And Now I Know You Will Satisfy Me*

Banned Crime NovelsCrime 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…..


Filed under Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Larry Watson, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote

35 responses to “And Now I Know You Will Satisfy Me*

  1. Might the entry in any such list not just be a clever marketing trick?

    • Salva – Do you mean the list of banned/challenged books? If so, those titles come from lists of books that have either actually been removed or have had a formal request for removal from a library or school. That is, those titles have not been added to the ‘banned/challenged’ list just to add them. They have actually been either challenged or banned. If you meant another list, my apologies.

  2. Interesting list, and of the ones I’ve read, hard to see why they’d be banned, or even considered unsuitable for school libraries. The problem for me is not so much the banning of books but who selects them for banning and on what criteria. I know I’m in a minority on that, but ‘Bomb Making for Budding Terrorists’ sounds like a good book to ban to me, and I wasn’t one of those clamouring for Peter Wright’s right to break the Official Secrets Act with ‘Spycatcher’ and put his erstwhile colleagues at risk. But the question becomes where does the line get drawn, and we’d each of us draw it in a different place, I suspect. And in our global world, as ‘Spycatcher’ proved, banning is an increasingly hard thing to do.

    Challenging the suitability of books for school libraries is a whole other debate and depends very much on the age of the kids, I’d say, though the same problem of who decides still applies. Not that banning them stops kids reading ‘unsuitable’ books – I well remember that copy of ‘The Exorcist’ that went round our class when I was about 14… pretty sure that didn’t come from the school library! 😉

    • FictionFan – You make an interesting point. Even if we could all agree that certain books presented a threat, the question becomes who gets to decide what a threat is and which books fall into that category. And you’re right that today’s technology and today’s global access means that even if you do ban a book (assuming anyone could agree on what that book would be and who should decide), there’s no way to really prevent a book from being published and circulated. There are too many publishing and access options.
      As far as the books I’ve mentioned in this post go, most of them were at least challenged because of sexual references, offensive racial/sexual language, those kinds of reasons. A few have been challenged for reasons of violence. What’s interesting to me is that in some cases, that’s part of the whole point of the book – that racism or sexism or whatever is damaging.
      You do have a point that deciding whether a book is suitable for children really is different to deciding whether it is for adults. And yes, it does depend a lot on the young reader’s age and maturity level. And that presents a challenge in and of itself. Some ten-year-old readers are at a different level of maturity to others. And as you say, who decides what ‘counts’ as ‘suitable?” And on what basis? There are for instance parent groups and school groups that challenge books because of their religious beliefs rather than something like students’ cognitive maturity. It’s a whole different discussion when it’s young people, but still complicated. And of course you’re right; simply not putting a book on a school library shelf isn’t going to prevent kids reading it.

  3. Interesting subject. Australia banned US book imports in the 40’s and 50’s which led to a cottage industry of small book publishers. And the lifting of censorship laws in the early 60’s

    • Scott – You bring in a whole new dimension to this discussion. Some books have been banned because of their country of origin or because a given country wants to support its own publishing industry. That presents quite a lot of its own challenges…

  4. It is interesting looking at the list of books on the list and I wonder whether those people that agree a book should be removed from a library etc. have all actually read the book.

    • Cleo – Now that’s a good question! And sometimes I do indeed wonder about the thought processes involved. Just as one example, one book that I didn’t mention here because it’s not really crime fiction is The Diary of Anne Frank. That’s been challenged/banned on the basis of sexual content. To me, that’s not in the least bit really the point of the novel.

  5. Fascinating – and of course disheartening to see the attempts made to suppress so many great and important works. Apparently THE GREAT GATSBY was was challenged at the Baptist College in South Carolina! Great talking points here, as always – thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. And I agree; it is disheartening to think about the truly excellent literature that has been banned or challenged. The Great Gatsby has so much to offer as a novel, and lots of ideas for students to consider, and that’s just one example. I’m glad you mentioned it too because it shows how some of the world’s really find novels don’t get new readership.

  6. Col

    I can only recall some films that were banned over here – A Clockwork Orange, Natural Born Killers..though eventually they got released.

    • Col – There’ve been a few films that haven’t been picked up in US cinemas too. Naturally I can’t think of any at the moment but I know it’s happened. But as you say, eventually those films get released.

  7. In some countries crime books are banned as part of a much more general and widespread cultural clampdown.

    I wouldn’t know where to start with the history of banned books in my own country. Many of Ireland’s greatest writers had their novels banned from the 1930s to the 1960s, after which things were eventually relaxed.

