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