It’s Criminal

Are you wondering what I was doing during my six months of blog silence? Well, I’ll tell you:  among other things, I was relocating from one Ohio city to another.

Some of the activities surrounding that moving event (pun intended) included sitting around at the new place waiting for contractors to show up and do their thing. I didn’t mind that, because it gave me an excuse to read.

Ordinarily, I feel guilty if I read in the middle of the day; something in the back of my mind tells me that’s something you should only do when your daily work is done. The problem is that by then, I’m too tired to read without falling asleep. That’s why I don’t do as much reading as I’d like. (Sadly, as my husband could tell you after we hauled all my books from one home to another, I have more than I can get through in my lifetime. And that’s just the bulky print books, not counting my Kindle.)

Be that as it may, as I sat in a camp chair in my empty living room, I entertained myself with an anthology of old crime novels from the 30s and 40s entitled… wait for it… Crime Novels. It contains the following stories:

  • The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy
  • Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
  • The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
  • Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
  • I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

You might recognize the first two titles from the movies that are based on them. There’s also an old 1950 movie adapted from the novel I Married a Dead Man, called No Man of Her Own.

I’ve never seen any of the movies, but I found all the novels to be engrossing reads. I liked Nightmare Alley the least, but all in all thought it a good addition to the collection. All the stories are a little dated, but skillfully written.

Some general thoughts went through my mind as I read them, and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.

All these stories involve a crime or crimes, deception, or other forbidden act, and are told from the point of view of the people who committed them. Probably because these were written in a time when society held clearly-delineated and generally-agreed-upon standards of right and wrong, things didn’t end well for these protagonists.

A couple of them died at the end. One was charged with murder and presumably executed after the story closed. One character ended up a circus geek—and if you’re not familiar with what that was, here’s a detailed explanation. (Note that the article credits the novel in question with popularizing the term). And one character was condemned by circumstances to live the rest of her life emotionally estranged from the man she loved. The only exception to this pattern of “just deserts” endings was The Big Clock, at the end of which the reader is left with the impression that although the erring protagonist escaped this time, he knew his lifestyle would catch up with him eventually.

Popular real-life outlaws Bonnie and Clyde

This all got me to wondering: Why are we so fascinated with criminals and crime? Is it because we harbor these tendencies ourselves? Do most people want to be wild, but feel restrained by the risks and/or a sense of morality? Is that why we like to live the outlaw life vicariously?

Or do we enjoy these stories because they make us feel superior, thinking, “I’d  never do anything like that”? Does looking down on others—even fictional others—give us an inflated sense of worth?

Why do all these characters get their comeuppance in the end? Did the authors write these as cautionary tales, intending to warn people away from the behaviors portrayed? Did they merely want to titillate the reader, but because of social mores felt they shouldn’t let the criminals come out on top?

I don’t know. What do you think?

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