Mystery Writers, Street Crime, and Mosquitos: Framing Crime–A Three-Part Series

white collar crime
by Martha K. Huggins, Ph.D. …….

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.

Critical Criminology
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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20 thoughts on “Mystery Writers, Street Crime, and Mosquitos: Framing Crime–A Three-Part Series

  1. Dr. Huggins, Thanks for the cogent article. If I may say so, you are missing perhaps the best proponent of what you are talking about in this fine article. Have you not read any of Stieg Larson’s Millenium series? I wrote an essay called “Steig Larson and Lorenzo Silva” 2 mystery writers who somewhat get at what you are talking about here. Maybe I’ll post it in this publication so you can read it. In any event, I repeat, Steig Larson and his MIllenium series. Good stuff, Jerome

  2. Wow!

    “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.”

    “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?”

    A bit of perspective goes a long way. There seems to be a common thread of exposure of the emperor’s nudity in this issue of Blue. The question is, is anyone paying attention? Looking forward to your next piece, Dr. Huggins!

    1. Thanks Alex for your continuing support I need to get beyond Malcolm’s 85th birthday celebration and a lecture trip to Brazil–honoring my 40 years of doing research there–before I can continue the series.

  3. considering that our country is fascist, the answer is self evident. the players on the corporate side and government side are one and the same, with the same owners, so I don’t know that one can even call it crime anymore. it is state sanctioned, no matter how odious the behavior may be, so I would simply call it business as usual.

    I would also say that we don’t “fret” or “allow” for anything. we have no control over the narrative. whatever fictional hysteria is manufactured about street crime, again, by the media, another component of the fascist state, is just distraction. it is the same nonsense they peddle about voter fraud, lobster eating SNAP recipients, greedy teachers, and my personal favorite, the war on terror and the accompanying DHS and their TSA jackboots.

    as for economic losses, whose? it’s certainly not theirs. it doesn’t matter whether or not we are paying attention, because at the moment, we are powerless to do anything about it.

    it is quaint that people really believe that there is a system in place that has anything to do with truth, justice, and the American way, and that awareness and more concentrated participation in that system will bring change and purification.

      1. quaint can mean unusual, strange or obsolete, not just its more common meaning.

        thanks for the link Sister, it indeed is interesting and led to further edification.

    1. keysbum as usual your spot on. I was in hospital this past week so just catching up.
      the collectivists keep spouting the ‘one party’ system [the same coin with 2 sides heads and tails] to ‘vote for change’ and I say change in what? imagine during the savings and loan fiasco over 1000 banksters went to jail under spec pros bill black’s tenor compared to the egregious acts of in you face theft today and not a damn prosecution. the NWO has come a long way in fascist control hopefully not near enough to ‘game complete’ but then again with the useful idiot PC crowd one never knows!
      best of cheers.

    2. Dear Keysbum, The point of the article, to be developed further later, is that laws ‘regulating’ corporate actions that could/should be criminal guarantee that corporation and most of their higher-ups will not be labeled, treated, or punished as criminal. By virtue of the legal system that favors the rich I have trouble finding a WORD to describe the harmful actions of the rich
      BTW, I love the discussion below–Sister, Jerome, keysbum, wankajm–thanks to all of you for furthering my ideas

      1. the word, as I stated above, is fascism. the conflation of corporations and the state render any distinction between their action/behaviors as anything but symbiotic. again, it cannot be called anything except, business as usual.

