Well, You Say That I’m an Outlaw*

Criminals as ProtagonistsIn crime fiction, we usually think of the protagonist as ‘the good guy’ – the one who catches ‘the bad guy.’ But people who break the law can also be really interesting protagonists and even sleuths. Having a criminal as a protagonist gives a really interesting perspective on a crime. It also allows for some solid depth of character.

One of G.K. Chesterton’s well-drawn characters is Hercule Flambeau, who is a master jewel thief and criminal. He’s usually able to outwit the police, but when he encounters Father Paul Brown in The Blue Cross, Flambeau finds he’s met his match. In that story, Father Brown is en route to a large gathering of priests. With him he’s brought a silver cross set with turquoise – a very attractive prize to a thief such as Flambeau. The story of how the two men interact and of how Father Brown deals with Flambeau is interesting and certainly from Flambeau’s perspective, unusual. We meet Flambeau in other stories too where he is at least the co-protagonist and although he has a criminal past, he’s painted quite sympathetically.

Agatha Christie takes an interesting look at the criminal-as-protagonist in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). Ten very different people receive invitations to stay as guests at a house on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts. On the night of their arrival, the guests are shocked when each is accused of being a criminal, specifically of causing the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. It’s soon clear that they are trapped on the island with a murderer. As more guests begin to die, the survivors have to find out who the killer is while at the same time staying alive themselves. As we learn the backstory of each person on the island, we also learn why their un-named host considers them criminals. But they’re not entirely unsympathetic people and we can feel for them as they try to decide who can be trusted and who not.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank is the story of a group of criminals led by professional thief Mike Daniels. The team decides to try for a very big prize: a theft from the City Savings Bank. Their bold plan is to use the sewer system to tunnel under the bank. For that though they’ll need the help of an architect. They find their man in the person of Stephen Booker, an unemployed architect who’s taken to driving a night cab to put food on the table. He’s desperate for money so against his better judgement he falls in with the thieves. The group makes elaborate preparations and as they do, Pollock shows the thieves in a sympathetic light. Here for instance is Daniels’ description of thieves:


‘Thieves. You might just as well say salesmen or clerks in an office. It’s their business. It’s what they do. There’s nothing strange about it, not to them anyway…They do what everybody does. They have girlfriends or wives and children and hobbies. They build shelves in the kitchen and clean their cars on Sundays.’

The day of the robbery arrives and at first everything goes well. Then a storm moves in, bringing a lot of rain with it. Now the thieves face a literal life-or-death struggle as they try to go for their prize.

In Tony Broadbent’s The Smoke, we meet Jethro, a professional cat burglar living in post-World War II London’s West End.  He tries to convince the world that he’s ‘gone straight,’ so he takes a job in the theatre district. His real goal though is easy access to the wealthy homes in nearby Mayfair and Belgravia. At first, he’s able to go fairly un-noticed even though most people in the criminal world are convinced that he has no intention of living an ‘upright’ life. Then Jethro decides on a real coup: emeralds belonging to the wife of the Russian Ambassador. That break-in gets the interest of MI5 and Jethro soon finds himself facing off against them, the police and fellow criminals. While it’s quite clear that Jethro’s a criminal, it’s easy to feel sympathy for him.

In Jeffrey Stone’s historical novel Play Him Again we are introduced to Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson. Hud has dreams of becoming a film-maker in the growing world of Hollywood. But at the moment he’s a ‘rum-runner’ – a smuggler of then-illegal alcohol (the novel takes place in the 1920’s). Hud is devastated when his friend Danny is murdered, Hud wants to find out who killed him and get revenge. There are plenty of suspects too. For one thing, a very nasty criminal gang has moved into the area and wants to take over Hud and Danny’s operation. There are rival smuggling groups too whose members would be all too happy to have the field cleared as the saying goes. As Hud searches for answers, it’s clear that he and several of the people he deals with are criminals – thieves, con men and smugglers. But Stone presents a lot of them sympathetically and it’s not hard to wish Hud well as he tries to find out what happened to his friend.

