Crime Fiction or Criminological Fiction?

Explaining the aetiological value of crime fiction for criminology across cinematic, literary, and hybrid modes of representation.

R McGregor

Rafe McGregor is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Edge Hill University, specialising in the intersection of critical criminology with philosophical aesthetics.   A Criminology of Narrative Fiction is due for publication by Bristol University Press in January 2021.


According to OfCom, average television viewing time increased by a third during the COVID-19 lockdown (from March to June, 2020), with almost a fifth of the UK’s population signing up for a streaming service for the first time, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ being the most popular choices.  Similarly, the Guardian reports that almost everyone who was reading before lockdown read more during lockdown, with many doubling their reading hours.  The most popular books in the UK were from the crime fiction genre (mysteries and thrillers) and four of the five most popular Netflix shows followed suit: Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty, and Killing Eve (the other was Game of Thrones, in third place).

Did we learn anything about crime from all that fiction?  My answer, which goes against the grain of both received wisdom and social scientific practice, is ‘yes’.  What I find particularly interesting about this question is that it would not even have been asked until relatively recently.  For more than two millennia European audiences accepted that fiction – most commonly theatre and poetry – communicated knowledge in a pleasurable way, but the combination of the rise of positivism and the differentiation of fiction into its literary and popular forms in the nineteenth century changed perceptions of the purpose of fiction (as well as art more generally), severing the representation from the reality.  Contemporary fiction is for fun, for the reasons cited by those who read more during lockdown: enjoyment, entertainment, and escapism.  I wrote A Criminology of Narrative Fiction as a reminder that fiction is not just for pleasure, but an important source of insight and data that readers, audiences, and academics often ignore.

My claim in the book is that complex narrative fictions – feature films, television series, novels, and graphic novels – communicate criminological knowledge and by criminological knowledge I mean knowledge about the causes of crime and social harm.  While fiction often misleads and misinforms, documentaries and reports can also be unreliable and all source material should be subject to verification and corroboration prior to its inclusion in a research project.  If we select our fictions carefully, then there are at least three types of criminological knowledge we can gain from them: phenomenological, counterfactual, and mimetic.

Phenomenological knowledge is knowledge of what a specific lived experience is like.  Fictions are especially good at communicating this type of knowledge because of the way narrative form and narrative content are combined to represent actions from a particular point of view and to create patterns of meaning.  Counterfactual knowledge is knowledge of reality that is provided by the exploration of alternatives to that reality.  Fictions are essentially (rather than accidentally) counterfactual, adapting and adjusting historical and contemporary reality to produce test cases.  Mimetic knowledge is knowledge of everyday reality that is detailed and accurate.  This type of knowledge is usually associated with documentary rather than fiction, but fictions can provide access to people, places, and events that cannot be documented for safety, legal, or ethical reasons.

So how does it actually work?  How do stories about fictional characters, settings, and actions provide knowledge about real people, places, and events?  The core idea, which originated in Ancient Greece, is that where documentaries represent particular people, places, and events fictions represent types of people, places, and events (called universals).  The best way of explaining this is an actual example and my final fictional analysis in A Criminology of Narrative Fiction is Martin Scorsese’s 2006 feature film, The Departed.  The protagonist is Billy Costigan (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a fictional particular that instantiates the universal of ‘an undercover Massachusetts police officer’ or just ‘an undercover police officer’.  The late Nicole Rafter wrote a great blog post on the film from a cultural criminological perspective, exploring the knowledge its production and reception provided about post-9/11 America.  My interest is more direct, in the knowledge the narrative fiction itself provides about the causes of crime and social harm.

First, The Departed provides mimetic knowledge of how necessary levels of secrecy and unnecessary levels of interdepartmental rivalry create chaos in undercover operations.  I use a historical example from my previous research to show that fact is often more fantastic than fiction, the unsolved murder of Anton Lubowski during the last-ditch defence of apartheid by the Civil Cooperation Bureau in Namibia in 1989.  Second, the film provides phenomenological knowledge of the lived experience of working as an undercover police officer.  Third, it provides counterfactual knowledge of the threat posed by agents of organised crime in and to policing, a theme that is also explored in Line of Duty.  As such, The Departed has aetiological value in virtue of the mimetic, phenomenological, and counterfactual knowledge it provides.  This criminological knowledge consists of data that explains the problems with undercover policing and the vulnerability of the police to organised criminal enterprises.  Like that from more conventional sources, this data could be used to improve police policy, procedure, and practice.

