Does Crime Fiction Inspire Copycat Violence?

There’s an ongoing debate about whether or not crime fiction causes copycat violence. It’s not likely something that we can prove empirically one way or another, but it definitely makes for interesting conversation. I came across a post about this subject by Suzanne Lieurance over at The Working Writer’s Club website that discusses this in detail.

Lieurance gives several examples of crimes supposedly inspired by crime fiction. I’ve listed a few for you here:

  1. Patricia Cornwell’s book Post Mortem, published in 1991, allegedly inspired a copycat murder in Florida.
  2. The infamous Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski claims he planned his crimes after reading a book by Joseph Conrad, published in 1907, and called The Secret Agent Man.
  3. Agatha Christie’s book, The Pale Horse, which came out in 1961, supposedly inspired a slew of murders involving Thallium – the poison of choice in the book. Lieurance mentions that the book also helped save a child’s life, though, when a nurse recognized the symptoms of Thallium poisoning. So, it’s not all bad.
  4. Oddly, people accused Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of The Hounds of the Baskervilles, published in 1901, of poisoning Bertram Fletcher Robinson who allegedly gave him the idea for the book. Supposedly, Doyle wanted to take sole credit for the plot and the novel.
  5. John Thomas Smith discussed murders and how they were concealed in Arthur Upfield’s book, Sands of Windee, over a poker game. After the game, Smith allegedly committed murder and concealed the crime by burning kangaroo carcasses over the corpses – just like in the book.

Lieurance shares a number of other examples as well. During my research, I found another interesting post that talks about real life crimes that inspired best selling crime novels. So it can work both ways, of course. It doesn’t cause as much concern if crimes lead to ideas for a novel, but when a crime novel inspires violent acts in real life, it’s a problem.

What do you think?

I find it hard to believe that a perfectly sane and law-abiding citizen could be influenced into committing a heinous crime just because he or she read a crime novel. My thought is that people who commit acts of murder — and claim a fictional story caused them to do it — were already planning to murder. Perhaps the novel gave them an idea about how to pull off their dark deeds, but I seriously doubt these novels plant a killing seed in the murderer’s mind that didn’t exist before.

In fact, Jonathan Gottschall, Ph.D. claims that we worry too much about fictional violence. In an article on the Psychology Today website, Gottschall discusses various violent crimes involving guns, terrorism, and other modes of murder and how we, as a society, react to them. He explains that people want to blame violent fiction in movies, novels, and video games as well as the guns and other causes. According to him, we worry way too much about fictional violence and don’t look hard enough for the real causes of violent tragedies.

He sums up the article by saying, “So here’s what shouldn’t worry us: fictional violence. Here’s what should: the way our very understandable pain and fear leads us to respond ineffectively to real violence.” Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Read the entire article, Does Fictional Violence Lead to Real Violence.

As a best selling crime author, I would hate to learn that someone lost a life due to a criminal copying violence from one of my books, but I just don’t think fictional violence causes real crime. Grab a copy of my latest, Chasing the Dead, and let me know what you think about this second installment in the Alex Stone Thriller Series.

Photo credit: morguefile [dot] com

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