Even when criminals aren’t ‘official’ protagonists, they can play important roles in novels and be depicted sympathetically. For example, Andrea Camilleri’s series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano includes a very interesting ‘regular’ character Gegè Gullotta. He’s a drug dealer and local criminal leader who runs a notorious area of the town of Vigàta. This area, called The Pasture, is a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients and for small-time marijuana and other drug deals. Gullotta and Montalbano went to school together and they’ve maintained a cordial relationship since then, although both of them find it more expedient to keep their friendship discreet. Gullotta wants to run a trouble-free operation; as he sees it he’s a businessman, nothing more. In his way Montalbano helps Gullotta by not making public examples of the people involved in Gullotta’s ‘enterprises.’ Gullotta appreciates being able to run a peaceful trade and he does his part by not letting things in The Pasture get out of control or trouble people who don’t want to be involved in what goes on there. He’s also quite tuned in to the Vigàta criminal community so he hears a lot of what goes on. More than once Montalbano benefits from what Gullotta finds out.

It’s always interesting to see stories from different points of view. When criminals are portrayed as protagonists, it’s important for authors to acknowledge that they’re lawbreakers. But at the same time, a criminal with a sympathetic character can make for an effective perspective in a crime novel. Which ones have you enjoyed?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, G.K. Chesterton, Jeffrey Stone, Robert Pollock, Tony Broadbent

22 responses to “Well, You Say That I’m an Outlaw*

  1. In terms of classic mysteries, Margot, surely the ideal example would be Maurice Leblanc’s character, Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief. Lupin may be a thief, but he has an open hand to help those in need, and an open heart to go with it. He is also mischievous, as the police who have gone up against him have learned. I remember one delightful story where Sherlock Holmes himself is summoned to help catch Lupin – who promptly steals the great detective’s watch! In another story, he sends a note to a very rich man, whose castle Lupin intends to burgle, suggesting that the man could save them both a good deal of trouble if he just ships his valuables directly to Lupin. He’s a marvelous character, still quite popular in his native France!

    • Les – I hoped you would mention Lupin. You’re exactly correct about his appeal as a character. Leblanc depicts him sympathetically without denying the fact that he’s a lawbreaker. I can see why French readers like him.

  2. I can’t recall “criminals as protagonists” in crime-fiction but I have enjoyed reading the spy thrillers of Jack Higgins (real name: Harry Patterson) whose heroes are former members of the IRA and are often hired by British intelligence for covert and unofficial assignments. They are criminals in the public eye but Higgins has romanticised their characters to the extent that you forget they had a dubious past which, in any case, is always narratied in the flashback. Ms. Kinberg, I have been reading your varied posts these past few days but haven’t been able to comment on account of having to attend expos and conferences for my newspaper. There is some welcome respite this weekend.

    • Prashant – You have an interesting point about spy thrillers like Higgins’. Many of them are former IRA members or members of other similar groups. And yes, they are criminals but Higgins paints them sympathetically and of course they turn out to be valuable on assignment. I hope your newspaper conference has been going well and that you’ve been enjoying the presentations.

  3. kathy d.

    I know what I don’t enjoy is narrators who turn out to be the perpetrators. Read a novel by Thomas Cook once and that was the case. And I know there is a quite famous case of this phenomenon in Agatha Christie’s writing. No spoilers here.
    And, gee, Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd, haven’t heard that in decades, probably since teenagehood when we listened to his music and the Weavers. And I remember, “And in the fight that followed, he laid that deputy down.” Guthrie sure wrote great lyrics. A terrific biography was shown recently on PBS about him.

    • Kathy – I know what you mean. I’ve read books where the narrator is the perpetrator and to me, it takes a deft hand to do that well. I think the Christie you refer to is a good example of how it can be done effectively, but it doesn’t always work out well. And as for Woody Guthrie? He was an incredibly talented person and an interesting one and so is his son Arlo.