The process is of course much more complicated than I have described, but it should not be ignored by anyone who is interested in crime and social harm.  Understanding that there is truth in fiction would allow readers and audiences to realise that they have in many cases gained genuine insight from spending time with their favourite fictions.  For academics, narrative fictions are useful in at least two ways: as the pedagogical or methodological tools that Jon Frauley, Michelle Brown, and others have suggested; and as overlooked sources of data of the perpetration, collaboration in, and facilitation of crime and social harm, which is my thesis in A Criminology of Narrative Fiction.

I am not suggesting that the knowledge conveyed by fictional narratives is more – or even as – valuable as the knowledge conveyed by non-fictional narratives or discursive texts.  Such a claim would be both obviously false and highly irresponsible.  What I am suggesting is that some fictional narratives can provide sources of data for criminological research and that the practice of fiction is thus deserving of more attention than it currently receives within the discipline.  In other words, one could characterise my argument as an attempt to show that Frauley, Brown, and others have not gone far enough in their criminological engagements with fiction and that fictions have criminological value beyond their pedagogic and methodological values.


Dr Rafe McGregor, Edge Hill University



Images: courtesy of the author


Violence in our Cities

A short piece addressing the recent surge of violence in English cities.

Blog photo Ellis

Luke Billingham – Luke is a youth and community worker at Hackney Quest and Head of Strategy at Reach Children’s Hub. Luke is currently co-authoring a monograph with Keir-Irwin Rogers addressing social harm and violence between young people.

Elizabeth Cook – Elizabeth is Lecturer in Sociology in the Violence and Society Centre, City University of London. Elizabeth researches family activism, fatal violence and voluntary sector responses to violence. She recently completed her first monograph: ‘Family Activism in the Aftermath of Lethal Violence’, due to be published by Routledge later this year.

Anthony Ellis – Anthony is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Salford. He is the author of Men, Masculinities and Violence: An Ethnographic Study (Routledge), which was awarded Critical Criminology Book of the Year in 2016 by the British Society of Criminology.

Keir Irwin-Rogers – Keir is Lecturer in Criminology at the Open University. Keir was the lead criminologist to the cross-party Youth Violence Commission and recently co-authored the Commission’s final report (2020). Keir is currently co-authoring a monograph with Luke Billingham addressing social harm and violence between young people.


Before Coronavirus, England and Wales had been experiencing an ‘epidemic’ of a different kind. Serious violent crime had been rising steadily over a period of several years. Between 2015-2018 the overall rate of homicide increased by 39%. In 2018, killings by a knife or sharp instrument were the highest on record and both police-recorded crime and NHS hospital admissions confirmed that there had been consecutive recorded rises in violent offences involving knives or sharp instruments during this period. It was when writing for the Guardian in 2017 that the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime, Sarah Jones MP, described this worsening situation as an ‘epidemic’. The most recent figures indicate that in 2019 the police recorded the highest number of offences involving knives since data of this kind was first collected in 2011, with a considerable number of these recorded offences taking place in the country’s large cities. The most recent data from the Homicide Index brings slightly better news with a decline in the overall number of homicides nationally. Nevertheless, killings in London in this period increased, while the number of women killed by violence in England and Wales has increased for the second year running.

Purported causal associations between crime, violence and the city have a long history. In his foreword to Frederick Thrasher’s (1927) seminal study of Chicago’s criminal gangs, Robert Park famously stated ‘It is the slum, the city wilderness…which provides the city gang its natural habitat’. Undoubtedly, the ‘city is a primary site of crime and deviance’ (Atkinson and Millington, 2019: 1), and today particular urban environments characterised by exclusion and marginalisation continue to provide the most common backdrop to presentations of violence. In recent years, dystopian images of inner urban landscapes populated by gangs of dangerous young men became synonymous with the country’s latest ‘knife crime crisis’; an association which both revealed and yet at the same time obscured the complexity of violence in contemporary society.

On the one hand, this association drew attention – if often in a sensationalist way – to the neglected, austerity-ravaged parts of cities like London, that are seldom seen amidst ascending skylines and visible wealth. The recent surge in violence has served as a timely reminder that there remain many groups of socially excluded young men who are ‘counted for nothing by capital’ (Badiou, 2016: 36), for whom crime and violence seem to offer the only feasible route to becoming visible, to feeling that they matter, and to accessing aspects of the perceived ‘good life’. More than half of recent recorded homicides occurred in the most deprived parts of the country, while the majority of those requiring hospital treatment for stab injuries in London were young, male, and from the city’s most disadvantaged communities. The various demands from across the political spectrum for tougher sentencing, zero-tolerance policing, investment in inner city areas, collectively conjured a sense of profound urgency to respond. While it is difficult to ascertain the overall effectiveness of the response so far, some of the most recent figures quoted above indicate very little has changed.

