Today There Is No Black or White*

An interesting article in Punk Noir Magazine has got me thinking about the way characters are portrayed in crime fiction. In it, crime writer Tess Makovesky makes the point that one difference between many American crime dramas and many UK crime dramas is that, as she puts it, American drama,

‘tends to have a much stronger moral message of ‘good vs evil…’’

It’s an interesting point. And to me, it speaks to a larger issue in crime fiction.

Most of us like our crime-fictional characters to be nuanced. We don’t want them to be all good or all evil. After all, real people aren’t generally all good or all evil. And any one of us might commit a crime, depending on the circumstances. At the same time, plenty of people want to see a sense of order restored in their crime fiction. They want the ‘bad guy’ to get comeuppance, and the ‘good guy’ to prevail, or at least the ‘good guy’ to survive another day. Balancing those two can be tricky. But, when it’s done well, the result can be effective.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Abbey Grange is the story of the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. On the surface, it looks as though Brackentsall was the victim of the Randall gang, which has been going the rounds of the houses in the area and robbing where they can. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise, so Inspector Stanley Hopkins asks Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to look into the matter. Holmes finds a piece of evidence that leads him directly to the killer, and he lures that person to a meeting. There, we learn that this isn’t a case of a ‘bad guy’ killing a ‘good guy.’ It’s more complex than that, so Holmes’ response is more nuanced than simply having Hopkins haul away the murderer.

Agatha Christie’s work includes several stories where the whole question of ‘good and evil’ and ‘right vs wrong’ is layered and nuanced. I don’t want to give away too many details, for fear of spoilers, but I’m thinking in particular of Murder on the Orient Express, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Dumb Witness, and The Hollow. There are others, too, of course. And it’s interesting how Christie’s sleuths respond to those complex situations. On the one hand, they believe that murder is wrong. On the other hand, they also know that the world is not really ‘black and white.’ There are any number of reasons that a person might take a life, and any number of factors that might make a situation morally ambiguous.

In Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy, we meet Fabio Montale. In the first novel, Total Chaos, he is police officer who’s trying to do the best he can in a police force that’s filled with corruption, and in a city were the proverbial deck is stacked against those who are poor, especially if they are immigrants. When two former friends of his are murdered, Montale feels an obligation to find out what really happened. In the process, he runs up against some very dangerous people. And he makes some difficult choices, not all of which are ‘good guy’ things to do. His character is, in some ways, deeply flawed. But he tries to do the best he can, even if it’s not going to do much good in the end (it’s that sort of trilogy). Certainly, these novels do not focus on ‘good v evil,’ with the ‘bad guys’ getting theirs in the end.

Neither does William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, which introduces Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw. When eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing after a night at a disco, her father, Bud, goes to the police, where Laidlaw listens to his story. At first, Laidlaw suggests that she might have spent the night somewhere and will return soon. But only hours later, a young woman’s body is found in Kelvingrove Park. When it is identified as Jennifer Lawson’s, Laidlaw and the team have a murder case on their hands. And it turns out to be much more nuanced and complex than it seems on the surface. As Laidlaw continues to investigate, the question of who the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ are becomes quite murky. And even his own choices aren’t always what people would call ‘good,’ even if he does what he does for the right reasons. That ambiguity adds much to the story.

L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins just after eighty-year-old George Wilcox kills eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. He leaves Burke’s home, and then returns later to report the murder to the police. RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg takes the case and begins investigating. It’s not long before he suspects Wilcox, but what he doesn’t have is a motive. The two men knew each other for a long time, and weren’t exactly close. But that doesn’t count as a good murder motive. As the story goes on, we learn more about both the killer and the victim, and we learn what the motive was. It turns out to be a very nuanced case in which it’s not exactly clear who’s ‘good’ or not. And Alberg has to decide what he’s going to do under those circumstances.

And I really couldn’t do a post on this issue without mentioning Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. In it, a woman is released from prison, where she has been serving time for murder. She’s given a place to live, not far from a local child care facility, and tries to start a new life with her pit bull, Sully. Then one of the parents who uses the child care facility complains about Sully. The narrator now has to give up her beloved companion, because he’s a restricted breed. When she finds out, she begins to plot her own response. As the story goes on, we learn more about her, about her history, and bout the woman who reported her. It’s a nuanced story where the question of what’s right and what’s wrong is ambiguous.

But that’s the way real life is. People generally aren’t all good or all bad. And conflicts are usually much more nuanced and complex than ‘good versus evil.’ Thanks, Tess, for making me think about this. Folks, do check out Tess’ interesting site. And try her crime fiction. You won’t be sorry.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s Shades of Gray.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jean-Claude Izzo, L.R. Wright, William McIlvanney

24 responses to “Today There Is No Black or White*

  1. That’s an interesting observation – and quite possibly true, although perhaps not in every single instance (there is a lot of noir too in American literature).

