“an appetite for murder and revenge”?

This strange bit of reasoning just appeared in today’s New York Times in an editorial about Justice Steven’s excellent book review analyzing why he feels the death penalty is wrong.

The justice says that endorsing capital punishment is touted as a commitment to law and order — whether it was Gov. George W. Bush presiding over 40 executions in Texas in 2000 (the most ever in a year in one state) or elected judges in Alabama favoring the penalty (while unelected judges in Delaware do not). Its cultural power is demonstrated by Americans’ appetite for mysteries about murder and revenge.

Reading crime fiction is evidence that Americans are culturally disposed to violent vengeance? Then how do you account for the popularity of the genre in the UK, where capital punishment was banned decades ago? Or in Scandinavia, where the state does not execute its prisoners but where crime fiction flourishes?

I live in a US state in which a botched execution over 100 years ago disgusted the populace so thoroughly and permanently that capital punishment was abolished, but we have a great many talented mystery writers and not just one, but two fabulous independent mystery bookstores to aid and abet the Minnesotans’ passion for the genre.

Norwegians have a tradition of passkekrim, celebrating the Easter holiday by reading crime fiction. I suspect most Norwegians just want to have something good to read over the holiday, but it certainly is not the case that they mark the occasion by indulging in vicarious bloodthirsty revenge. In fact, when I observe passkekrim this spring I will try to remember that not only did Jesus pardon a condemned criminal and welcome him into his kingdom, but that he himself was arguably the most famous of the many who are wrongfully convicted.



10 Responses to “an appetite for murder and revenge”?

  1. maxine says:

    Laura Wilson’s most recent novel, A Capital Crime, is a very good book about a similar (probable) miscarriage of justice in the UK, back in the 1960s. We have certainly had our moments on that front (eg Ruth Ellis). Good that we have moved on from those days.

  2. Mysteries are quite popular in France too, and we abolished death penalty back in 1981.

    I think the problem here is that the phrase is poorly constructed (inasmuch as I, a foreigner speaking a foreign language, am entitled to judge) as the NYT’s point seems to be directed not at mysteries in general, but mysteries THAT ARE about murder AND revenge. Even then their argument falls flat since the most recent famous example of that sub-genre, “Taken” is NOT an American movie and was a hit pretty much everywhere, starting in its homeland of France.

    • Barbara says:

      Xavier, you are an astute reader and I suspect you are right – both about what the editorial folks at the Times meant and that it’s rather poorly phrased.

      We banished it in Minnesota in 1911. (The hanging-gone-wrong was in 1906, but it must have taken a while to change the law.) Our current but soon retired governor tried to reinstate the death penalty but luckily got nowhere with it.

  3. Barbara says:

    My most recent mystery is about a man whose conviction has been overturned – and about the crime victim who now wonders who was actually guilty after thinking for twenty years that she knew the answer.

    Though raised Catholic, I would label myself not Christian so much as mildly confused (I guess “agnostic” would be a more dignified term for it), but it still bothers me when Christianity is hijacked for causes I consider unchristian, and it bothers me similarly when my passion for a genre is taken as evidence of so being blindly committed to law and order that it predisposes me to favor the death penalty. Administer some Sjowall and Wahloo, stat!

  4. It is annoyingly shallow for a paper like the NYT to resort to this kind of generalisation. The most popular locally produced TV show in Australia over recent years was a thing called Underbelly – a thinly veiled account of the activities of organised criminals in one of our major cities – It was full of murder, violence, torture, drug taking, drug trafficking…and Australians watched it in their millions. I don’t think all those millions have a secret desire to be murdering, torturing & drug trafficking they simply liked the story, the acting (and the fact it was local – we see so little local product on our TV).

    • Barbara says:

      I was surprised, since it seemed completely out of place in the argument. Just plopped in there with little reflection, and it would take only a little to think “wait a minute, that doesn’t do much to support our argument and might distract from it.” Can you tell I’ve been marking student papers?

  5. Gerard says:

    Not to be too much of a wise-ass, but when do Norwegians do anything that makes sense?

    • Barbara says:

      This is something Swedes say, but I think reading crime fiction on Easter is highly sensible. Reading crime fiction at any time makes sense. Lutefisk … okay, we won’t go there.

  6. kathy d. says:

    That’s a great custom, reading crime fiction on Easter, or for Norwegian Jewish people, maybe at Passover?

    Mystery readers are a varied lot, though, many who don’t like gore and gratuitous violence, misogyny, but like story line. character development, and a puzzle, and those who lust for blood, torture, and the worst deaths.

    Maybe there’s a split on the death penalty there, too, as readers encompass a whole range of opinions, as taste in books, and a gamut of political viewpoints.

    Glad that Britain and Minnesota got rid of this heinous act. South Africa did, too, right after Nelson Mandela became president. And I think that the EU countries have eliminated it.

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