Literary scholars draw parallels between crime fiction, current events

May 2, 2021, 8:40 p.m.

Bills passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in the states of Oklahoma, Iowa and Florida to provide immunity to drivers who run over protestors reinforce the dominant theme in French crime literature that “revolutionary events generally take place on the street,” University of Pennsylvania Romance Language professor Andrea Goulet said at a Friday event on “Crime Narratives,” hosted by the Center for the Study of the Novel. In the event, Goulet and other fellow literary professors shared their research into the crime fiction of different cultures and the real-world philosophies with which they each engaged.

Goulet said her research into French crime literature written in the 19th and 20th centuries focused on books that explored the relationship between police and protestors during times of political unrest. She gave special attention to Victor Hugo’s historic fictional book “Les Misérables,” which follows the lives of idealistic police inspector Javert and reformed ex-convict Jean Valjean over the course of the 17-year buildup to the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris. Goulet said that the book’s climax demonstrated a “fusing of private crime and political revolt in a way that troubled the police inspector’s sense of moral mission.” 

She followed that with a mention of the French television drama “A French Village,” which is set during the German occupation of France in World War II. Goulet said the show demonstrates “it’s sometimes hard for law enforcement to tell the difference between criminal acts and political insurrection.” Through the lens of the narratives of these novels and others, Goulet said she believed French crime novels spoke significantly to the real-world dynamics of tensions between political and civil order. 

She said that although writers such as S.S. Van Dine insisted crime fiction should not contain real-world politics, “different authors let in these so-called impurities.” 

University of North Carolina American Studies associate professor Michelle Robinson discussed the depiction of racial progression and reparations in an unfinished crime fiction novel by Mark Twain centering around a character named George Harrison. In the text, Harrison descends so far into debt that he robs a man named Fairfax, accidentally kills Fairfax in the process and unintentionally frames another man for the murder. Luck seemingly swings in Harrison’s favor. Harrison soon after receives a vast inheritance when his uncle passes, and the only man who knows the true identity of Fairfax’s killer is a black former slave by the name of Jasper, who could not testify against Harrison in court as per the rules of the time. 

However, Robinson said the unfinished text revolved around “the terror of subordination and the waking life of domination.” In the waking world, this took the form of protection and prosperity that Jasper extorted from Harrison. Yet, in Harrison’s dreams, this went further: Harrison  — a wealthy white man — saw himself serving as slave to the ex-slave Jasper. Although the text ended there, Robinson said that “the reader is fully conscious that this purgatory that is white subordination will end” once Harrison awakes.

Stanford Latin American literature associate professor Héctor Hoyos focused on novels detailing dated and vicious honor killings. As for how readers should interact with detailed descriptions of honor killings, such as those found in “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen,” Hoyos said that “although we’re dealing with contemptible acts, ignoring the insights of its cultural products would make for a shortsighted historical outlook.” He said the most notable aspect of the narrative was just how fleeting the values of the society were. 

“By the time readers understand what the rules of this world are, for the murder to be such a momentous occurence means that the world is already falling apart,” Hoyos said.

He said that the society described in the novel as well as the philosophies the novel engaged all revolved around honor. Specifically, the changes in honor “allowed the novel to portray a changing society.” Hoyos said that although practices such as foot-binding and genital mutilation could last for centuries, they could dissipate in less than a generation once a society came to see the practices as dishonorable. 

“The point about moral revolutions is that they are precisely revolutions,” he said.

Jed Ngalande '23 is the politics and government beat reporter for The Daily's news section. Contact him at news 'at'

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