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A Love Letter: in praise of Agatha Christie

For most of my life, I have been an avid reader of all types of books. As my family will confirm, from childhood, I was never without a book. As an adult, I have regularly selected coats with large pockets and bags purely on the basis that they can hold a book. As many students will attest, my answer to most academic questions is “read, read and read some more”. Despite the growth of the internet and other media, which as @drkukustr8talk has noted recently, diverts and subverts our attention and concentration, reading remains my first and truest love.

This, my third ‘Love Letter’, focuses on my favourite author, above all others, Agatha Christie. I have previously dedicated ‘Love Letters’ to poetry, and art. Both of these forms took a long time for me to develop my understanding of and my love for. This ‘Love Letter’ is slightly different.

I first discovered Christie’s novels when I was about 12, since then they have formed a regular backdrop to my life. They act as a comfort blanket when I am tired, stressed, sad or away from home. I have read and reread everything she wrote and know the stories inside and out. Despite my decades of adoration, it remains challenging to know exactly what it is that appeals to me so much about Christie’s novels.

Perhaps it is the symmetry, the fact that for Christie every crime has a solution. Conceivably, given my pacifist tendencies, it could be the absence of explicit violence within her books. Maybe it’s Christie use of stereotypical characters, who turn out to be anything but. You don’t have to look very far to find the oh-so suspicious foreigner, who turns out to be a caring father (Dr Jacob Tanois) or the shell-shocked former military man trained in violence, who metamorphosises into a rather lonely man, who suffers from epilepsy (Alexander Cust). In all these cases, and many others, Christie plays with the reader’s prejudices, whatever they might be, and with deft sleight of hand, reveals that bias as unfounded.

To be honest, until relatively recently, I did not think much about the above, reading Christie was so much part of my life, that I took it very much for granted. All that changed in 2017, when I spotted a ‘Call for Chapters’

https://jcbernthal.com/2017/02/27/call-for-chapters-agatha-christie-goes-to-war/

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, after all I had spent a lifetime reading Christie, not to mention a decade studying war and crime. After all, what did I have to lose? I submitted an abstract, with no real expectation that someone who had never studied fiction academically, would be accepted for the volume. After all, who would expect a criminologist to be interested in the fictional writing of a woman who had died over 40 years ago? What could criminology learn from the “golden age” of “whodunnit” fiction?

Much to my surprise the abstract was accepted and I was invited to contribute a chapter. The writing came surprisingly easy, one of very few pieces of writing that I have ever done without angst. Once I got over the hurdle of forcing myself to send my writing to strangers (thank you @manosdaskalou for the positive reassurance and gentle coercion!) , what followed was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From the guidance of the volume’s editors , Drs J. C. Bernthal and Rebecca Mills, to the support from many colleagues, not mention the patience of Michelle (Academic Librarian) who patiently held restrained from strangling me whilst trying to teach me the complexities of MLA. Each of these people gave me confidence that I had something different to say, that my thinking and writing was good enough.

Last week, my copy of the book arrived. It was very strange to see my chapter in print, complete with my name and a brief biography. Even more surreal was to the read the editors’ introduction and to see my work described therein, with its contribution to the volume identified. I doubt many people will ever read my chapter, it is published in a very expensive academic book destined for academics and libraries. Nevertheless, I have left the tiniest of marks in academic literature and perhaps more importantly, publicly acknowledged my love for the writing of Agatha Christie.

The finished article:

Bowles, Paula, (2020), ‘Christie’s Wartime Hero: Peacetime Killer’ in Rebecca Mills and J. C. Bernthal, Agatha Christie Goes to War, (Abingdon: Routledge): 28-45

TRUE CRIME DOCUMENTARIES AND NEW REVELATIONS – WHAT DO THEY REALLY DELIVER?

Tomorrow, I am speaking to prospective students at our Applicant Discovery Day, and so I decided to focus this week’s blog on my first-year module on True Crimes and other Fictions. It was also inspired by a recent article bought to my attention, in the Guardian, titled ‘From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment?’ (Rubenhold, 2019). The article shows us there is a clear fascination with true crimes, especially the more grisly and serious events. There is also clearly a fascination held with Jack the Ripper as the mystery of his (or her?) identity remains, and is unlikely ever to be definitively solved.

However, the focus of the article is not to recount more grisly details, but is an observation on the desensitization which has occurred in relation to the murder of women. We are bombarded with their images when alive and posing happily alongside gruesome crime scene photos of their deaths. This has occurred since Jack the Ripper, and the reporting on canonical five, famously with the publication of the crime scene photo of Mary Jane Kelly, described as the ‘poster girl’ for Jack the Ripper’s crimes. My students who had to choose a true crime text and analyse it critically in a book review and presentation highlighted the sensationalisation of these events in the press and the true crime genre as a whole (see Rawlings, 1995; Wiltenberg, 2004 and Bates, 2014).

