In a recent post about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that it could be thought of as a crime novel. Certainly there’s an argument that it has several of the elements we often see in crime fiction, especially in noir stories. Whether you agree that it’s a crime novel or not, I think it’s safe to say that the book has earned its place as a classic of literature.
So, we could argue, has Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age story as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch learns about friendship and about the consequences of judging people and events by appearances. She also learns important lessons about ethics and about justice from her father, attorney Atticus Finch. This could also be seen as a crime novel. After all, a main plot thread concerns Tom Robinson, a black man who’s been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, and Atticus Finch defends his case. Because of the time and place that form the book’s setting, the proverbial dice are very much loaded against Robinson. The case, the trial and its outcome have become iconic, and you could certainly classify the novel on that score as crime fiction.
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood counts as crime fiction as well. This novel is the fictional account of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie Mae, and his children, Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickok and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, and it turns out that their motive was money. The killers had heard during an earlier prison stint that Clutter had a lot of money buried on his farm. That wasn’t true, but Hickok and Smith believed that it was, and that was enough to seal the Clutters’ fate. This story explores the histories of the two killers, their relationships, and the impact on a small Kansas community of the Clutter murders. This novel has become iconic among what I think of as ‘untrue crime’ – fictional retellings of real murder stories.
There’s no debating whether John Grisham’s A Time to Kill is crime fiction. In this novel (Grisham’s debut), Clanton, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance gets an extremely important and difficult case. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for shooting Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, as well as for wounding a police officer. There’s no doubt about whether he did the shooting; there were witnesses. And it doesn’t help his case that he’s black and the victims are white. But the case is not at all simple. Cobb and Wilson had recently attacked, beaten, and raped Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya. There’s a great deal of sympathy for Hailey, and many people say privately that they’d have done the same. At the same time, vigilantism can’t be condoned. Hailey knows Brigance, and asks for him specifically when he is arrested. Brigance likes Hailey, and certainly understands why he did what he did. And Brigance knows that this case will generate a lot of media attention – the kind that propels attorneys into very well-paying positions. So he agrees to defend Hailey. This novel proved to be the beginning of an extremely highly-regarded writing career for Grisham. And the story itself has gotten all sorts of praise.
So has David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. That novel’s focus is the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Puget Sound fisher. He’s alleged to have murdered another fisher, Carl Heine, Jr. Alvin Hooks prosecutes the case; Miyamoto is defended by Nels Gudmundsson. As the trial proceeds, we learn that the histories of the two families involved goes back to the time before World War II. Miyamoto’s father had made a deal with Heine’s father to, in essence, protect his family’s land, since Japanese immigrants weren’t allowed to own land. The idea was that the Heine family would ‘officially’ own the land, but would return it to Kabuo Miyamoto (who was born in the US, and is therefore a citizen) when he turned 20, and could take possession of it. Things haven’t turned out that way, and there’s a great deal of anger, resentment, and prejudice involved in this case. This novel has won prizes and been adapted both for film and for stage.
All of these novels are well-regarded as literature, and as crime novels, too. But they have something else in common. They’ve all been banned or challenged. There’ve been different reasons for banning/challenging in each case, but the end result has been an attempt to keep those books from being circulated in libraries and in classrooms.
These are just a few of the many, many novels that have faced banning/challenging. Sometimes the challenge comes from individuals or local/regional groups. Sometimes it comes from governments. Here’s the thing about banning, though. It doesn’t just restrict access to a particular book, author, or topic. It’s an attempt to restrict thinking and critical reasoning. What’s more, it can prevent people from reading truly fine novels.
But banning doesn’t really stop people getting ideas. It doesn’t prevent curiosity, reflection on the human condition, or interest in certain topics. So banning doesn’t work in terms of keeping people from thinking. It can, though, prevent open discussion and debate about what’s in a book. And that in turn keeps us from dealing with issues we need to face.
This week (25 September – 1 October) is Banned Books Week in the US. It’s intended to call attention to efforts to ban books, and to remind us to preserve our freedom to read what we wish, and our freedom to write what we wish. I, for one, cherish this right. That’s how ideas are created, shared, debated, and refined. And that’s what moves us forward. Yes, writers are responsible for what they write, with all of its consequences. But they should not be prevented from telling their stories. And readers should not be prevented from experiencing them.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Freedom of Choice.