We got fed up with the meagre fare on TV over the holiday. The Alan Carr Show, Graham Norton Show, John Bishop Show. Shows about dead comedians that don’t actually have the comedians telling jokes but have long, boring clips of other comedians saying how funny they were. Shows about famous rock bands that have very brief clips of actual music but are mostly composed of clips of other musicians saying how good they were. Aghh!!
So we caught up on Breaking Bad. One night we watched four in a row. The series is addictive. Good acting, camerawork, plotting. And it is very popular. Why is that? There’s a lot of darkness. It’s not sentimental. You identify with the protagonist, Walter White (references to Walt Whitman and Reservoir Dogs – wow) but you know that, some time soon, he is going to move from protagonist to antagonist. When one of his street drug pushers is robbed I found myself thinking, what your business plan needs is some enforcement, mate.
It has been pointed out that Walter’s family is typical of the American middle class that has been shafted economically over the last thirty years. So, the thinking goes, if bankers, financiers and the rest are becoming fantastically richer while the rest are getting poorer, why shouldn’t Walter get in on the action?
The question posed by the series is: given the right conditions would you commit a crime? As a crime novelist this is an important question for me. I am constantly thinking like criminals and, quite often, sympathising with them. In my first novel A Fair Wack the main character blows the whistle on gangsters yet ends up taking the place of a gangster for the sake of a woman. The ageing hood who must track him down has to come out of semi-retirement. In Time Lapse a surveillance expert ends up joining forces with a woman who has had to take over an organised crime operation when her partner is drowned . Yet I am boringly honest and non violent. I’ve handed in wallets stuffed with money that I’ve found in the street. I’ve never fiddled an expense sheet. The last time I even hit anyone was at school many years ago. I suppose the majority of people reading this are the same.
Crime on TV, cinema and in books is incredibly popular. In fact, it always has been popular. Back in the 40s (written, ironically, while German airmen overhead were doing their best to kill him) George Orwell examined the popularity of crime fiction in his essays Decline of the English Murder and No Orchids for Miss Blandish. He lamented the change from the cosy English detective story often in a domestic setting to the semi pornographic American stuff then flooding the country. Orwell pointed to the tendency in America, in life and fiction, to admire criminals so long as they are successful. The battle has long been lost in this country. Writers of ‘cosy English detective fiction’ are ridiculed. ‘Go as dark as you can’ is the advice. Sometimes it seems like an arms race to the bottom – more and more grizzly murders, burned bodies, ingenious tortures. Joe Nesbo?
Joseph Conrad wrote a brilliant short story The Secret Sharer. A sea captain keeping watch at night on a sailing ship off the coast of what is now Indonesia hears a sound in the water. It is Legatt, first mate of a nearby ship who killed a rebellious seamen during a storm to save the ship. He was accused of murder and imprisoned – most likely to be hanged on the ship’s return to England. He has escaped and swum to the captain’s ship. The captain hides him at great risk to himself and eventually helps him escape. The captain obviously sympathises with Legatt but it is more complex than that. Legatt represents his darker self with which he is a secret sharer.
I think many people feel like that about Walter White. ‘In the right circumstances, that could be me’. More: ‘would I have the guts to be that decisive?’