    It was almost like a badge of honour, showing you’d finally made it. You can add many leading international names too – Salinger, DH Lawrence, Balzac, Aldous Huxley…

    Contrary to popular belief, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (not crime fiction, I know, but…) was never actually banned in his own country. It just was never imported to put on sale, for fear of a ban.

    I’d guess a more important form of censorship in terms of the development of crime fiction in Ireland (both a readership and a community of writers) was the draconian clampdown on foreign magazines. True-life crime mags were hit in particular, though I’m not sure how many pulp fiction publications were targetted.

    Among those titles banned in the late 1950s for having “an unduly large proportion of space for the publication of matter related to crime” (but Your Honour, it’s a CRIME magazine!!!!) were “Amazing Detective Cases”, “Detective Weekly” and “Famous Crime Stories”.

    • Mel – Thanks for sharing some of Ireland’s history when it comes to banning books and other cultural capital. And the list of banned writers you share includes such talented writers! I can see why being banned was looked at as a badge of honour. And how very fascinating that there was actually banning of crime magazines like Detective Weekly. As you say, they’re crime magazines; of course they devote space to publication of matter related to crime. I think you have an interesting and accurate view of book/magazine banning as, in many cases, part of a larger attempt to create and enforce a particular cultural code – a cultural clampdown. ‘Food for thought,’ for which thank you.

  8. It’s hard to imagine the mindset of people who believe banning is the way to deal with ideas you don’t like. I think a school library can make a decision on age-appropriate materials, but once the children are mid-teens that becomes less of an issue. And outside schools – who would presume to know what is right and wrong for other people? Plenty of people do, but it’s hard to understand.

    • Moira – I think it’s hard to understand too. As you say, it’s one thing for a school library team to make choices of books based on age-appropriateness if the students are young children. As children get older though, it does become less of an issue – or should. And the end result of banning books isn’t the eradication of certain ideas anyway. It doesn’t work. So I’ve never understood either why people think it does.

  9. kathy d.

    This topic is just maddening. I looked at the Banned Book land see 14 books I have read. And to see that The Grapes of Wrath and Beloved, both of which are in my top 10 favorite books is just wrong. I read The Grapes of Wrath while a teen-ager and it broadened my understanding of the Depression and my empathy and compassion. Beloved is such an amazing book about slavery that it is hard to read too much at once it is so painful. Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for that one.
    So, to ban such brilliant and prize-winning books is absurd.
    And when I remember years ago that Our Bodies, Our Selves, which was a “Bible” for women on health and everything else, was banned for years in different cities’ bookstores and libraries, it’s absurd. That book helped saved someone’s life years ago; she found a description of her symptoms and rushed to an ER and had life-saving surgery. I’m looking at taht book now on my bookshelf, along with Ourselves Growing Older.
    Many books have been banned by schools or libraries. However, the books that high school students read now were not available when I was a teenager. The topics are very contemporary and some deal with very profound social problems, but they are issues that young folks do deal with.
    But the banning is part of a political agenda usually, to stop certain ideas and experiences from being read about and discussed.
    There’s nothing that parents and teachers can’t discuss with young people. Books open up an avenue to do so.
    This I learned from a teacher friend whose teenage daughter read everything in high school, topics I never read about at her age, but which were fine with her.

    • Kathy – You make a very good point that some extremely high quality books have been on banned or challenged lists. You mention two of them, and of course there are many others. So banning or challenging a book certainly doesn’t mean it’s badly written. Of course everyone’s taste is different, but your point’s well-taken. And as you say, there have been some excellent books with important information that haven’t been published for the same kind of reason.
      You make a very important point about reading for young people too. There’s research that shows that we engage more with books, and read more if they have a personal meaning for us. And as you mention, young people do face a lot of serious social and other challenges. So when those issues come up in books, they can have particular resonance with young readers. If young people can’t identify with the themes, characters and so on in what they read, they won’t engage as much in reading.
      When it comes to young people, parents and teachers can indeed talk about the books, their themes and so on. Not only does that help the young person learn as s/he’s exposed to new ideas, but also it’s good family bonding.

  10. Fascinating, Margot. I didn’t know that ‘The Lottery’ had been banned. It is hard to see why. And banning a book can actually give it more glamour. I remember reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a teenager – like ‘The Exorcist’ it was passed around. It was after the trial, so it wasn’t actually banned, but just the fact that it had been made it forbidden fruit.
    So is there never a case for banning a book? Maybe . . . Germany has not allowed the republication of Mein Kampf and I can sympathise with that. Not sure that they are right all the same . . .

