Leiden Law Blog

Every crime tells a story

Every crime tells a story

Recently, after I had watched an episode of DCI Banks on TV, I realised again to what extent criminal behaviour is related to the power of an impressive story. In our rational approach to life we have a preference for analysing criminal behaviour scientifically and trying to filter out fact from fiction as much as we can. Rationally we might think we can confront people directly with the ‘bare facts’ of life, but without the frame of an exciting story we cannot digest them very well. Crime keeps fascinating us and provides a seemingly endless amount of material for powerful – fictional and true – stories. This is shown by the immense popularity of detective series and crime investigation stories on television – and of fanciful movies like those of Batman. Even in court we cannot do without stories.

Story awareness

Archetypal psychologist James Hillman has stressed (in ‘A note on story’) the importance of developing a ‘story awareness’ in our lives. He considered this story awareness necessary for ‘deliteralizing consciousness and restoring its connection to mythic and metaphorical thought patterns’. According to him, stories are not there to be rationally explained by us, but are instead ‘containers and givers of vitality’.
Generally speaking we need the context of stories to make our life meaningful and allow us to experience its ongoing mystery. We all have listened to stories when we were small, and later continued to take in stories by reading myths and novels, by watching movies and television series. This has allowed us to picture life – and our own life – as an enveloping story with lots of exciting adventures and interesting characters.

Bringing back the sense of mystery

However varied crime stories might be, they are a particular type of story amongst many other genres. I wonder whether the general lack of broadly developed story awareness – a result of our emphasis on rationality – has helped crime stories to flourish in our time. In this respect it’s interesting that crime stories always contain a sense of mystery: the question of who has committed the crime and why has it has been committed. Usually we won’t have to wait too long before this mystery is solved for us, but it won’t be long either before we want another crime story with a new mystery to be solved. I think these short-term, small-scale mysteries are mere substitutes for the never ending, unsolvable life mystery: the sense of mystery that the myths of old and the fairy stories have always tried to capture, a large-scale mythical reality that our rational minds have lost contact with.  

Mythical battles

And yet there is a powerful myth coming to life in all crime stories too. They enact on a daily basis the dualistic battle between the forces of good and evil in our world: the good detective or police officer fighting on our behalf against the bad guys who threaten to disrupt our social order. Through this they reach back to the great mythical battles, like those of the Greek God Apollo against Python, of Saint George against the Dragon, and of course, of God against the Devil. The popularity of crime stories shows that after centuries of secularising our world view, of creating a society shaped by a rational Rule of Law, we still cannot do without continually reviving these mythical battles in a modern guise.

Solving crime through stories

I know that most stories on TV or in the cinema are made for entertainment, and that we shouldn’t expect that they in any way help to reduce the crime rate in our society. Yet sometimes, like in the episode of DCI Banks I was watching, we are confronted with a more serious attempt to unravel the psychological reasons that have driven someone to commit a crime. Then for a moment we are taken beyond the mythical battle between good and evil and regain our belief in the existence of a better world, a world with less crime. Even if it fades away as quickly as it came, I like to think that all these small glorious moments will finally build up to something…

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