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.