Well, for today, I thought that I’d talk about one of my favourite elements of the detective/crime genre – I am, of course, talking about stories that deal with “obsolete” crimes. This is something that I was reminded of after I happened to find a cheap second-hand DVD of the first season of an amazing historical crime drama called “Boardwalk Empire“.
Although I’ve only seen about three episodes of it at the time of writing, it’s a drama series about prohibition-era America. The main character (played by the one and only Steve Buscemi) is a corrupt city official who is involved in several bootlegging operations, whilst trying to fend off the attentions of a fanatical revenue agent and to deal with the complex politics of various roaring twenties-era criminal gangs.
In a way, it’s very slightly similar to “Breaking Bad” but, as I’ve mentioned before, I absolutely couldn’t stand that show. Although both shows are about the grimy world of the trade in illegal substances within America – there’s one major difference between the two series. The shady world of bootleggers and prohibition-era gangsters in “Boardwalk Empire” doesn’t exist any more.
The idea that alcohol was ever criminalised is (especially to a British person like me) absolutely laughable. In other words, bootlegging is an “obsolete” crime. Depictions of it can’t be seriously depressing, scary or disturbing for the simple reason that it shows a “crime” that virtually no sensible person these days would consider to be immoral or terrible. It shows people gleefully breaking an unjust and irrational law (unlike, say, the sensible laws against the manufacture and sale of hard drugs that the main characters in “Breaking Bad” go against).
Stories that deal with “crimes” that society has long since rightly decided shouldn’t be criminal are absolutely fascinating, especially since historical LGBT stories also fit into this genre too (I mean, it’s only been 50 years since the old unjust laws regarding this even began to be repealed in the UK).
Stories about “obsolete” crimes are both rebellious and reassuring at the same time. Since, not only do they reassure us that both common sense and basic human nature will always win out against harsh political ideology, but they also allow us to think about our own lives in a slightly “rebellious” way.
They remind almost everyone that, at various points in history, the establishment saw virtually everyone as “dangerous” in some way or another.
After all, unless you’ve never enjoyed listening to any kind of rock or rap music, unless you aren’t LGBT, unless you’ve never voted (regardless of your gender, ethnicity, economic class, religion etc.. at some point in history, the establishment somewhere didn’t want you to vote!), unless you’ve never drank any booze, unless you’ve never played violent videogames, unless you are a devout follower of the dominant religion in your country, unless you’ve never disagreed with the government etc… then you’ll probably be able to see a little bit of yourself in the protagonists of these stories about “obsolete” crimes. You’ll feel like a little bit like a “rebel”, even if you lead the most non-rebellious life possible.
These types of stories are absolutely fascinating because they turn the crime genre completely on it’s head – the “criminals” are the good guys and the detectives are the villains.
So, these stories automatically set themselves apart from most other stories in the crime genre since, even in “traditional” crime stories where the criminal is the protagonist, there is still usually a large degree of moral ambiguity involved. This isn’t a bad thing, but it changes how the audience interprets and reacts to the story when compared to a story about an “obsolete” crime. The emotional dynamics of the story are totally different.
Another interesting thing about these stories is that they also make us think about the whole subject of just and unjust laws. In other words, they make us look at our own moral principles, because these stories often have parallels with the modern world. In other words, they make us think more critically about the legislative process and help us to refine our own moral opinions about the merits of current legislation.
They also show us how political ideology or vested interests can often go wildly against popular opinion. I could probably give a giant list of examples of how political or financial dogma has resulted in badly-made, unfair or unjust legislation, but some notable areas include things like copyright legislation, cannabis legislation etc…
These stories can obviously also be used to satirise present-day attitudes and politics too. I mean, the contrast between the wild spectacular parties and the dour, depressing temperance hall meetings near the beginning of the first episode of “Boardwalk Empire” are an absolutely brilliant send-up of a certain type of modern conservatives and/or “liberals” who just instinctively hate any kind of joy, laughter, relaxation or freedom – and want to see it all stamped out immediately.
In conclusion, these types of stories are an absolutely brilliant subversion of the crime genre, which also hold a mirror up to the audience and make us question our own moral and philosophical principles in a way that “traditional” crime stories just can’t do.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