Love and Crime

Theodore Zeldin

  • Recollections and Reflections of a Country Policeman by W.C. May
    A.H. Stockwell (Ilfracombe), 342 pp, £6.60, July 1979, ISBN 0 7223 1199 0
  • The Police in Society by Ben Whitaker
    Eyre Methuen, 351 pp, £6.95, March 1979, ISBN 0 413 34200 X

Modern imaginative literature has two favourite themes: love and crime. Most people accept that love is a mystery full of twists and surprises that are not predictable by science or reason. It is natural that its infinite variations should be probed most interestingly by novelists rather than by experts and statisticians: no one has dared set up a Chair of Amorology. But what can untrained amateurs say that is new about crime, which has whole armies of lawyers, policemen, professors and politicians who claim to know all the answers? Is the literary concern with crime simply a game, indulging the pleasures to be obtained from hide-and-seek and from solving puzzles? Is it likely that as criminology becomes more and more scientific, the novelist will have to withdraw?

I do not think so: love and crime have more in common than may appear at first sight. Love is one of the revolutionary forces of modern times: in its intense and individualistic form, it has increasingly subverted the preoccupation with prestige and property that once governed marriage and, indeed, society as a whole. It has become a universal western ideal. Crime is also a rebellion, but it is usually thought of as the affair of a small minority. This view of it is, however, outdated. In fact, most people are almost as likely to become criminals as to fall in love. The reason, which few appreciate, is that the number of actions that have been designated as crimes has been increasing in this century at a quite unprecedented rate. Governments are constantly thinking up new benefits, and therefore new offences, and the result is that one in three Englishmen may confidently expect to be charged with an offence some time in his life-time; in the USA 40 per cent are likely to, and that excludes traffic offences. In 1900, 78,000 indictable offences were committed in England: today the figure is two and a half million a year. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. A mere 10 or 15 per cent of crimes committed result in prosecution. In a US opinion poll, 91 per cent of Americans admitted to having committed at least one crime for which they could have received a prison sentence. And, of course, if you are so virtuous that you avoid committing a crime, you have a good chance of being the victim of one. One in every 11 children born in Atlanta, Georgia will be murdered if he stays in that city, and one in every six males in Harlem. However, we cling to the hope or illusion that an element of free will can keep us out of the ranks of criminals or their victims, and that is what makes crime such an inexhaustible tragic theme for literature.

The policemen to whom we give the task of saving society from itself are perhaps the most tragic figures in this drama. Their failure is all too obvious: they themselves admit that a burglar today has a ten-to-one chance of getting away scot-free, despite all the marvels of science that have been introduced to foil him and track him down. What is more, in most countries policemen are thoroughly disliked: they are pigs, flics. Just how bewildered this animosity is making them is revealed in Nicholas Alex’s vivid book, New York Cops Talk Back: A Study of a Beleaguered Minority.[1] They used to derive their self-esteem from the belief that they were the guardians of society, the embodiment of its values: they represented right. The police force, moreover, used to be a means by which poor people could climb the social ladder. But now they feel they are no longer getting the consideration they deserve from the public. They are constantly hounded by the press. They can never get enough recruits, so standards fall – to the extent that even people with criminal records have been known to become policemen. The romantic vision they have of their vocation when they join often ends in disillusionment. They dream of being independent fighters against evil, applauded for their courage, but they find themselves bored by an inexorable routine, turned into clerks: a narcotics arrest requires the filling-in of 14 different forms, each with four or five carbon copies. There are more and more supervisors to criticise and control them – quite apart from the political interference, the civilian complaints, the new limits, imposed on them in the use of firearms. They feel persecuted. They are no longer ‘Mr Good Guy’.

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[1] Wiley, 1976.

[2] Harvard, 1976.

[3] Seuil, 1969.

[4] Presses Pocket, 1977.

[5] University of California Press, 1976.

[6] The Delinquent Way of life by D.J. West and D.P. Farrington, Heinemann, 1977.