty logically then that those same transgressions are ripe and fertile grounds for drama.
There’s something else though, and that’s the inherent tension between our desires to be governed by laws on a societal basis (and for other people to obey them) and for our own desires to act on… well, our desires – to exact ‘justice’ (or as it’s more commonly known, revenge). Jodie Foster in The Brave One and Charles Bronson in Deathwish are both clearly engaged in criminal activities (for that matter, so is Dirty Harry and Mel Gibson’s Riggs in Lethal Weapon – two vigilantes with badges), yet we by and large cheer them, because in transgressing the law, they give is what we think we want – primal revenge on those that wronged us. And let’s not forget that even the great Sherlock Holmes managed on at least one occasion to allow an avowed murderer to go unpunished – with the stated approval of the archetypal Victorian gentleman Dr. Watson.
So criminals are fascinating for two reasons – we ‘like’ the vigilante who takes justice into their own hands (especially when said vigilante is perceived to have been failed by a corrupt or ineffective system) and we love to hate Hannibal Lecter, Mickey and Mallory, and the whole colourful cast of psychos, villains and gangsters.
There’s a third type of crime story, of course, and for my money the most interesting type, and that’s the Deadwood kind, the Godfather kind. The Sopranos kind.
These crime dramas are fascinating because the criminals themselves are complex and rounded characters. Tony Soprano is trying to be a loving family man, mostly, but he can’t keep his dick in his pants, and he sure can’t control that lethally violent temper. He has panic attacks over the loss of animals, but is quite calm in his execution-by-garrotte of an ex-friend turned informant. And his family, both biological and criminal, are as complex and contradictory as him.
In this kind of crime story, the criminal becomes one lens through which we view the world – one more element to traverse. As noted above, it provides particularly fertile ground for drama. The Sopranos has a considerably lower body-count across its seven seasons than a comparable run of, say, CSI, or some similar police procedural, but The Sopranos is intensely unsettling viewing, especially first time through, precisely because we know these (mostly) men are capable of anything – that any joke could turn serious, any slight could create or leave mortal offense. That any conversation could suddenly, horrifyingly, turn violent, even lethal.
As in TV crime drama, so in literature. For my money the master of crime fiction is James Ellroy, and this same fascination with transgression, violence, and morally complex and compromised characters with conflicting value systems and loyalties absolutely drives the drama, turning almost every scene into a dry-mouthed exercise in tension.
Now, tell me – why on earth wouldn’t you want to write things like that?
So yes, we’re obsessed with criminals because we fear them (Charles Manson) and admire them (Robin Hood), sometimes both at once. But more, I think, we’re obsessed with criminals because we are them. In the banal sense that most people have broken some law at some point in their lives, but in a more fundamental way too, in that we are all morally compromised characters, feeling our way through life. We are all, or almost all, prone to fits of temper, dislike of and also craving for authority, and selfish desire is always butting against the better angels of our natures and what we understand to be acceptable behaviour. Am I less morally conflicted because my selfish desire leads me to eating that second Mc’D’s double cheeseburger (or not), or staying up late playing Minecraft (or going to bed and having a better day at work the next day), rather than robbing or beating a man? I am not. I’m just much less interesting to write and read about.
Criminals, and stories about criminals, therefore become effectively the Spinal Tap of human nature in literary form – that nature turned up to eleven, engaging in the most primal fears and desires of the species, where the fear is not of a loss of self esteem or job opportunity, but of prison, or violence, or death.
Criminals are scary. Crime is scary. Committing crime is scary.
I don’t know about you, but that’s why criminals fascinate me.