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


From Narrative Justice to Narrative Methodology

Exploring the relationship between narrative representation and the reduction of ideologically-motivated crime and harm


Rafe McGregor is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Edge Hill University.  His research specialisations are narrative criminology, criminological fiction, and neoliberalism.  Narrative Justice was published by Rowman & Littlefield International in 2018.


In Narrative Justice (2018), I defined methodology as a theory of research, set of principles, and system of methods regulating a particular inquiry or a discipline more generally.  The theories I developed involved research into the ethical and cognitive values of exemplary narratives (narratives high in narrativity in consequence of their circumstantial, causal, thematic, and closural complexity) and concluded that regardless of their truth or falsity: (1) every story has a moral, but that moral may be virtuous, vicious, or somewhere in-between; and (2) stories can provide genuine knowledge just by being stories.  These conclusions were combined in the theory of narrative ethical knowledge, which establishes the first principle for a methodology: (a) stories convey knowledge of what lived ethical experience is like in virtue of their narrativity.  The second principle is widespread and uncontroversial within criminology: (b) explanations of crime or social harms have the potential to reduce crime or social harm in virtue of developing understanding of the causes of the crime or social harm.  The methods employed for the three practical examples in Narrative Justice involved a comparative analysis of two exemplary narratives.  The first employed two biographies, one of a real person and one of a fictional character, in order to establish the former’s responsibility for collaboration in crimes against humanity.  The second employed two narratives concerned with totalitarian oppression, one fictional and one documentary, in order to understand how an exemplary narrative can succeed in exploring the psychology of a torturer while simultaneously condemning his or her actions.  The third employed a comparison of two ostensibly documentary narratives, an article and an essay, to illustrate the fictional basis of both.  With respect to the distinction between fiction and documentary, these can be set out as: (i) the use of a fictional narrative to illuminate a real person’s character; (ii) the use of a documentary narrative to illuminate a novel’s psychological failure; and (iii) the comparison of two documentary narratives to reveal their fictional basis. (i) and (ii) can be collapsed into: the comparison of a fictional and documentary narrative for the purposes of disclosure.  (iii) is the comparison of two documentary narratives in terms of fiction for the purpose of demystification.  In each case, the relationship between fiction and documentary is exploited in order to explain the causes of ideologically-motivated crime.

The method involves the careful selection, analysis, and comparison of documentary and fictional narratives.  One begins with the subject of inquiry and then selects two complementary exemplary narratives, either one documentary and one fictional (if one’s purpose is disclosure) or two documentary (if one’s purpose is demystification).  In the former case, the fictional narrative is employed to illuminate the documentary (by direct or indirect means) and in the latter, the comparative analysis of two documentaries as exemplary narratives (rather than as documentaries) reveals the extent to which they are fictional.  Two brief examples will demonstrate the method in practice.  If one wanted to explore the extent to which wealthy expatriates are complicit in the crimes against humanity the Emirate of Dubai perpetrates against migrant workers, one might select Jim Krane’s Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City (2009) as one’s documentary narrative and Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog (2014) as one’s fictional narrative.  At the general level, the two can be juxtaposed so as to exploit the extent to which the latter’s basis in the imagination complements the former’s basis in fact, combining the representation of objective facts about the relationship between expats and migrants with the representation of subjective experiences that could not be achieved in non-fiction.  More specifically, there is a contrast in the way in which the two narratives represent the relationship between prosperity and deprivation in Dubai.  Krane is for the most part concerned with growth, development, and success, devoting only one of four parts of the history to the cost in terms of human rights violations and environmental damage, whereas O’Neill’s narrative focuses on the moral corruption of the anonymous narrator, of the extent to which his lucrative employment requires him to not merely consent to crimes against humanity but play an active role in their commission.  If one wanted to explore the fallacies employed to justify the crimes against humanity perpetrated by colonial powers against communist insurgents during the Cold War, one might select George Robert Elford’s Devil’s Guard (1971) and Tim Bax’s Three Sips of Gin (2013).  The two can be apposed so as to reveal the identical contradictions in form and content that undermine both narratives from within.  Elford’s narrator and Bax’s autobiographical narration describe situations in which traditional non-combatants are prepared to die for their freedom and combatants to fund their resistance by any means available, belying the colonisers’ claims that the counterinsurgency was in the interests of the indigenous populations.  The comparative analysis of the two texts exposes a multiplicity of self-contradictions that demystify the justifications endorsed by both authors – which are revealed as at best ignorant and at worst deceitful.

These examples are textual rather than visual, but the theory and principles underlying the method facilitate its application to any type of exemplary narrative as well as across different modes of narrative representation.  In consequence, one might juxtapose Roméo Dallaire’s autobiographical Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2003) with Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004) in order to illuminate the question of responsibility during the Rwandan genocide.  With respect to the methodology I am setting out here, the distinction between minimal and exemplary narratives cuts across the distinction between descriptive and depictive modes of representation.  The method involves the selection of two exemplary narratives, one fictional and one documentary (if the aim is disclosure) or both documentary (if the aim is demystification), and facilitates a variety of combinations within these parameters (including the use of more than two exemplary narratives for sustained analyses).  There is coherence among the theories, principles, and methods described above such that the theories determine the principles, which underpin the methods and although I have identified two methods, these are more accurately described as two instantiations of a single method of comparative analysis.  The central thesis of Narrative Justice, which is that exemplary narratives can reduce ideologically-motivated crime, thus establishes a new methodology for criminology and my hope is that it will be adopted, adapted, and developed by others.



Dr Rafe McGregor, Edge Hill University



Images: courtesy of the author