      2. Dr. Huggins posted this to my e-mail account, but I thought the response might be of interest to other readers, so I am posting it in the Blue Paper. Her response to me:

        “Does that mean that no one should try to present ideas in a new way> As for fascism, I’d argue that the US is an oligarchy. I can see that Fascism is possible, especially if Donald trump becomes president He certainly is stirring up people using hate messages and the Tea Party and others are offering arguments about the need for a “new man,” one of the components of Fascism. Also evident is the radical right’s both hating government and wanting to use it to achieve their objectives, another characteristic of fascism. However, the repressive apparatus is still not in a position to fall behind a populist leader who would possible reign in their power, which is linked to oligarchy, not fascism”
        Dr. Huggins:

        I do not understand the first sentence as it seems out of place, so I will move on to the body of your retort to me. As I have stated many times, discussing economic or political questions within the confines of accepting the “system” around us as legitimate, is a fool’s errand; any arguments made under that premise can be dismissed immediately. To understand the present paradigm under which we all live, you must first accept that the “system” is a lie; it is a distraction to mask the real economic and political construct.
        We can all agree that money makes the world go around. It is the incentive, motivation, and catalyst for the production of goods and services. It is also a means of control. He who controls the money, pretty much controls everything. Agree? Persons such as the Koch brothers, Jamie Dimon, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Sydney Sheldon, etc., all possess considerable sums of money. But they do not control it, they do create it, and hence, they are merely bit players who do the bidding of those that do. The people just mentioned are the “face” of the supreme decision makers, and their name is Rothschild.

        Since these “middle managers” so to speak, do not render the decisions, the U.S. cannot be considered an oligarchy. U.S. presidents do not give orders, they take them, and so regardless of who sits in the White House, they are an employee of the Rothschild’s and their acolytes. And make no mistake, presidents are selected, not elected, so Mr. Trump has zero chance of becoming president.

        Therefore, I believe my use of the term fascism to delineate the U.S. (and indeed the world) is the correct one. Now my definition of fascism goes beyond the prosaic and into the pedantic, but nevertheless, it is my opinion that one family firmly exerts control over The U.S. and the world.

        Think of it this way; if you could print money, as much as you want, out of thin air, would you not own/control the world? Well these guys can, and do, and have done so since the 1600’s.

        So before everyone calls me a conspiracy theorist, please research this for yourself.

        The private ownership of central and retail banks, and the private control and creation of money (credit) is the single most destructive, repressive, nefarious thing man has wrought on himself.

  4. Keysbum, I can’t say I can actually argue with anything you say here, and you say it well. But … I must leave that door of change just a wee bit open. That is why I actually put forth my vision for a better world. We’ve been here before, but I’ll repeat it anyway: the world is not a static place. It is not the same place it was, let’s say, at the beginning of the 19th century. Sometimes a step forward takes place, even if a 3/4 step back usually follows it. Hope, no matter how little I have, refuses to go away. Maybe you could call it a sickness of mine.

    1. Mr.Grapel…

      the world may not be a static place, but its underlying paradigm of mass enslavement of us all by the private creation and control of money, has not changed, and will not change, unless the genesis of that change is prosecuted from outside the present power structure. until that day arrives, whatever small deviations and evolutions you may observe around you are most assuredly cosmetic and banal, and will have little impact on the prevailing societal condition. death, destruction, poverty, injustice, were with us in the 19th century, and are still with us today, and will continue to flourish into the future as long as the present financial model persists.

      I am 60 years old, and it is my most fervent hope, that I live long enough to see the day that the world recognizes its plight, identifies those responsible, including their acolytes, strings them up, and at least tries to reorganize in a more enlightened fashion. although I am pessimistic, I do have an optimists attitude. alas, history is not on my side.

  5. Keysbum, What you refer to in the last paragraph actually has happened from time to time, though sporadically. Alas, even if the third world is still not included, a large swath of humanity thinks about themselves differently than they did before … oh, let’s say, the French Revolution. But I’d say I’m no more optimistic than you.

    1. sorry Dr. Huggins… but the article you posted is not a serious treatment of the definition of fascism. no matter what definition you choose to use, the conflation of the political and ECONOMIC construct of the society is an integral and requisite component.

      the author of that article is a political scientist, and so naturally, skews his definition accordingly. Trying to equate Donald Trump with fascism, is, I’m afraid, a telling denunciation of the authors ignorance and credibility.

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