What is crucial in this respect is that the continued associations drawn between serious weapon-enabled violence and the less salubrious public spaces of cities, can obscure both the violence that occurs within intimate spaces as well as the connections between these differing contexts. Parts of cities quickly and easily become regarded as landscapes beyond the periphery of civilised life and subject to more intense forms of policing and control, while private intimate spaces are routinely ‘laden with the suggestion of civility’ (Atkinson, 2012: 250). The significant position that the domestic home assumed within the national response to the Coronavirus crisis served to reinforce this paradox: too often seen simplistically as a place of sanctity from the dangers of the urban streets, the home was shown during lockdown to be a place where intimidation, abuse and violence can occur with alarming regularity. As part of the Counting Dead Women blog, Karen Ingala Smith identified at least 14 women and 2 children who were killed in the first three weeks of lockdown (between 23rd March and 12th April) (Smith, 2020).

This unfolding crisis of violence and its complex relationship with the country’s large cities was the focus of our contribution to a new book: Urban Crisis, Urban Hope (Anthem Press) published in June 2020. The book brought together academics and practitioners to reinvigorate a sense of the city as a space where more progressive and fairer futures can be imagined, planned and realised. In this vein, our particular contribution sought to identify the possible reasons for this recent surge in urban violence and how it might be addressed. In the intervening period between finalising our contribution and the publication of the book, the country, and the world, was fundamentally shaken by Coronavirus. The pandemic’s cumulative social and economic impacts brought forth a range of issues requiring immediate attention, but will also have considerable and lasting impacts in the long-term. While the national lockdown temporarily emptied the public spaces of our cities where violent confrontations between groups of socially excluded young men had been taking place, confinement to homes has led to reported increases in domestic abuse, with considerable numbers of predominantly women seeking support and refuge.

We argued in our contribution to the book that the recent surge in violent crimes is a highly complex issue and one that is entangled with inequality, the legacy of austerity, and a crisis of ‘mattering’, as these play out unevenly across the sub-geography of cities. The recommendations we made in the book were numerous: the country must learn from the successes of Scotland’s much lauded ‘public health’ approach to violence; re-invest in services that support and protect those experiencing domestic abuse and that provide children and young people with support; and reduce the rate of school exclusions. These changes – among others – could enable the young people who are needlessly fighting and dying in our cities to feel that they matter, rather than treating their lives, and those of their peers, as disposable, due to the trauma and diminishment they have often suffered.

Coronavirus has not diminished the urgency to address the issue of violence in our cities. We suggest, tentatively, that the pandemic’s impact on social and economic life could serve as a catalyst for further violence in the future. It therefore reinforces our plea to power-holders to comprehensively address this issue in the long term, rather than treating young lives with the same disposability that is too often felt by the young people themselves. The final report from the Youth Violence Commission recently issued a stark warning that the increased private violence experienced through lockdown, as well as unfavourable conditions arising from the pandemic’s economic impact, could have devastating effects on young people, including an exacerbated problem of violence. For the sake of those young people, we sincerely hope that all those in positions of power can develop a more effective response to our society’s violence ‘epidemic’ than they have to Coronavirus.



Luke Billingham, Hackney Quest, @lbilli91

Elizabeth Cook, City University of London, @_Lizzie_Cook

Anthony Ellis, University of Salford, @DrAnthonyEllis1

Keir-Irwin Rogers, Open University,


Images courtesy of the authors

Primodos: The first step towards Justice

Primodos: Sharon Hartles reflects upon the significant impacts of avoidable harms that have been perpetuated for decades through a culture of denial and an absence of state and corporate pharmaceutical accountability.

Sharon Hartles (002)Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from the Open University in December 2019 and is a member of the British Society of Criminology (BSC). She has an interest in crimes of the powerful, including state and state-corporate crime. Sharon draws upon a zemiological approach to evidence the ways in which crime and harm are produced and interwoven into society via socio-economic inequalities.

Primodos was the most widely used hormone pregnancy test prescribed to women in the UK. During 1958 to 1970 Primodos was marketed as a hormone pregnancy test and for the treatment of secondary amenorrhea. However, this was changed to just the treatment of secondary amenorrhea from 1970 to 1978, at which stage Primodos was withdrawn from the UK market. When Primodos was placed on the UK market in 1958 there was no centralised structured pharmaceutical regulation. In other words, no licence was required, no specific safety test was needed and there was no general consumer protection legislation.

