Some Mysteries of Murder Mysteries
Now that Key West’s “Mystery Writers Fest” has ended I want to talk about mystery novels, “street” crime, and its oft-ignored cousin, ‘white-collar’ corporate and government crime. As a mystery novel junkie, I was shaped in my teens by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, Sherlock Holmes, an emotionless scientific positivist crime solver. As an adult, I shifted seamlessly to Patricia Cornwell’s central character, Dr. Kay Scarpetta–a modern Forensist who appealed to my academic scientific bent. At the same time, I was drawn to Sue Grafton’s junk food eating, risk-taking, sexually active, Private Detective, Kinsey Millhone–an interpersonal alternative to dispassionate laboratory-like approaches to crime detection.
Yet in spite of their differences, all three crime writers’ plots featured protagonists’ using one or another crime-solving skill—science, logical analysis, cunning and ‘hunches,’ and fearlessness, to discover a criminal’s identity.
Most questionable to the critical criminologist in me, all three crime writers set their plots in local, interpersonal, place-bound settings. They featured a killer and a victim, who were, respectively, an ‘evil-doer’ and a ‘good person.’ The larger national political-economy’s role in the ultimate ‘bad’ act was not written into my favorite crime writers’ plots. By the millennium, I was craving a new kind of mystery novel.
Its plot would include criminal ‘perpetrators’ who had ‘respectable’ jobs (and weren’t usually perceived anti-facto as ‘criminal’), and who were thus rarely prosecuted as such. I sought a mystery writer who would also include non-criminal crime ‘enablers,’ especially corporations and their high-level officials and/or governments and their functionaries, in the novel’s cast of possible ‘criminals.’
I had published Political Policing (Duke, 1997), after 10 long years of research in Brazilian and US government archives, and had begun interviews in Brazil for Violence Workers (Univ. of California Press, 2002), on police who had tortured during that country’s 21-year (1964-1985) US-Supported military dictatorship. This prior research had shown that torture perpetrators usually operate within the boundaries of encapsulating micro social systems—a torturer and a victim within a bounded setting, the “torture chamber. In contrast, the seemingly non-criminal torture facilitators—for example, those who capture alleged terrorists, the psychologists who advise about torture techniques, the officials who enable and protect torturers and facilitators by tasking government lawyers with legally defining it (for example, “waterboarding”) as “enhanced interrogation rather than torture. Systemic torture, such as that carried out by Chicago police over a twenty-year period, could not have existed for such a long time without a range of legitimate actors lending legitimacy to it and managing its protection—especially for the powerful.
The importance of facilitators to torture systems is perhaps illustrated by their numbers, by my estimate, in any modern torture system, torture facilitators are ten-times more numerous than torture perpetrators. Their sheer numbers should render facilitators highly vulnerable to exposure and punishment. However, within a torture system, power, social status, and control, are ranked such that torture perpetrators generally hold the least power and socio-economic status, while torture ‘facilitators’ hold the greatest number of these resources–both within the larger social system and within in the torture network itself. This perhaps explains why high-level torture facilitators are seldom prosecuted criminally.
Finding Sarah Paretsky
Browsing at a New York State rest-stop’s concession stand–Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only (1991), her first V. I. Warshawski detective novel—caught my attention. Focusing on “fraud, bribery, murder and a long history of very hard feelings between unions and management,” Indemnity Only’s, Detective Warshawski connected, “two murders and a disappearance to fraudulent insurance claims.” Along the way, Warshawski got entangled with “union leaders [and] mob killings,” in a detective novel that necessarily placed white-collar insurance fraud front and center.
Notwithstanding, Paretsky and a few other crime novalists who include corporate and /or federal government involvement in social, political, or economic harm, most genre novels that are marketed as “thrillers” or “political intrigue,” are not considered crime mysteries. Netflix yourself back into a few films of “political intrigue”: “The Firm” (money laundering), “A Civil Action” and “Erin Brockovich (corporate chemical dumping), “The Pelican Brief” (corporate environmental destruction), “Silkwood” (radiation and worker health). While such “thrillers” (most of them novels before being filmed) demonstrate all of the components of a mystery novel—a type of fiction in which a crime occurs (usually a murder) that requires a solution, leaving the crime novel’s other characters as potential suspects. But “political intrigue” is apparently something other than a ‘mystery,’ a curiosity to me as a critical criminologist who believes that power and status are fundamental to understanding crime.
Sarah Paretsky’s mysteries–she delivered a lecture at Key West’s January 2015 Literary Seminar—reminded me that a whole range of acts carried out by big business and US corporations, often with federal and local government complicity, have been damaging to society, human and animal life, and the environment, yet it is uncommon in the US for corporations or governments to be labeled “criminal.” Thus, while breaking into a house is “criminal,” a government’s failing to provide safe and healthy housing is not–even though US has signed and ratified international legislation obligating national States (i.e., governments at various levels—the ‘Polity) to find remedies for those without dwellings, or who have inadequate, unhealthy, and unsafe, housing.
Local and state governments continue to criminalize ‘homelessness’ using existing municipal and state ordinances that prohibit, panhandling, loitering, camping and sleeping in public places, and vagrancy, among other quick police-driven ‘remedies,’ even though enforcing such laws often means violating the US Constitution. The US Department of Justice has recently issued its “Statement of Interest” in exploring US state and local governments’ criminalization of homelessness, in light of the fact that “sleeping is a life-sustaining” necessity.” Continuing, the DOJ staties that “Situations where people simply have nowhere to sleep”—with state and local governments having a responsibility to provide such–is “cruel and unusual punishment,” because people, the DOJ reminds, need to sleep some part of every 24-hour period. Is the real criminal a government that fails to address the needs of our homeless?
Are Mystery Novels Part of the Problem?
Nobody makes the claim that mystery novels are factual. However, it could be argued that the traditional mystery genre helps to foster and protect public images that street crime, which includes murder, is America’s greatest social threat. To be sure, the US has economic losses in excess of $14 billion annually from known “Street crime”—also called ‘blue-collar’ crime to indicate the assumed social class of its perpetrators. In contrast, however, it is conservatively estimated that $250 billion dollars is lost annually to the US economy from ‘white-collar’ and corporate crimes–actions carried out by educated people in positions of social, economic, and political trust. This is the front-stage cast of a good political thriller.
So why all the public hysteria about street crime? Why do we fret so much about, and allow billions of our tax dollars to be spent annually to prevent and punish street criminals, when the biggest economic losses—up to 14 times greater than from street crime—are derived from corporate-level white-collar crime?
This is the topic of the second article my series on “Mystery Writers, Street Crime, and Mosquitos.”
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