The Crime Readers' Association

Susan Wilkins -The Reality of Evil

31st October 2014

The need to vanquish the forces of evil is much in the news at the moment as Presidents and Prime Ministers grapple with an intractable situation in the Middle East and in particular the rise of Isil.

Evil is an interesting notion. In fiction it features in both the crime and horror genres. And as readers we all think we know what it means. But do we?

Writing in the Guardian (21stOctober 2014) John Gray, the political philosopher, has some pretty useful things to say about evil and the politicians’ current use of the concept.

Now you might think what’s that got to do with crime fiction? When I sit down with a good crime novel I want to be gripped from page one, I want to see the hero struggle against the forces of darkness, I want to fear for her, but in the end I want to see the moral order restored via some unexpected twists.

It’s simple. It’s just a story. But is a story ever just a story?

Turn on the television news, go online, pick up a history book and you have to start asking yourself is it merely a rhetorical flourish or is evil really out there and if so how should we respond to it?

In fiction we can win – the monster is slain, the sadistic villain dispatched and we can all go home for tea.

Sadly the world is not like that and the question arises how realistic should a crime novel be and should it sometimes refuse to indulge our desire for moral closure?

In his article John Gray writes “Most western leaders don’t believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. They reject the insight that destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves.” He points out that “in the liberal scheme of human advance” evil is simply “a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be improved.”

It is this viewpoint, he argues, and the belief that the forces of good will ultimately prevail that make it so difficult for our leaders to deal effectively with the complexities of the Middle East and the appalling but carefully choreographed savagery of Isil.

But back to fiction. Crime novels tend to be about individuals rather than groups. Still it’s our underlying belief in progress, in the notion of behaviour improving and destructive impulses being overcome that focuses our need for a moral resolution.

When it comes down to nasty individuals the labels can be confusing – psychopaths, sociopaths, antisocial personality disorder. Whatever you call it the immutability of this condition or conditions is generally accepted by the experts.

However, if the psychopath can’t be changed, the outcome can – certainly in fiction. The triumph of morality that continually eludes us in the real world can be rectified in fiction. And we get to cling on to our beliefs about moving forwards towards a rosier dawn.

But I wonder should crime writers continue to play this game? Would we come up with better stories if we didn’t?

Read more about Susan on her CRA Profile 

Go back to Blog

Join the CRA

Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.