Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

On murder

I have often wondered about the annual homicide rate in crime fiction. In the small jurisdiction where I live there are around 100 recorded homicides per year. A lot, though considerably fewer than in some US cities, which may perhaps be due to the fact that the weapon of choice here is the knife rather than the gun. But what about in the fictional Scotland? My hunch is that if we were to count up all the homicides in Scottish crime fiction the annual rate would far exceed this, as our authors show an ever greater willingness to stab, bludgeon, poison and even shoot their own fictional creations to death. And we lovers of tartan noir and kailyard crime lap it up. What's more, we are complicit in the growing rate of fictional homicide in other countries as the appetite for Scandinavian, Italian and even the original American noir attests. But why this focus on murder, and not other crimes?
This is one of the questions addressed in Judith Flanders' book, The Invention of Murder, which came out earlier this year http://www.harpercollins.co.uk/Titles/53228/the-invention-of-murder-epub-edition-judith-flanders-9780007352470. Beginning with the Ratcliffe Highway murder in  London in 181 and finishing with the Ripper murders in Whitechapel at the end of the century, and looking at celebrated Victorian muderers from Burke and and Hare to William Palmer to Madeleine Smith she explores the factors that led to the modern fascination with the crime of murder.
The rise of murder is traced  on the one hand to the combination of organised policing, the rise of criminal detection and the birth of the emergence of the modern adversarial trial. But hand in hand with the was the emergence of the modern press and publishing industry, which sold papers through their sensationalised coverage of crime and trials. And other authors were not far behind producing novels that were often little more than fictionalised accounts of the more serious crimes. And hence our obsession with murder.
But here's a thought. Could we have crime fiction centred on other crimes? On theft? Or fraud? People traficking? Anti-social behaviour? Should we ask that our crime authors be more imaginative? And perhaps the same is true of criminal law too? What would the law look like if we did not place homicide at the centre?

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