I know, I know. I promised you last Friday I’d be away for a while, and here I am, back again. I had this post just about ready to go, and a weekend loomed, so I decided to finish it. Get over it. At least it points you to something actually worth reading.
John McFetridge is a pain in the ass. Just last month he got me riled up about the legitimacy of writing in the voice of someone who belongs to a demographic different from the writer’s. Now he’s gone and posted a blog about motive in crime fiction, and whether it’s more important to care about why a crime was committed than who did it, or how.
As usual, I agree with John pretty much down the line. (I’ve learned this from experience. Agreeing with John makes me right about 80% of the time.) While it may be nice from a “literary” perspective to examine the deep-seated motivations for an illegal or immoral act, anyone who’s looked at it much knows two kinds of people commit the vast majority of crimes:
- Young men
- Professional criminals
Young men commit a disproportionate number of crimes because they’re young men, who do a disproportionate number of dumbass things, mainly because they don’t have enough blood to operate their brains and penises both, and, at that age, the penis wins. Most of those who survive, learn—the crime rate goes down as men age—but this is why there are about 105 boy babies born for every 100 girls: boys do stupid shit and die.
That leaves professional criminals. As a good liberal, this is where I’m supposed to talk about parenting and environment and poverty, and I’m not going to insult your intelligence by saying those have nothing to do with it. (If you want your intelligence insulted, Fox News is on 24 hours a day. Check your cable provider for the channel in your area.) The problem with being too quick with that answer is, a much higher percentage of people who grow up in those conditions do not become criminals.
For many non-violent (and some violent) crimes, the motive is usually "I want money and this is the quickest way I can get it." This is often more a personality trait than anything else: the criminal lacks impulse control, seeks instant gratification, has no patience, or needs money quicker than he can legally acquire it. (Drug addicts come to mind for that last one.)
Crimes of violence are somewhat the same in general, even if we leave out crimes of passion. (Lack of impulse control often factors in here, as well.) Read enough cop-based crime non-fiction—where a cross-section of criminals are discussed instead of a single, sensational case—and you'll find the motive for most crime has at least something to do with the criminal being an asshole who acts out, whether he's a rapist, unnecessarily violent mugger, or a murderer.
Another type is the adrenaline junkie, who gets off on the thrill of getting away with something. This doesn’t have to be a car chase or a shoot-out; the rich jewel thief counts, too. (Think Steve McQueen or Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair, or David Niven and Christopher Plummer in the Pink Panther movies.) Cat burglars—identified as those who go into houses when they’re pretty sure someone is home, as opposed to regular burglars, who go to great length to ensure no one is home—fall into this category, as well as some armed bank robbers.
What I’m getting at is, most crimes don’t have “motives” the way Perry Mason meant it. Crime shows like to say the prosecution needs means, motive, and opportunity to get a conviction. Means and opportunity have to be there; motive can be as little as “he was in the way,” or “he had something I wanted.” Is that the kind of motive the high-minded types are talking about? Probably not. Still, that’s as good as it usually gets. That might not be enough to satisfy those who have loftier expectations of fiction than from fact, but that’s where realism rears its head. It might be nice for there to be a motive for a crime, but more often we have to settle for reasons.