The role of animals in criminal fiction ‹CrimeReads

Non-human animals are among the most vulnerable members of society. Even their inclusion in this term – ‘society’ – is not without controversy and perhaps not surprising. We slaughter thousands of them every day to provide food and other products, routinely ignoring the often barbaric conditions they store before their deaths. Arbitrary distinctions are made between the behavior of animals that are considered to be consumables or those that are placed in the category of ‘pets’, while pets themselves – whether they are loved or abused – are considered a legal property. Some of the most popular breeds on the planet are created in such a way that it limits their ability to breathe.

It is therefore interesting that when it comes to the fictional depiction of crimes involving animals, we often find them as villains. Unreasonable, unable to explain their actions, forces of nature acting on instinct rather than ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ – figures like Cujo and the shark from the jaws undermine a genre that revolves around these precise elements. In works such as Moby Dick, we see a classic story of occupation and planned revenge against a murderer who turns out to be in vain towards the non-human.

‘Unrecognizability’ of animals as villains has an almost supernatural aspect in some of these stories. If we go back to myths and legends from the last few millennia – the Minotaur from the Greek myth, Beowulf’s monster Grendel and countless others – they are in some ways stories of crime. A stranger arrives in the city to overcome the superstitious despair of the locals, find the perpetrator of a number of deaths and end their threat to society. This feeds through to the fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I Arthur Conan Doyles Baskerville’s dog, an animal with supernatural proportions is considered to be potentially responsible for murder, only for Sherlock Holmes to prove that this is a deception; in modern works such as The only good Indians and The Nesting, semi-bestial hybrids represent curses threatening over various killings.

Historically, animals have been victims of various legal systems, where they have been accused of human crimes, and where human motives for such crimes have been attributed to animals. The infamous Thomas Edison publicly tested electric shock as a method of execution in the case of an elephant that had killed its trainer. In addition, cases of pigs hanged for murder after devouring unsuspecting people lost in their territory are throughout history in various ecclesiastical trials. Lawyers defending these cases have often done so with a firm tongue in cheek approach, with both judges and lawyers seeming to appreciate the ridiculous nature of applying the human justice system to an animal that is not able to understand both the serious nature of their alleged crime but also the consequences. Moreover, the punishment in these cases feels to a modern eye as a further moral transgression as a result.

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While humanity has rarely been slow to punish animals, it has moved at the snail’s pace when it comes to protecting their rights as victims. In fact, it is only recently that we have recognized their sensitivity. Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarian ethics, was the first to suggest that animals are capable of feeling fear and pain, a radical idea that heralded the stunned slaughter movement that the ordinary modern reader feels so normal for us now.

The same inequality – being quick to attack non-human animals as threats, but being quite slow to protect their status as victims – is repeated in fiction and ordinary reader responses in a rather bizarre way. We often see the death or injury of an animal in a story as one of the more shocking things a writer can write about and even surpass human death – to the point where most stories avoid mentioning it. Trigger warning signs such as ‘die dog’ focus on animals as their primary example, while movies such as John Wick are the exceptions that prove the rule, showing how a single cruelty to a puppy will motivate viewers to accept mass slaughter of humans in response.

To me, this taboo says a lot about type of animals considered worthy of an emotional response, and thus sheds light on both the genre of criminal fiction and the treatment of various creatures in modern society.

My debut novel Sixteen horses begins with the discovery of horse heads on a farm near the sea. This crime is investigated with similar machines as a human case, including specialist medical forensic work, post mortems and follow-up interviews. Some initial answers have found this shocking, graphic and gorey, despite the fact that none of these animals were directly harmed on the page itself. We only see the aftermath of the horrific event – but even here, even though it is mostly just a medical examination, the taboo survives.

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In the novel itself, forensic veterinarian Cooper Allen notes that there is ‘something about horses’ that makes us treat them differently. If sixteen cattle had been found, it would not have caused roughly the same answer, neither in my fictional world nor in the novel’s real readership, at least in some countries. But why? The animals are largely identical in their shape. They all feel feelings and care for their young people; Cows are even known to have best friends among their flocks. Yet when something is food, when it is not a pet, when it is not seen as being ‘sweet’, when an arbitrary socio-economic division is made, the taboo with their death disappears for many. It is not the death of the animal itself that offends, but our existing social hierarchy and divisions that come into play.

Taboos often exist because thinking about them – engaging in their underlying logic – somehow feels harmful to a society and points to a paradox or an inherent schism that must remain unspeakable. In my opinion, rejecting animals from much crime speaks to the same underlying force. In fiction, we revolt when animals are victims of heinous crimes, but turn a blind eye to the daily occurrence of animal suffering that just comes with modern life, especially for people who eat meat.

I want to emphasize that it is not my intention to blame people who eat meat. I’m a meat eater. I’m in conflict with this – much of this conflict is expressed in my work and the topics I choose to write about and explore, and I do not think – at least for the moment – that there should be an either / or solution to situation, but that our society has an absolute obligation to radically improve the conditions under which animals are kept.

But one thing that I do not conflict with is the need to actually interrogate and face our choices in everyday life, to take responsibility for them with full awareness rather than trying to hide away. We turn a blind eye to the breeding and purchase of animals that can not even breathe in the case of brachycephalic dogs like pugs, but we get incredibly upset by a dog that is threatened with suffering? This kind of faux sentimentality serves to defend a world where this status quo is maintained. Where it is OK to read about an animal as a threat – where an animal is killed because they have ‘done something wrong’ – because this does not disturb or complicate our views on everyday life. Where one can read about animal-as-victims must be overwhelming, regardless of personal and social involvement in the real suffering in the real world. Crime fiction – as with all fiction – can hold up a mirror to these strange, complex, thorny problems we face in life. To ‘draw attention’, even in a Brechtian sense, to what we take for granted in law and in social interaction.

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Writing about animal harm and death is often considered one of the few things one does not ‘do’ in commercial fiction. I did it. I have worked on farms; fit rescue animals; kept cats at home and am engaged to marry a vet – I know this world and I write about it, because also throughout my analysis here I feel deeply emotionally affected by the depiction of such a disorder. But I see it as a writer’s responsibility to look at what they can see and feel, rather than give way to avoid offending sensitivity. It should not be radical to write about something that happens commonly enough to routinely be in the news, with more horse murders in France alone last year; hundreds in America over decades; The Croydon cat killer is spreading across the UK, to name a few. Readers of Sixteen horses may seem such references are fictitious, but the reality is that crimes against animals are unfortunately far more common than we are aware of.

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