Crime novels often deal with controversial subjects and difficult issues. They’re not always easy to read. Sometimes even high-quality crime novels that are very well-written can make the reader uncomfortable. So it shouldn’t be surprising that some novels that are arguably crime novels have also shown up on lists of banned or challenged books (by ‘challenged’ I mean cases where a formal request was made to remove a book from a library or a school). Some of these stories are more obvious examples of crime novels than others are. But either way, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at some of the titles that have made banned/challenged lists.
Interestingly, these novels haven’t been banned or challenged because they included crime (although in some cases, the reason cited has been violence). They’ve been banned or challenged at different times and in different places, so the circumstances aren’t the same for each story either. That said, here are a few examples.
Several of John Steinbeck’s novels and stories have been challenged or banned. Among them is Of Mice and Men. That novella tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two farm workers who are on their way from their former employer to a new ranch. Lennie is of limited intelligence, but he is a loyal (and large, strong) friend to George. They’ve had to leave their jobs because Lennie was accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress because he enjoyed stroking it. He and George are hoping to one day have a ranch of their own, but in the meantime, they take jobs at a new ranch. Trouble follows them though, this time in the form of an arrogant and dangerous boss’ son and his flirtatious wife. Matters get progressively worse until there’s a tragic death. Steinbeck doesn’t really end this story happily, either.
Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery was also banned for a time. It’s the story of a small town and the very unusual lottery that it engages in each year. Every family chooses one member to draw from the black carved box that’s been used for the lottery for as long as anyone can remember. As the story of that lottery and one family’s participation in it goes on, we see the real nature of the lottery. If you’d like to find out (or remind yourself) about this particular lottery, the story is right here.
Another book that’s been banned or challenged is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In that novel, Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White. It’s bad enough that this is an alleged rape; it’s worse that the events take place at a time and in a small-town culture where racism and segregation are rigidly enforced facts of life. Successful attorney Atticus Finch takes Robinson’s case despite the enormous public pressure to let the locals take the law into their own hands. As Finch investigates, he finds that this case is not nearly as clear-cut as it seems on the surface.
There’s also Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That’s the fictional retelling of an actual murder case. In 1959, Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie Mae and his children Nancy Mae and Kenyon were murdered at their home. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the murders. In this instance the motive for the murders was money. The two murderers had heard that Clutter kept a large amount of money hidden on his farm. That wasn’t true, but the killers believed it was and killed the Clutter family. Then they went on the run until they were caught at the end of that year. Capote’s novel tells about these crimes as well as about the murderers’ lives.
More recently, Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 has been on banned/challenged lists. This is the story of the Hayden family of Bentrock, Montana. Wesley Hayden is the local sheriff; his brother Frank is the local doctor. When Marie Little Soldier, who lives in the area, falls ill, Frank is called in to assist, but Marie won’t allow him near her. Then it comes out that it’s because, as she alleges, Frank’s been molesting the local Native American women. Then Marie dies. Now Wesley has to investigate his own brother, both for the alleged rapes and for murder. His choice to go ahead with the case tragically divides the Hayden family. The story is told from the perspective of Wesley’s son David, who is reflecting on it as a grown man.
You could also argue that Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which has also appeared on banned/challenged lists, has several elements of the crime novel. This novel traces the life of Sethe, a slave who escaped from Kentucky to Ohio. But although she’s physically free of the plantation, she’s not really free. She, her daughter Denver and (until they leave home) her sons Howard and Buglar live quietly enough in Cincinnati, but are haunted, possibly quite literally, by a ghost. Some (especially Denver) say it’s the ghost of Sethe’s baby daughter – a child who was killed before she could grow up. As the story goes on, we learn about Sethe’s slavery in Kentucky, the events that led to her escape, and the tragic death that has everything to do with what happens later in the story.
These stories have all been highly regarded. They’ve won all sorts of prizes and awards, and their authors have gotten much praise and attention. At the same time, they’ve been placed, for various reasons, on banned/challenged lists.
Now of course, winning an award is no guarantee that a book is truly great. And it’s certainly no guarantee that an individual reader will enjoy it. At the same time, being challenged or banned says absolutely nothing about a book’s quality either, or about its appeal for an individual reader. Speaking strictly for myself, I’d rather take a chance that an award-winning book will disappoint me than not have the opportunity to find out for myself.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together. A song that was itself censored…..