It turns out there is an upside to evil, after all: it tends to inspire some pretty good literature—the kind that sticks in your mind a long time. Who can forget the blow-by-blow descriptions of murder in “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the despicable pedophile Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” or the many colorful criminals and dirty deeds in the works of Charles Dickens?
Crime-inspired literature seems increasingly plentiful on modern bookshelves and finely nuanced prose makes these fictional accounts even more terrifying than reality. I was painting a room while listening to an audio version of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” and became so diverted by the cold-blooded killer’s pursuit of an innocent witness that I almost fell off my ladder. DBRL’s 2010 One Read selection, “Await Your Reply” featured a jaw-dropping opening scene in which a teenage boy is being rushed to the hospital after a ruthless captor has coerced information from the father by cutting off the son’s hand. David Vann’s “Caribou Island” seems to be merely the melancholy tale of the end of a marriage on an isolated Alaskan island until the final violent scene is skewered forever into your consciousness.
It’s the nature of complex fiction to evoke sympathy for the central character, even when that character is a convicted sex offender, as is the case in “Lost Memory of Skin” by Russell Banks. The perceptive young protagonist, referred to only as “the Kid,” is humble and funny, and technically innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. I felt genuine concern for him as he bounced through a series of disasters and hoped, against all odds, that he would somehow find happiness.
While this more serious fiction may not offer the simple joys of a good old gumshoe mystery, there is wisdom to be gained by walking a mile in the shoes of a criminal.