In 1978, the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, was set up in the UK to represent families who suffered congenital abnormalities, stillbirths and miscarriages, allegedly due to taking the oral hormone pregnancy test Primodos. Decades of fighting for justice to uncover the truth about the failures of past Government Health Regulatory Authorities led to a review being commissioned in February 2018, by Jeremy Hunt, the then, Secretary of State.

The announcement in the House of Commons was for a review into how the health system responds to reports about harmful side effects from medicines. This stemmed from patient-led activist campaigns on the use of: hormone pregnancy test Primodos, sodium valproate and surgical mesh. Jeremy Hunt stated “patients and their families have had to spend too much time and energy campaigning for answers in a way that has added insult to injury for many.”

Two and a half years after this review was commissioned, on Wednesday 8th July 2020, the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review published the First Do No Harm Report. This Report, together with the additional supporting documents to accompany it including: Personal TestimoniesOral Hearing TranscriptsHormone Pregnancy Tests Supporting InformationTimeline Key EventsHistory of Regulation and the Press Conference Speech (by Baroness Julia Cumberledge, CBE, Chair of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review) evidence unequivocal systemic failures and a clear link between PRIMODOS and its tragic side-effects.

Marie Lyon, Chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests and active campaigner for justice, since 1978, on reading the First Do No Harm Report, declared “I’ve tried to be very calm and I can’t. It’s the fact it’s been acknowledged. They’ve actually looked at the documentation honestly and openly and for me that is the biggest result for our families today. They will be absolutely overjoyed.”

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review has set out nine recommendations in their First Do No Harm Report. Recommendation 1: states ‘The Government should immediately issue a fulsome apology on behalf of the healthcare system to the families affected by Primodos, sodium valproate and pelvic mesh.’ On the 8th July (the date the report was published) Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care apologised “on behalf of the NHS and the whole healthcare system” to those who have suffered and their families.

For decades, there have been numerous publications evidencing an association between hormone pregnancy tests and congenital malformations in babies. In 2018 and 2019, Oxford University published an analysis of data which found a clear association relating to Primodos and birth defects. Other supporting research which have found links between hormone pregnancy tests and birth defects includes:

However, there have also been opposing publications which have found no association and/or inconclusive results. In 2017, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) published their report on the use of hormone pregnancy tests and adverse effects related to pregnancy including possible birth defects. The MHRA is an independent Expert Working Group of the UK’s commission on Human Medicines, which was established, in October 2015, in order to conduct this review. The MHRA found there to be insufficient evidence to support an association. Other opposing research includes:

For Marie Lyon, Chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests “after viewing the oral evidence presented by members of the Expert Working Group who were responsible for the scientific publication in 2017, it seems I already have a perfect example of the denial and protection culture endemic in our regulators. Denial when problems occur and protection, not for the patient but for the manufacturer.”

In light of the decades of jostling to and fro of supporting and opposing evidence, it is clearer to understand why the findings of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review in the First Do No Harm Report, together with Matt Hancock’s prompt apology on behalf of the UK Government and acceptance may in the first instance offer some form of relief for the families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests.

In the Press Conference Speech by Baroness Julia Cumberledge Chair of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, she stated ‘In our view Primodos continued to be given as a pregnancy test for years longer than it should. In the face of growing concerns it should have ceased to be available from 1967.’ Yet Primodos remained on the UK market until 1978. This is a failure on behalf of the UK Government to protect its population from harm. Equally, a failure on behalf of the corporation Bayer (Schering). Primodos, was manufactured by Schering in Germany. In 2006 Schering was acquired by Bayer plc.

It is important to point out that Amenorone Forte a hormone pregnancy test prescribed by GPs, during this same time frame, acted in much the same way as Primodos and was manufactured by Roussel in France.  Roussel was acquired by Sanofi in 2004. For this reason families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests hold both corporations accountable for the avoidable harm inflicted.

According to the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, History of Regulation, The Medicines Act 1968 received Royal Assent in October 1968, however the ‘transitional period’ meant this Act did not come into effect until 1st September 1971. During this time the Committee on Safety of Drugs was formed, yet it had no legal powers. With little irony, there was no formal regulator, it was part of a voluntary arrangement. There was no body to legally mandate the removal of a drug from the market and limited mechanisms to regulate drugs and restrict their use.

More systemic failures followed because the Committee on Safety of Medicines, (which replaced the Committee on Safety of Drugs, 1st September 1971) focused its gaze on formalising new medicines entering the UK market. Products, including Primodos, which had been on the market before the 1st September 1971 were automatically granted a Product Licences of Right (PLR).

