Criminology has been reluctant to embrace fictional narratives as a tool for understanding, explaining and reducing crime and social harm.
In this philosophical enquiry, McGregor uses examples from films, television, novels and graphic novels to demonstrate the extensive criminological potential of fiction around the world. Building on previous studies of non-fiction narratives, the book is the first to explore the ways criminological fiction provides knowledge of the causes of crime and social harm.
For academics, practitioners and students, this is an engaging and thought-provoking critical analysis that establishes a bold new theory of criminological fiction.
There is increasing pressure on the humanities to justify their value and on criminology to undertake interdisciplinary research. In this book, Rafe McGregor establishes a new interdisciplinary methodology, ‘criminological criticism’, harnessing the synergy between literary studies and critical criminology to produce genuine interventions in social reality.
McGregor practices criminological criticism on George Miller’s ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, Prime Video’s ‘Carnival Row’ and J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, demonstrating how these popular allegories provide insights into the harms of sexism, racism and class prejudice.
This book proposes a model for collaboration between literary studies and critical criminology that is beneficial to the humanities, the social sciences and society.
Bronwen Hughes’ Stander (2003) is a cinematic biography of Andre Stander, a captain in the South African Police who achieved international fame as a prolific bank robber from 1977 to 1984. The problem with the work from a criminological point of view is not that it misrepresents the character of Stander, but that it reveals the limitations of the discipline as it is for the most part practised in the English-speaking world. Although the film purports to be a biopic, Hughes fictionalises her protagonist to the extent that he bears little resemblance to the reality and the directorial sleight of hand is compounded by Thomas Jane, who plays the part with charisma, charm, and pathos. Stander’s egoism, hubris, and psychopathic personality traits such as sexual predation and animal abuse have been replaced with a self-sacrificial concern for the victims of apartheid for which there is no evidence (Moorcraft and Cohen 1984). As such, the film provides an example of why most criminologists are sceptical about the criminological value of fiction and of the obstacles that must be negotiated if fiction is to be brought into the fold of the discipline. The problem for criminology, however, is revealed in the courtroom scene. Referring to the internal stability duties he has performed on behalf of the apartheid regime, Stander states simply: ‘I’m tried for robbing banks, but I have killed unarmed people’ (Stander 2003). The judge is not interested in his confession and Hughes suggests that there can be no private moral responsibility in a public administration without a moral compass.
The structural turn in literary criticism began with Russian formalism in the second decade of the twentieth century and spread from literary studies to the humanities in the form of the linguistic turn of the second half of that century.1 The linguistic turn in the humanities was matched by a post-war enthusiasm for humanistic approaches to the social sciences. Qualitative research methods, which sought to privilege rather than eliminate the subjectivity of data, became both more prolific and more respected. Although the structuralist and humanist traditions were at odds in several significant ways, they were sufficiently similar to facilitate a narrative turn in the human sciences as a whole (Squire, Andrews and Tamboukou 2013). Matti Hyvärinen (2010) identifies four distinct stages within this turn, beginning with literary studies in the nineteen sixties, moving to historiography in the nineteen seventies, social research in the nineteen eighties, and culture itself in the nineteen nineties.2 Catherine Kohler Riessman (2002) explores the turn in more detail, noting the influence of narrative beyond the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, sociolinguistics, and sociology to the professions of law, medicine, nursing, occupational therapy, and social work in the last two decades of the century. As the century changed, the concept of narrative identity – of personality as reducible to or dependent upon autobiographical narrative representation or autobiographical narrative thinking – was adopted by numerous disciplines (Polkinghorne 1988; McAdams 1993).
Criminology has been slow to embrace narrative as a tool for understanding, explaining, and reducing crime and social harm.
The first module I ever led was in the 2011/2012 academic year at a college that taught degrees awarded by a university that has since changed its name, as part of an honours degree in policing and community studies that no longer exists. ‘Community & Diversity’ was a final year module with two learning outcomes, concerning prejudice and cohesion. Being new to both the programme and module leadership, I followed my predecessor’s scheme of learning, which organised the 30 weeks of teaching around eight topics: multi-agency policing, social identity, policing hard to reach groups, social exclusion, multiculturalism, equality of opportunity, the politics of policing, and the role of gender. As most of the 27 students in the class had enrolled on the programme with the intention of pursuing a career in the criminal justice system, I thought it was important to emphasise police practice and made extensive use of case studies and student debates, both enhanced by audio-visual means, mostly short clips from documentaries, television, or films. I was particularly keen to convey the difficulties of policing ‘hard to reach groups’, communities where relationships with the police are either strained or antagonistic. Having had some experience of this aspect of policing in my own career in law enforcement, the obvious choice was to introduce narratives of that experience into the relevant lectures, but I worried that these would be lost amidst the rest of the lecture and fail to communicate what it is like to police a community in which one is not welcome.