  4. The Ripley’s books by Patricia Highsmith that I read almost thirty years ago will always come to my mind, Margot.

  5. I find that reading tells you as much about yourself as it does about the world or even the author of the book. And something I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I’m not nearly as liberal-minded as I’d like to believe. Turns out I don’t have much time for criminals and don’t really want to read stories from their point of view, especially not if they are the career criminal type. If I know about this in advance I will rarely pick up the book to begin with and if I discover it along the way I struggle to read on.

    There are exceptions – George Pelecanos’ THE WAY HOME springs to mind as a novel I very much enjoyed but that was really about an accidental criminal who was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m also quite OK if a book looks at things from the point of view of someone who is legally a criminal but who wouldn’t be a criminal if the world was organised to my way of thinking (e.g. a prostitute or drug taker as I don’t think these activities should be criminal).

    • Bernadette – That’s a really interesting point I hadn’t thought an awful lot about before. What we read does say a lot about us and our views on life. I’ll have to start thinking about what my own bookshelves and Kindle say about my life assumptions… You’re not alone in preferring not to read about criminals’ perspectives actually. Even if they are sympathetic characters they are criminals and a lot of people would just as well rather not read about their points of view. And I’ve read books where the fact of the criminal’s crimes were so glossed over that that reality – this is a career criminal – was practically excused. It really does take a deft hand to make us care what a criminal thinks as a protagonist.
      As to people who are legally criminals but perhaps shouldn’t be, that’s a fascinating question in and of itself. I’ve read books like that (Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus comes to my mind) that are told at least in part from the point of view of someone ‘in the life’ and yes, those characters can be sympathetic and interesting. It’s a good example that our perceptions have a really powerful effect on whether we’re prepared to like a character or at least find that character worth getting to know.

  6. Margot: My most recent reading experience of the sympathetic criminal was the 80 year old protagonist, George, in The Suspect by L.R. Wright who kills his neighbour on the first page. It was engrossing.

    Another example closer to your home is in T. Jefferson Parker’s book, L.A. Outlaws, where schoolteacher, Suzanne Jones by day, is armed robber, Allison Murietta, by night. Parker does more than make her sympathetic.

    Overall, I will disagree with Bernadette. To me knowing the criminal is more than a cardboard character makes the book more realistic. From real life I know there is always more to the story than the police / prosecutor version. Few people are the incarnation of the devil.

    • Bill – That’s the thing about people. Real people aren’t ‘black and white.’ And your examples of L.A. Outlaws and The Suspect are really solid illustrations of that. They’ve reminded me in fact of Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day for Sorry. I don’t condone crime and certainly not murder. But those protagonists are at least presented as much, much more than just hard-hearted killers. This discussion is really making me think about how the way we look at life and our assumptions about it affects what we think of what we read.
      And I’m sure you’ve had a lot of experience given your profession of hearing ‘the whole story.’ As you say, most people can’t be summed up on a police report.

      • I suppose I am being a little strong in saying I don’t care for criminals but it stems partly at least from what I think of as the trend towards the glamorisation of criminality. Here in Australia we’ve virtually made a modern day hero out of a man who has done more than 20 years in prison for a variety of things including kidnapping, arson, various assaults, armed robbery and murder and who was apparently one of the most violent people the prison system had ever had to deal with. Our most popular locally produced TV drama for the past 5 or so years has been a series which each year devotes itself to the depiction of the loosely fictionalised actions of leading organised criminal gangs from different eras in the country’s history. We’re busy making celebrities out of murdering, raping thugs while their victims are left to flounder about on their own. Even the people from the same backgrounds as some of the criminals who make the choice NOT to pursue a life of criminal behaviour are completely ignored. I do know that not all crime fiction which focuses on things from the criminal’s point of view is talking about these kinds of criminals but it does seem to be appearing more often. Even something as innocuous as Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters annoyed me from this perspective as it was basically a showdown between two nasty criminals who both had plenty of other options in their lives and I was almost angry at the author’s manipulation in trying to make either one of them sympathetic.

        As I said earlier even I have exceptions where I have found looking at things from a criminal’s point of view to offer insight on the world but for me these are usually cases where a person has arrived at ‘being criminal’ either through accident or through desperate circumstances with no alternatives. I just can’t summon up a lot of sympathy for people who’ve deliberately chosen a life that involves inflicting pain and fear on others.