Primodos was awarded a PLR yet its product which had been on the market since 1958, had never been required to submit evidence of quality, safety or efficacy. This oversight to ensure Primodos met the appropriate standards of safety, quality and performance in line with new rules was another missed opportunity to protect public health and safeguard the interests of patients and users.

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review Timeline has brought to light other damning evidence. On 22nd July 1969 Schering UK wrote to Schering Germany recommending the removal of the pregnancy testing indication. In a letter dated 17th February 1970 to Schering, Dr Ruttle a member of the Standing Committee on the Classification of Proprietary Preparations (known as the MacGregor Committee – 1965 and 1971) which provided guidance as to which preparations should be used on the NHS, stated ‘The Committee would be prepared to place the product in A.3 if the promotional indication as a “pregnancy test” were withdrawn and I would suggest that the most appropriate and, acceptable to the Committee, promotion be “symptomatic treatment of amenorrhea to produce withdrawal bleeding.”

On the 9th March 1970 Schering agreed ‘to the deletion of “pregnancy test” from the indications, and to the promotional statement “the symptomatic treatment of amenorrhea not due to pregnancy, by producing withdrawal bleeding”. Further correspondence in April 1970 acknowledged the suggestions from Schering (removing the pregnancy test indication and altering promotional statements) and confirmed that Primodos would be placed in category A.3 (prescription-only medicines).

Five years later, the Committee on Safety of Medicines (an independent advisory committee to the UK medicines licencing authority) published a letter in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on 26th April 1975. In this letter the Committee on Safety of Medicines stated they agreed with an article published five months earlier in the BMJ entitled Synthetic Sex Hormones and Infants which advised ‘there is little justification for the continued use of withdrawal type pregnancy tests when alternative methods are available.’

On 5th June 1975, the Committee on Safety of Medicines sent an alert letter – to all doctors in the UK – entitled Hormonal Pregnancy Tests, in which they advised them of a possible association between hormonal pregnancy tests and an increased incidence of congenital abnormalities. The Committee on Safety of Medicines stated ‘In view of the possible hazard, doctors should not normally prescribe certain hormonal preparations for pregnancy tests’.

Spanning 1958 to 1978, Primodos was given to around 1.5million women in Britain. Primodos was a hormone pregnancy test prescribed to women to detect pregnancy. It consisted of two tablets which were to be taken on consecutive days. A negative pregnancy test would result in a withdrawal bleed (within three to ten days of consumption of the tablets). It is now known that Primodos prescribed to women to confirm their pregnancy, by today’s standards equates to 13 morning-after pills or 40 oral contraceptive pills. Moreover, the hormones contained in Primodos are now used in the morning-after contraception pill.

A statement taken from the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review Personal Testimonies from the families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests illustrate their distress – “We feel that we were used as collateral damage by the pharmaceutical company who were developing the contraceptive drug at the time.” The personal testimonies of Nicky Gubbins and Daniel Mason evidence how “The effect on our lives have, as you can imagine, been devastating.” The alleged impacts of PRIMODOS comprise:

  • all congenital malformations
  • more specific malformations:
    • cardiac malformations
    • musculoskeletal
    • neurological
    • neurogenetical malformations
  • birth defects
  • miscarriage
  • stillbirth

The First Do No Harm Report together with the supporting documents is significant because it evidences a clear link between Primodos and the terrible avoidable harms that have been perpetuated for decades through a culture of denial and the absence of state and corporate accountability.

Acknowledgement in the form of an apology on behalf of the Government was the first step towards justice. However, in a letter dated 13th December 2018, to the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, Bayer stated ‘there is nobody at Bayer plc who could usefully contribute anything on the subject matter of your inquiry’. Notwithstanding this response, it is now time to look to the future.

The Government (on behalf of the UK regulators) and corporations Bayer (Schering) and Sanofi (Roussel) should as recommended in the First Do No Harm Report, fund the costs of care for those affected by state and corporate harm. In addition to this, the families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests using the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review evidence should be able to successfully take legal action for the harms done to them by Bayer, Sanofi and the regulators.

In line with recommendation 9, of the First Do No Harm Report, the Government has a duty to set up a task force which must schedule a timeline for the implementation of the remainder of the recommendations. Such initiatives should endeavor to provide a safety net to ensure that a patient-led approach is centred at the heart of future health care provision.


This article was originally published by the Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative on 21 July 2020 at:



Sharon Hartles


Twitter: @shartles1


Images: Courtesy of author and via Flickr