Societal attitudes play a major role in the way we perceive people who are involved in crime. In some cases, people are even held responsible for crimes when really they’re the victims if you think about it. ‘Blaming the victim’ has a long history in society, and of course we see plenty of it in crime fiction too. When that plot point is done well, it can really hold a mirror up to a way of thinking.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, for example, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murder of Enoch Drebber, an American visitor to London. One possibility is that his secretary and travel companion Joseph Stangerson is the killer. But when Stangerson himself is murdered, it’s clear that something else is behind these murders. Holmes traces the murders back to past events and a history that Drebber and Stangerson shared. One key point in this plot is that the murderer could very well be described as a victim who’d been blamed for what was really more of a societal wrong.
Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers is the story of the life and death of twenty-four-year-old Wendy Hanniford. Her father Cale Hanniford finds out that she’s been stabbed and approaches ex-NYPD cop Matthew Scudder to help him find out why. Hanniford knows that Wendy’s room-mate Richard Vanderpoel has been arrested for the crime, and for good reason. He was found with the victim’s blood on him, and he can’t give a satisfactory alibi for the time of the crime. What Hanniford really wants to know is what led to the crime – what Wendy was like as an adult and how she ended up dead. Scudder agrees to ask some questions and begins looking into Wendy’s past. The closer he gets to the kind of person Wendy was, the more it seems that the story of her murder is not as simple as it seems. In the end, we find that Wendy’s death is a solid case of ‘blaming the victim.’
There’s another example of ‘blaming the victim’ in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep. When Dr. Everett Seeley is forced to give up medicine because of his cocaine habit, he decides to go to Mexico for the time being. He sets up his wife Marion in a Phoenix apartment and arranges for her to have a ‘safe’ job as a filing clerk/typist at the exclusive Werden Clinic. He’s hoping that she’ll be all right until his return, and at first, all goes well. Then, Marion strikes up a friendship with Louise Mercer, a nurse at the clinic, and her room-mate Ginny Hoyt. As Marion gets drawn more and more into their dangerous lives and lifestyles, she finds herself getting closer and closer to the proverbial edge. To make matters worse, she meets businessman Joe Lanigan, a ‘friend’ of Mercer’s and Hoyt’s. The relationship they strike up leads to tragedy for everyone and raises the question of who the victim really is. This novel is based on a real-life case, and in both instances we can ask the question of whether the victim is being blamed.
Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly begins with the arrest of Marco Ribetti, an activist who ‘s been protesting against several of the glass-blowing factories in the Venice area. He believes they’re illegally dumping toxic waste and are polluting the environment. When he and his group protest against a factory owned by powerful Giovanni de Cal, he’s arrested. De Cal makes quite a scene, blaming Ribetti for causing trouble. Ribetti asks his friend Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello for help in his case and Vianello agrees to see what he can do. He and his boss Commissario Guido Brunetti look into the question of how the glass-blowing factories get rid of toxic waste; that search leads them to Giorgio Tassini, a night-watchman for de Cal’s factory. Tassini has always believed the factories were illegally dumping toxic waste and is only too happy to share his theory with the police. Then one night he’s killed in what seems on the surface to be a tragic accident that occurred because he was working on his own glass project when he should have been attending to his duties. But Brunetti isn’t so sure that’s what happened, and he begins to investigate further. In the end, he finds out the truth about Tassini’s death and we see that the strategy of ‘blaming the victim’ has been used to cover up murder.
In John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, ten-year-old Tonya Hailey, who is Black, is brutally raped by two White men Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. The small Mississippi town in which she lives is shocked at the incident and there’s a lot of sympathy for her family. Her father Carl Lee Hailey is determined that Cobb and Willard won’t get away with what they did. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courthouse. As attorney Jake Brigance prepares to defend Hailey, he’s up against considerable odds. For one thing, there’s little doubt that Hailey shot Cobb and Willard. For another, there are some powerful local people who want to ensure that Hailey is convicted or worse. On the one hand, you can argue that Hailey is a murderer. On the other hand, one can certainly ask the question of who the victim really is.
There’s a clear case of ‘blaming the victim’ in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This is a fictional retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan, who was imprisoned in Melbourne in 1900 for the drowning murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie first meets Jack Hardy while she’s still living at home with her parents in rural Victoria. She falls in love with Hardy and he seems to reciprocate. In fact, they become engaged, although he asks her to keep it secret until he can make a life for them. Shortly thereafter, Hardy leaves for New South Wales to find work. Then, Maggie finds out that she’s pregnant and writes to Hardy with the news. He doesn’t respond, but she continues to try to reach him. Knowing that her parents won’t accept her given that she’s unwed and pregnant, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she finds work in a Guest House. Baby Jacky is duly born and mother and son are both healthy. At first, they go to a home for unwed mothers. But then, Maggie learns that Hardy has moved to the Melbourne area. She finally tracks him down, only to have him outright reject her and the baby, even saying that she’s crazy. With very little money, Maggie goes from one lodging place to another that night and is turned away from six of them. That’s when the tragedy with the baby occurs. She’s arrested and tried for murder, and then imprisoned. Throughout the novel, the question of who is really to blame forms an important theme.
It does in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. Ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty has made a life for himself in Bangkok with his wife Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own cleaning company. Also sharing Rafferty’s life is Miaow, a former street child he’s hoping to adopt. One day he gets word that Australian tourist Clarissa Ulrich is looking for him. She’s heard he has the reputation of being able to find people who don’t want to be found, and she wants to find out what happened to her Uncle Claus, who seems to have disappeared. Rafferty agrees to ask a few questions and finds some leads to follow. The trail leads him to an enigmatic and intimidating elderly woman Madame Wing who, it turns out, has another case for him. She agrees to give Rafferty the information he wants if he’ll help her. He takes on that case and ends up getting drawn into a tangled web of murder and revenge for the past. In this novel, it’s clear how people can be blamed for things when actually, they are victims.
Using the plot point of ‘blaming the victim’ allows an author to explore societal issues in the context of telling a story. It also allows for character depth. These are just a few examples; which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Cell Block Tango.