        • Bernadette – I’ve noticed a glamourisation of the criminal life too, both in real life and in crime fiction. I don’t know if it”s morbid fascination or something else, but I think you’re quite right that this happens. We’ve had cases here in the States of people who were responsible for all sorts of crime being given celebrity status and book deals. I agree with you that that attitude completely overlooks the victim. People who commit crimes are more than a few lines on a police blotter. Sometimes there are reasons that they’ve become criminals – reasons that change our views of them entirely. And I am glad that the trial system in most places gives people the opportunity to state their cases. That said though I have just as much contempt as you do for those who are thugs or worse because it’s their conscious choice. I don’t like to read about them either. As I mention in the post there are those stories who can tell a good story from a criminal’s point of view but that takes a really deft hand. In my case (And this may be just I), I think it has to do with the crime that was committed and reasons for it. It also has to do with the rest of the story’s quality. It’s not easy to do though and I don’t blame you one bit for being wary of that kind of story.

  7. I agree with Bill. I think the criminal is usually worth knowing pretty well. Otherwise what do we get out of it beside a temporary diversion. I guess it comes down to why do you read.

    • Patti – You’ve got a good point. The central question is what do we want to get from what we read? And that tells us a lot about ourselves and our relationship with books. After all, we read different things for different reasons.

  8. kathy d.

    Hmmm. I thought I didn’t like to read anything from the “suspect’s” point of view. But here Bill dashed that point somewhat by bringing up L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, which I liked so much and referred it to him and other bloggers. George is a very sympathetic “suspect,” with good reasons for his actions.
    Sophie Littlefield’s books are good, too and her protagonist’s actions are well-meaning and payback for some awful crimes against women.
    These books have to do with abuse of women and lead the “suspects” to take action, much of it justified homicide, although I would not suggest murder as a way of dealing with this in real life.
    Now, Michael Connelly’s Scarecrow tells part of the book from the criminal’s point of view. I could read that one. It was okay, about what I can deal with.
    What I do not like is books told from a psychopathic or sociopathic killer or rapist or pedophile’s point of view. I won’t get a book featuring that element nor read those italicized chapters or parts of chapters that are from the perpetrator’s viewpoint.
    I read a book by Tess Gerritsen where the victim’s point of view alternated with that of the psychopathic killer/rapist/kidnapper point of view. I skipped his internal monologue, all in separate italicized chapters.
    I guess it’s evaluating one book at a time.

    • Kathy – I think most people do just that – they evaluate one book at a time. Like you, for instance, I purposefully avoid most novels where the story is told from a psychopathic killer’s point of view – a character who has no regard for others or their humanity. I’ve only ever read a very, very, very few I thought were good and as for the rest, well, I choose not to spend my money and my reading time that way. On the other hand there are books (and as I say it’s not easy to do this) in which we understand why a criminal is in ‘the life.’ That point of view can be interesting and when it’s done skillfully, can add a different perspective. It’s a really difficult question, which is why I’m enjoying the discussion. If every question were easily answered and agreed upon, book discussions would be boring.

  9. There are some characters, who if not the criminal, you certainly wouldn’t want to meet in real life but are attractive on the page. In Lawrence Block Matt Scudder series, his friend Mick Ballou is clearly a criminal anf yet BLock somehow manages to make him attractive.

    • Sarah – You’ve got a well-taken point. There are characters (and Ballou’s one of them) who’ve been made appealing in fiction but whom you wouldn’t want to meet in real life. And I think it really says something of Block that he’s made Ballou an interesting character. It’s not easy to do that effectively.

  10. This post made me think of Sophie LIttlefield’s Stella Hardesty who hides her vigilante actions from the law while lusting after the sheriff. She’s a lawbreaker, yet we cheer her on and I do believe the sheriff looks the other way in spite of knowing what she’s up to.

    • Pat – I was thinking Stella Hardesty too. Trouble was I thought about her after my post *sigh*… She is a great example of exactly what I mean though, so thanks.

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