    • I think there is, too, Marina Sofia. But I do agree that there are some real differences between American crime fiction and UK crime fiction. That’s part of what makes the genre interesting!

  2. Interesting thoughts. I no longer read crime fiction (truth be told, I’ve never read it much) due to surviving a vicious assault. However, I enjoyed reading your blog, very interesting insights.

  3. That’s a very interesting idea, that there are national differences: I’ll have to think about that one.

  4. An interesting observation, though I’m not sure I agree with it. Much of the American crime fiction I’ve read is just as morally murky as the British stuff, and lots of British stuff, as you’ve shown in your examples, has a distinct good v evil aspect. I do like a bit of moral ambiguity, but I must admit to preferring good to win out and the moral order of society to be restored, even if it’s not exactly the legal order. If I had to say what I thought the major difference was between American and British crime fiction, I’d pin it on the gun – so much American crime fiction ends with a shoot-out and I fear I dislike that intensely. Give me the unveiling of the culprit through an explanation by the ‘tec any day, and then take him/her off to prison…

    • There’s no doubt about it, FictionFan, guns play a much bigger role in American crime fiction than they do in UK crime fiction. And I think that’s got a lot of impact on the storylines. One of the things I found as I was thinking about this question is that there really is moral murkiness in a lot of different crime fiction, wherever it originates. And there’s the ‘good v evil’ aspect, too. That said, there’s so much crime fiction out there – excellent stories, too – from both places that you can find examples of both that moral murkiness and ‘black and white’ sorts of stories wherever you go. If nothing else, this has really got me thinking. Thanks for your input on it. The gun issue is a big one and an interesting one…

  5. Spade & Dagger

    This is certainly an interesting & thought provoking post 🙂
    As a Teenager in Britain, we always enjoyed US TV crime/mystery programs primarily because of the high production values: They were longer, glossier with lots of colour, and far noisier & busier than anything made in Britain. The US has so many vastly different geographical regions, peoples, climates & time zones than the British Isles, which is reflected in the sheer variety of US TV & books.
    However, from my personal crime fiction reading, I’m not convinced that behind the superficial appearance there is very much difference between the US & Britain in the level of nuance in crime fiction. As always in life – it depends so much on individual authors and program makers, as there are shades of subtly in all societies.

    • I think you’ve put that very well, Spade & Dagger. It may very well be that, underneath the superficial differences, there are a lot similarities, too. Certainly there are books from both places that are nuanced, and explore those ‘shades of grey,’ and books from both places that don’t. In the end, perhaps it really is all about the way the author chooses to handle the topic. I’m glad you found the post interesting. 🙂

  6. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the topic of the nuances of good and evil in crime fiction.

  7. Col

    Thanks for the reminder of Izzo and McIlvanney, Margot. I think I’ll sit on the fence regarding this debate, a lot of my reading would have you struggling to identify a pattern of goods vs evil, along a national theme. It’s probably more apparent on the screen rather than the page.

    • That could very well be, Col. There’s definitely a difference between the sort of story that gets onto the screen, and the sort of story that you read. I’m glad you added that dimension to the discussion. And as for both Izzo and McIlvanney, I recommend them both, especially for those who like darker stuff.

  8. Tim

    Indeed … we are all blends of good and evil …. hey,no one is perfect … so we look for ourselves in all fiction but especially crime fiction in which good must triumph over evil….. that all goes to say why Holmes remains popular …. we embrace him warts and all …

    • You make a very good point, Tim. We are all mixes of good and evil. So, we can identify with characters who are neither all good nor all evil. And Holmes is an interesting example.

  9. What a fascinating post, Margot. I’m so pleased my article sparked your “little grey cells”. 😉

    • I truly appreciate the inspiration, Tess! It really gave me a lot of ‘food for thought,’ and as you can see, it’s not a settled question. Even better for discussion! 🙂

  10. That is an interesting distinction between US and UK crime fiction although I probably haven’t read enough of the former to properly assess. I do fall into the camp that generally wants the baddie caught but I am ok with less clear cut outcomes if it’s morally the right result!

    • You put that very well, Cleo – wanting the ‘baddie’ caught, but still enjoying some ambivalence if it’s ‘on the side of the angels.’ I think a lot of people feel that way. And it’s so interesting to see how people think about UK\US crime fiction and how it differs. That alone is a fascinating question…

  11. Pingback: Black, white or shades of grey? | Tess Makovesky

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