    • Chrissie – Thank you. And yes, The Lottery was banned in South Africa for a time during the apartheid years. It’s interesting too isn’t it how being banned can give a book more cachet. That’s been true for a very long time, too. I have an original paperback copy for instance of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. My grandmother told me that that book got passed around quite a lot, and part of the reason was that it was as you say ‘forbidden fruit.’
      You ask an interesting question about whether there is ever a case for banning a book. I think we could all imagine one or another ban-worthy book or topic. But the big question would be who gets to decide…

  11. I can certainly chime in and attest to the fact that the more you ban a book or film, the more likely you are to increase its attractiveness. I don’t want to sound like ‘in my days everyone was much better read’, but it is probably true that because so many books were banned or heavily censored in our country as I was growing up, we were all avid consumers of those books. Nowadays, youngsters are more interested in games or films rated 18+. Maybe we should put that notice on all books!

    • Marina Sofia – That’s an interesting point! It’s very easy to take for granted the freedom to just read whatever one wants to read. We assume it’ll be there. When a book or film is banned, it becomes all the more enticing.

  12. On an unrelated matter, I have always enjoyed your blog. That’s why I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award. If you choose to accept it– you are not obligated to– check out my blog today.

  13. Another interesting post, Margot. There will always be people who want to control what other people do (or are exposed to). A sad state of affairs. I don’t suppose I should be surprised at a song being censored, but I was.

    • Tracy – It really was. The story goes (and of course, I wasn’t backstage and don’t know who exactly said what…) that Ed Sullivan hosted the group on his show, asking them to change the lyric from ‘Let’s spend the night together’ to ‘Let’s spend some time together.’ The group decided not to allow that censorship and Mick Jagger sang the original lyrics with just enough mumbling that no-one could be exactly sure that they didn’t co-operate. The Rolling Stones were not invited back onto the show.

  14. kathy d.

    I didn’t know that about the Rolling Stones either. Gosh, I just took for granted years ago.
    I do know that the Smothers Brothers were virtually banned from TV and blacklisted throughout the entertainment industry for years because they were outspoken against the Vietnam War.
    The most repressive governments ban books. They think they can stop people from reading and thinking. This doesn’t usually work. People find ways to get books and think anyway.

  15. Banned books tell us a lot of the sociological atmosphere at the time the book came to print.The books you mentioned, Margot in your post would likely not be banned today. Interesting how these banned books became literary classics. Thanks for the link to The Lottery. It reminded me of The Hunger Games – which likely would have been banned in Shirley Jackson’s time..

    • Carol – You’re quite right about that, and it’s a way of thinking about this issue that didn’t occur to me while I was writing this post. Thanks. And yes, The Hunger Games probably would have been banned or at least restricted during the 1940s….

  16. I can think of at least one book that is a very deary read, and would have sunk without a trace (at least in India), except for the fact that the book very smartly got itself banned in the country. People were then smuggling in copies of the book, photocopying it (and this was in the late ’80s when photocopying was not as prevalent as it is now), or otherwise clamouring to lay their hands on a copy. Abroad, people bought the book so they could burn it in public, and the hype surrounding the fatwa on the writer ensured the book became a bestseller. The book is Rushdi’s Satanic Verses, and till date, I am not sure if getting itself banned was not a part of a marketing campaign that got out of hand. Or maybe I am just being cynical.

    That said, I am totally against banning books. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. But nobody has the right to force their opinions on someone else. And while I believe in the power of the written (or spoken) word, I am not at all sure any book can force person to do something he is not in any case inclined to do. My kids are prime examples of the latter.

    There was a time when I hesitated before letting my son read certain books which I thought he was not quite read to process, but since I am ethically opposed to censorship, I let him read those books. Guess what, he processed them in his own way, and I’m now gladder than glad I didn’t ban anything.

    • Natasha – Oh, I remember Satanic Verses and all of the talk that surrounded it. I didn’t know it had been banned in India, although I did know there was a fatwa on Rushdie. It is interesting how just being forbidden can add to a book’s appeal. That may be cynical but I think there is truth to it.
      Still, as you say, banning books accomplishes nothing, and there’s no need for it. If people don’t want to read a certain author book, they don’t have to do so. Thanks too for sharing that story about your son. He’s fortunate to have you as his mother, and he learned an important lesson when you let him read those books. He learned that you respect his judgement.

  17. Pingback: When Ireland banned crime fiction (and still does) | Mel Healy

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