Today’s Daily Mail says there’s a tortoise crimewave. No they’re not armed and dangerous, hanging around street corners and mugging old ladies; they are apparently being stolen in ever-increasing numbers, though nobody is quite sure why. It’d take a lot of tortoises to make a fur coat – or a suit of armour – and what do you do with one if you receive one as stolen goods? “And in my rare creature display, I have a spur-thighed (no, I’m not making this up) tortoise. Oh no, actually it’s just a rock …”
But it makes me think – why are we so fascinated by crime? We read about it, we watch films and television series about it, we write about it – we even attend conventions and conferences celebrating it. Well maybe not celebrating the actual crimes, but the way we react to the crimes, true or fictional. Take true-crime. There have been many books written about Jack the Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper and many other serial killers. Why? Is it because we want to learn how the mind of such a twisted person works, so we can recognise it in the future? Is it because we want to see if – given the evidence presented – we could have come to a different conclusion from the police. Do we look for elements of ourselves or others? Or are we compartmentalising the evil in the world – putting it away in a box so we don’t let it spill over into our daily lives? I did a course in criminal psychology last year and it was fascinating looking at criminal profiling and how subjective the whole process can be.
Fictional crime: I’m not talking about police procedurals, cosy mysteries or whodunnits where the nasty stuff is over by the time you open the book or start watching the film. I’m talking about films and books about the crime itself – its perpetration, resolution and aftermath. The novel Still Missing caused an outcry on publication in America with claims that it was ‘torture porn’, that the sexual violence was gratuitous (I disagree) and that the morals of the nation were in decline. I remember watching Prime Suspect on television a while back and there were some quite horrific crimes. Even Cheshire soap Hollyoaks showed a much-criticised episode depicting male rape, although they did show it at a later time of day with a warning. And Eastenders and Coronation Street deal with murder, kidnap, baby-snatching almost every episode – that’s the nature of soap, but it seems that the daily catastrophes presented to the characters get ever more dark and bleak in nature. Are we so inured to crime that we have to increase the shock value, ratchet up the horror? If you’ve seen films like Saw and its sequels, you’ll have seen just how far the business goes in the name of entertainment.
For me, the line is always drawn at where the torture, crime or horror becomes gratuitous, superfluous to the story and included to make a point or for shock value or titillation. That’s going too far for me. I have no issue with any level of violence in a crime story, provided that it is necessary and relevant. But that still doesn’t answer the question why – why do we read and watch this stuff? Are we grateful it isn’t our child/husband/wife? Are we looking for answers in fiction to explain the fact that people do commit these atrocious acts? Or do we want to explore why people behave the way they do in the context of a story?
Personally I wish I wrote chick-lit. Life would be so much easier!