James Mangold’s Cop Land (1997) is set in New York and New Jersey in the nineteen seventies. A group of corrupt New York Police Department (NYPD) officers, led by Lieutenant Ray Donlan (played by Harvey Keitel), have taken advantage of a loophole in police regulations to establish a community with their families outside the city, in the tiny town of Garrison, New Jersey. They have orchestrated the appointment of a local hero, Freddy Heflin (played by Sylvester Stallone), as sheriff for the dual purpose of keeping the peace and turning a blind eye to the police officers’ links to organised crime. Heflin saved Liz Randone (played Annabella Sciorra) from drowning in his youth, suffering permanent damage to his hearing in consequence of which he was unable to realise his dream of joining the NYPD. He is treated as a second-class citizen by the police residents of Garrison, a hierarchy he does not challenge, apparently content with his comfortable but largely ineffectual role. The plot of the film revolves around Donlan’s plan to murder his own nephew, Officer Murray Babitch (played by Michael Rapaport), to cover up two incidents of police misconduct. Donlan is already under investigation by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) and Heflin is asked for help in building a case against him by Lieutenant Moe Tilden (played by Robert De Niro):
And besides the church traffic and the cats in the trees and all that other … bullshit, okay … there isn’t much here for you to do, to keep your mind busy.
Roman Polanski’s The Ghost (2010) is a faithful adaptation of Robert Harris’ (2007) novel of the same title. Harris’ novel follows the formula established in two of his previous works, in which he combines the novelty of an alternative history with the suspense of a secret concealed at the core of that history. Fatherland (Harris 1992) is set in 1964, in a fictional reality where the Axis powers won the Second World War and Hitler, Heydrich, and Goebbels have managed to keep the majority of the population of the Greater German Reich ignorant of the multiple genocides the regime has perpetrated. In the final chapter, police detective Xavier March, who is being pursued by the Gestapo, discovers the ruins of Auschwitz concentration camp and realises that the conspiracy theories are true. The alternative history in Archangel (Harris 1998) is that Joseph Stalin had a son, who was brought up in the remote northern wilderness and whose psychopathic character traits were aggravated and honed for four decades. The secret stumbled upon by unscrupulous academic Fluke Kelso is that a reactionary Russian political faction is intending to place the son in the Kremlin, ushering in a new Stalinist regime at the end of the twentieth century. Polanski’s The Ghost begins with the protagonist (an anonymous ghost writer, played by Ewan McGregor) being interviewed for the job of completing former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang’s (played by Pierce Brosnan) memoirs, following the death of Mike McAra, his friend and aide.
The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) is, like Polanski’s The Ghost (2010), a faithful adaptation of the novel upon which it is based, published by Cormac McCarthy in 2005. The film begins with a voiceover by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones) as the audience is shown a short scene in which one of his deputies arrests Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem). The voiceover concludes as follows:
The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, okay … I’ll be part of this world. (No Country for Old Men 2007)
No Country for Old Men is set in Texas, near the border with Mexico, in the nineteen eighties, although the film reproduces the novel’s timelessness to the extent that it is most accurately described as a Western. The plot is initiated when Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong while hunting, discovering five pickup trucks, eight dead men, one wounded man, and a cargo of heroin bricks.
In ‘The ivorine tower in the city: Engaging urban studies after The Wire’, Rowland Atkinson and David Beer (2010) argue that urban studies scholars, sociologists, and social scientists cannot afford to ignore the release of the fifth and final season of the HBO television series The Wire (2002–08) in 2008. Although they do not use the terms, they are concerned with both the aetiological and pedagogic values of the series: with the way in which the series provides knowledge of the city in late capitalist decline and with the way in which the series facilitates, augments, or enhances the communication of knowledge of the city in late capitalist decline. Atkinson and Beer offer a two-stage defence of The Wire as a paradigm-changing event in social science. First, they make the uncontroversial claim that the series meets the criteria for academic research, providing knowledge of the dynamics, inequities, and social problems characteristic of cities and exploring the possibilities for social progress in cities. This is The Wire’s aetiological value, which could also be expressed in terms of the capacity of the series to do urban studies. I (McGregor 2019) recently made a similar case for James Ellroy’s (1995, 2001, 2009) Underworld USA Trilogy, arguing that the three novels taken together constitute a critical criminology because the Trilogy is an alternative way of doing criminology (an aspect of aetiological value that is related to, but distinct from, the provision of data that can be employed to reduce or prevent crime or social harm). I am thus in agreement that creating narrative fiction can be an alternative way of researching social science and my own experience of The Wire is sufficient to convince me that it is as valuable to criminology as it is to urban studies.
I have used seven case studies in this book, the first six to demonstrate the aetiological value of narrative fiction for criminology and the seventh to demonstrate the pedagogic value of narrative fiction for criminology. My weighting among these case studies reveals my primary interest in narrative fiction from a criminological perspective, which is in the cinematic mode of representation in general and feature films in particular. As discussed in Chapter 7, my focus has been on the Hollywood film industry and within that industry, for obvious reasons, on the genre of crime films. Within that genre, I have nonetheless neglected the single most famous director, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has directed Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and many other critically and commercially successful films, but did not win the Oscar for Best Director until The Departed in 2006. The Departed is a remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s much-lauded Infernal Affairs (2002), a product of the Hong Kong film industry. Scorsese tells the story of two young Irish American men growing up in precarious circumstances in a deprived part of South Boston. Colin Sullivan (played by Matt Damon) is groomed by crime boss Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson), who persuades him to join the Massachusetts State Police (MSP) as a spy for Costello’s organised criminal enterprise. Several years later, Billy Costigan (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is recruited direct from the police academy by Captain Queenan (played by Martin Sheen) to join Costello’s enterprise as an undercover officer.