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Fun-loving criminals

23rd July 2012 - Emily Best


We may look for happy endings and hope to see everyone get their due, but sometimes it's the villains of the piece that charm us most. Emily Best from our Charing Cross Road branch looks at why lawbreakers can often make for the most appealing characters.


I'll be honest - I've been struggling of late to think of things to write about for this blog. Maybe it's the weather. From one day to the next I just don't know what's going to happen and I've been feeling forever suspended, not really knowing what to do. In turn, perhaps, what to write about. So I sat down about five minutes ago and implored my flatmates to give me a subject. Suggestions included Christmas shopping (too specific), shopping (too vacuous), golf (I know nothing about golf), picnics (hmm), apple scrumping... hang on, I like that!

This is my first summer in my new house and we discovered with some excitement that one of the many mysterious trees in our garden appears to be yielding apples. I live in a terrace with a row of long gardens to the back and I quite like the idea of the youngsters of the neighbourhood spending their summer holiday stealthily hopping the fences and harvesting stolen fruit. For me it's up there with ginger knocking and putting bangers through letterboxes as the sort of pranks that my parents would talk with some affection about doing but seem impossible to believe (of them, anyway). So what is it about certain offences that makes them and their perpetrators forgivable, even loveable?

Everyone's favourite juvenile offender is surely Dennis the Menace. Making his first appearance in the Beano in 1951, he has spent most of the last sixty years terrorising Walter and his crew of 'Softies'. As a committed softy myself, I kind of feel like I should be siding with poor Walter. But of course I don't. Dennis is just funnier.

PigsChildren's books have always had a shaky relationship with violence. Look at The Three Little Pigs. Earlier this year the Guardian ran a television ad for their 'Open Journalism' campaign that re-told the story in a modern news context, questioning the lengths a person (or pig) should be allowed to go to to protect their own home. Is it okay to boil a person (or wolf) alive because they threaten to blow our house down?

Criminal behaviour is always going to be a source of debate when it comes to necessity. In books, though, the behaviour itself is often doubly palatable through the charisma of its perpetrator (as with Dennis). Strangely common is the image of the impoverished orphan, for example the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist and Hugo in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Jack Dawkins (the Dodger himself) picks pockets to live and makes an art of it; Cabret steals for his art.

For some it is just a way to survive, as with Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Upon release from prison, Valjean is given shelter by a bishop. Having woken in the night and stolen silverware from the bishop, he's arrested and brought back to the bishop's house. The bishop tells the police that he gave Valjean the silverware. It's at this point of redemption that things change for Valjean, and the story begins.

RafflesSo Valjean's crime is appealing because it's ultimately redemptive. Others beguile. Other criminals just do it for fun, or for money, but basically for no good reason, and still we don't really mind because they entertain us. Raffles, amateur cracksman and gentleman thief, or the party crossing the Atlantic in Wodehouse's The Luck of the Bodkins and their frantic, fateful attempts to smuggle a necklace across the border.

There is, of course, the additional gratification of seeing individuals beat the system. In Les Miserables, set against the French Revolution, it's an easy system to hate Javert, Valjean's nemesis and the tyrannical, unyielding face of the law, is an easy enemy to want to beat. With Raffles, it's the rich. But possibly one of the best cases of an underdog overthrowing a judicial system is in Stephen King's 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption: Hope Springs Eternal', which before the film was a short story in King's collection Different Seasons. Andy, wrongfully accused of murder, goes to prison an innocent man but his escape makes him a criminal. He uses the system and inverts it and he wins and we love him for it.

So some writers force us to look at the system and the so-called moral framework in a new way. Others break it down completely. There are some stories, such as Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which are outside the law and any formal system so what we observe is a sort of circus of otherness. Illegality is present in Thompson's book but we accept it, not because we necessarily agree with it, but because he has constructed a reality in which it just doesn't matter - everything is suspended. And that's what I think makes all these characters so beguiling: suspension. Sometimes of disbelief, sometimes of any inclination towards a moral framework, but mostly because the stories are just so good.


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