The press on trial: crime fiction and the media

One of my favourite things when reading crime fiction is the random emergence of a theme that links successive books. I experienced this recently with three quite diverse novels from Sweden, America and Australia, all of which focused heavily on the role of the media. None were too flattering of journalists and their trade, using the crime narrative to put the press ‘on trial’.

Leif G.W. Persson’s Linda, as in the Linda Murder (2005), is a recently translated Swedish police procedural that investigates the killing of Linda Wallin, a trainee police-woman at Vaxjo Police Academy. The novel is particularly scathing of the media’s sensationalist depictions of female murder victims, which are designed to generate sales: ‘From trainee police officer Linda Wallin, 20. To the Linda murder […] The Kajsa murder, the Petra murder, the Jenny murder… They had quite simply been transformed from women of flesh and blood into media messages’. This transformation is especially resonant in its original Swedish context, where the victim’s first name forms part of a compound noun that reduces her life to no more than its violent end – in this case, the Lindamordet [‘the Lindamurder’]. In contrast, the narrative notes drily, ‘men’s names were never used as prefixes to the word ‘murder”.

Gillan Flynn’s 2011 novel Gone Girl, a darkly humorous dissection of a marriage gone sour, critiques the media’s damaging influence when reporting criminal cases. Husband Nick Dunne, dealing with the press in the aftermath of his wife’s disappearance, soon discovers how fickle journalists can be: he’s styled as an anxious, bereft husband one minute, and as a sinister-looking potential murderer the next. Before long, he’s forced to hire a savvy lawyer who specialises in manipulating media narratives in his clients’ favour. The truth becomes largely superfluous: expensive lawyers and public opinion appear to count more than any meaningful judicial process (one can’t help thinking of the media circus that was the OJ Simpson case, and of the more recent Pistorius case).

Yvonne Erskine’s 2011 novel The Brotherhood is a 360 degree examination of the events leading up to and following a Tasmanian policeman’s murder. The police are shown having to manage press reactions to the killing from the minute the news gets out, a time-consuming and politically sensitive job, as the main suspect has Aboriginal heritage. We’re also introduced to amoral journalist Tim Roberts, who writes up a potentially damaging story knowing that he might jeopardise the case. Investigative journalism is portrayed here as seedy and self-interested, with no positive contribution to make to society.

Three crime novels obviously don’t make a trend, but I’d be interested to know if there are others that are similarly critical of the media. Of course, some crime novels contain more sympathetic depictions of the press: Stieg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist and Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon are two examples of journalists who are given leading investigative roles within crime narratives, and who are depicted as thoughtful practitioners of their trade.

If you think of more, let me know – I’ll compile a list if we gather enough!

Update 3 May 2013: The Guardian has just run a profile of Gillian Flynn (interesting discussion on misogyny and female villains amongst other things, including the press angle). My review on Wendy James’ The Mistake (as recommended by Angela Savage in the comments below), can be read here.

14 thoughts on “The press on trial: crime fiction and the media

  1. Mrs. P. – What a fascinating question! Wendy James’ The Mistake includes a very unflattering depiction of media that is all to eager to demonise the protagonist when a fact about her past comes out. Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers doesn’t have the media as central figures but certainly isn’t kind to journalists. Neither is Håkan Nesser in Woman With Birthmark. Hmmm….before that, there’s a reporter named Savage who’s not exactly painted sympathetically in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. And there are several Agatha Christie novels in which reporters don’t get very pleasant treatment.
    As to novels kinder to the media, there’s the Jack McEvoy novels from Michael Connelly. There’s Andrea Camilleri’s Nicolò Zito, telejournalist friend of Salvo Montalbano. And there’s also Gail Bowen’s Saskatchewan sleuth Joanne Kilbourn, who occasionally works for Nation TV. There are a lot of others, too, but I think I’ve taken up enough comment space. Thanks for such interesting ‘food for thought.’

  2. Thanks, Margot! What riches! Some I know, but there are others I’ll enjoy checking out. Thanks for reminding me about >The Mistake< as well – I keep meaning to read this one.

  3. I echo Margot’s comments on THE MISTAKE – a very fitting depiction of the Australian media and its often appalling treatment of “newsworthy” people who refuse to conform to expectations

    One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon’s series is its depiction of the changing nature of journalism and the media

    I like the way Thomas Enger tackles the subject in BURNED with his commentary that what “we” say we want to read is different from what we actually read (as evidenced by all the data around click throughs and so on that are available to online outlets) and how this factor has influenced the approach of the modern media outlets

    • Thanks, Bernadette. The Mistake has now been added to my TBR pile. I’ve actually only read the first of the Marklund series, but liked the way in which the investigation was seen through (the then rookie) Annika’s eyes. I have Red Wolf sitting on the shelf waiting to be read, and I know many think very highly of the series. Thanks for highlighting Burned as well.

  4. Hi Mrs P, this is what makes your blog so good, the way you have seen parallels in these different novels, and now of course I want to read The Lindamurder and The Brotherhood even more…as you know, I loved Gone Girl and think the role of the press in the book is overlooked, certainly in the reviews I have read.. The Mistake mentioned by Margot and Bernadette also sounds good.
    The book that comes to mind for me re Press is Heinrich Boll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, which I did 100 years ago for German A level – it’s not really a detective novel as such but does involve a crime and the role of the press. Recently I read Tell No Lies by Martyn Waites, crime novel set in Newcastle and that had a very good plot thread featuring a female journalist desperate to get a story. In real life we are currenlty spoilt for choice on this issue , not least the Huhne/Pryce/Sunday Times debacle.

    • Many thanks, Blighty. Your appreciation has gladdened this blogger’s heart 🙂

      I’m so glad that you mentioned Böll’s Katharina Blum. This is one of my all-time favourite works and you’re quite right – it’s a searing critique of the gutter press and its disregard for the individual. I’m quite tempted to do a post on this now – danke!

      Thanks for flagging up the Waites – will check this one out.

  5. Please read The Mistake, Mrs P – right up your alley if this theme engages you. Also read/watch the movie version of Evil Angels about the death of baby Azaria Chamberlain and the vilification of her mother, Lindy – Australia’s most shameful case of trial by media.

    • Thanks, Angela – will do. I remember the Chamberlain case vividly – am I right in thinking that it was only properly resolved in a judicial sense quite recently?

      • You are right about the Chamberlain case, Mrs P. In June 2012, the coroner finally found that a dingo had taken baby Azaria, despite her mother having been convicted for murder 32 years earlier. Sadly, there are people who still believe Lindy Chamberlain (as she was then) to be responsible for the child’s death.

  6. Pingback: #34 / Leif G.W. Persson, Linda, as in the Linda Murder | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  7. Pingback: #36 / Wendy James, The Mistake | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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