BLOG: Why Crime?

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What is my obsession with crime stories? Of all the adventures one could have in fiction, why stories about fucked up dudes doing fucked up shit? You have however many hours a week you can devote to reading books and watching TV and movies, why spend that time checking in with some disturbed asshole’s struggles to cover up a murder rather than, say, a super spy saving the world, or a kid in a funny hat changing the properties of matter with a wooden stick? Why would you try to get in the headspace of a psycho instead of that of a decent guy trying to do the right thing?

These are questions I’ve been asked before (you get such questions when people find out that your twitter handle is the decidedly ridiculous moniker of Nerd of Noir, after all) and I’m sure you, dear reader, have been asked similar things yourself, perhaps by a friend or family member looking through your shelf and noticing your Sopranos box-set, your Tarantino DVD collection and numerous books with James Ellroy’s name on their spines.

I usually give a quick answer because, as any nerd knows, someone who isn’t really into your thing doesn’t really want you to go on and on about it. If I ask you about birding or whatever the fuck, I want your prepared and practiced two minutes on the subject, not a fucking lengthy history of the best binoculars for looking at a robin’s breasts. (Dirty fucking birders – they should be called “bird peepers” or “avian voyeurs,” something more apt like that. “Bird pervs,” maybe.)

As I have a little bit of that “social grace” stuff within me, I usually just say, “Oh, well, I just like to try and understand how and why we do bad things through entertaining narratives” then blow that nugget up broad-wise and move on. (“Like, how can a guy like Hitler, like, just happen, man? Like, nature versus nurture, y’know?”)

But I’m amongst friends right now, amongst fellow addicts, in the place where the basement crazies come to commiserate, so I’m gonna try and take the question past cocktail party conversation starter and toward the specific, toward the personal. (Blogs are first and foremost for shameless fucking navel-gazing, are they not?)

There’s undeniably some truth to the “understanding why we hurt each other” super-deep guy answer, for sure. I mean, the whole to-do about crime being the new classic “social novel” is a real thing, but even the finest practitioners of “crime novel as social novel” at least make the experience pretty cool and fun. You’ll learn some heavy truths about down-and-out motherfuckers and possibly even yourself in the new George Pelecanos, Daniel Woodrell, Richard Price, or Ray Banks novel, but you’ll also get some pretty fucking substantial vicarious transgressive thrills in there as well.

Because there’s no getting around how appealing vicarious transgression is to me on a purely base level – it’s been that way for me since grade school. Instead of imagining myself flying around the galaxy in a space ship, fighting in the war against the vleethags or some other evil alien race, I’d rather think about driving a stolen El Camino with a tarp-covered body in the bed, a duffel bag full of money on the passenger seat. Where some might want to be the cop who always gets his man, I want to be the drug dealer trying to get out from under the corrupt cop who takes half my cut every week. Transgressions are just more fun to think about for me than, say, true love and heroism – plain and fucking simple.

But it’s also about imagining having to make high stakes choices that could fuck up not just my life but also my soul. I remember watching heist movies as a kid and saying to myself things like, “if I were just stealing from these evil mobsters and I didn’t have to kill anyone, yeah, maybe I could see myself pulling a job like these guys…if I had the balls, that is.” Now, though, I fucking hate when crime movies try to overly justify the motives of their protagonists. Oh, you’re ripping off the Madoff-esque billionaire who fucked with your pension, Ben Stiller? Eat shit, I’m an adult, I can go with you somewhere darker – I will gladly try and empathize with you as you’re doing some truly fucked up shit.

Now is that because with age I’ve become able to imagine myself doing worse deeds than I could at age twelve? I don’t think so. I still will find myself asking hypotheticals while watching Breaking Bad, asking whether I could do this bad deed or that in this specific circumstance or that, and the answers have just as little give as they did when I was a kid. (I may not be religious anymore but I still have a fucking lion’s share of guilt ingrained into me.)

No, I like to think it’s because I have more empathy now, more of an understanding of our fucking numerous frailties. Therefore I’m able to go with Tony Soprano as he takes the easy road and remains a mobster instead of breaking away from the business – he’s a human being therefore he’s sticking to what he knows. I’m able to watch Walter White go from a sad, overly prideful man to a sad, overly power-hungry man and still cheer for him to come out on top because, well, I know where he came from and what his intentions are, no matter how far he’s strayed from the decent man he was at the beginning of the show.

But now we’re back to my original hoidy-toidy-ass short answer, back to understanding crime and the humans that commit it, but I suppose that’s where it has to end up. After all, if I just wanted to satiate the transgressive-fucked-up-shit loving part of my brain I could play any number of the great video games out there for hours at a time instead of reading and watching crime. Thing is, without the chance to see something of myself reflected in the character, crime fiction is just as empty and childish as the half-formed images I created in my mind as a boy in the video store every Friday afternoon, able only to look and mentally extrapolate upon the R-rated VHS boxes but not permitted to take it home and put it in the VCR. Then again, those primal, childish fantasies were pretty fun all on their own, if memory serves.

PETE DRAGOVICH has written crime fiction, movie and television reviews for online magazines like Bookspot Central (now Boomtron), Spinetingler Magazine and, naturally, fucking Crime Factory. Links to all his work can be found at the Nerd of Noir blog (, which he has kept since May of 2008. His twitter handle is @nerdofnoir. He winters, summers, falls, and springs in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.


  1. Andrew Nette says:

    Nicely put, Nerd. Well done.