Another interesting dimension identified by Rubenhold (2019) in the case of Mary Jane Kelly, is that among Ripperologists she is considered the most popular, due to her being seen as attractive but also due to the particularly brutal nature of her death. This takes us nicely to the recent BBC One documentary on the infamous crimes of Jack the Ripper, which continues in the traditions of depicting images of dead women as entertainment, along with the promise of new revelations on the case. I watched the documentary last night and while there was some focus on the brutality of the killings, there was reference made of the lives of the women and recognition of the assumptions made about them as sex workers, somehow less worthy of our sympathy compared to other victims. However, in anticipation of the documentary, Rubenhold emphasises the dehumanising effect of the victims with the adoption of the ‘virtual reality dissection table’, as the latest tool used to fuel our fascination, in addition to the hundreds of books, websites, blogs and TV documentaries. The new revelations rarely focus on the lives of the women, beyond their status as victims of a brutal killer.

However, what also struck me is the promises made by the documentary, a ‘re-opening’ of the case and using new technology to identify Jack the Ripper. For those who have not engaged with the wealth of literature on the case, the digital and criminological autopsies to identify the killer, and the use of geographical profiling may have provided new and fascinating detail on the key suspects. For those who are aware of literature on the case, the listing of key suspects was nothing new and there was even a high profile new development in the case to identify Aaron Kozminski as Jack the Ripper, with a claim of DNA evidence linking him to one of the victims (Evening Standard, 2019). The revealing of the name, and the revelation of a new victim were presented as new developments warranting re-opening of the case and the scrutiny of criminologists, ex-police detectives, profilers, forensic experts and a celebrity. No doubt the latter was introduced to offer some familiarity to fans of TV crime dramas, and draw viewers in, all part of raising the profile of the documentary. I had recently covered the case in a seminar on my module on True Crimes, using the same suspects which are widely identified in the ‘Ripperology’ community. We listed the evidence presented and all identified Kozminski on the basis of his proximity to Whitechapel, his skills as a barber, and his violence and traumatic childhood in Russia, prior to emigrating to the UK. We examined the validity of the evidence presented in various blogs, online resources, news reports and while there was general agreement about our suspect, other students made the point that we could find equally convincing information about others.

This is the essence of one of the problems of our fascination with true crime accounts – most people will maintain their fascination, based on legitimate emotional responses and assumptions which they will hold on to, and explanations of events they will take as fact. So, when a documentary claims to have new revelations, and conclusions presented in the case as reliable, for many people watching, there would be no need to question this. The same approach seems to be clear with the latest documentaries and dramas on another infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy, famous not only for his crimes, but also for his drive to remain relevant and gain attention. Rubenhold emphasises that whatever the focus of these dramas, allowing watchers to gawp at the images or depictions of the victims when they are dead perpetuates this cycle of dehumanising victims and reducing them to entertainment. Much like the Jill Dando case, and numerous others, the reality is that no matter what technology is adopted, or how often cases are re-opened and scrutinised by one expert after another, some cases will simply never be solved.

I think it is this lack of closure which frustrates not just victims and those connected to events, but also viewers who not only demand to see gruesome images but also demand to have new revelations and conclusions to cases. To be told ‘we don’t know and we never will’ is simply not good enough – whole industries have been based on those willing to stake reputations on delivering the truth. Rubenhold calls for and end to the use of crime as entertainment, to stop the ‘parlour game played for our own entertainment and at the victims’ expense’ (2019). It is perhaps unrealistic to believe we can put a stop to this, but perhaps broadcasters, publishers and those in the true crime industry can stop to think about their responsibilities and the constant re-hashing of old ideas as new revelations. It makes the work of criminologists to inform the public more important, as there needs to be a better understanding of the impact of these events, the effects of sensationalizing them, in addition to how the public understand the response to crime – our work continues, and it feels like we still have a lot to do.

References

Bates, K. (2014) Empathy or Entertainment? The form and function of violent crime narratives in early 19th Century broadsides, Law, Crime and History, 2.

Rubenhold, H. (2019) From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment? Guardian, see https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/02/from-jack-the-ripper-to-ted-bundy-why-are-dead-womens-bodies-still-being-used-as-entertainment?CMP=fb_gu

Rawlings, P. (1995) True Crime, The British Criminology Conferences: Selected Proceedings. Volume 1: Emerging Themes in Criminology. Papers from the British Criminology Conference, Loughborough University, 18-21 July 1995.

Tobin, O. (2019) Jack the Ripper may have been Polish barber Aaron Kosminski, scientists claim after fresh DNA tests, Evening Standard, see https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/polish-barber-aaron-kosminski-was-jack-the-ripper-scientists-claim-a4094191.html

Wiltenberg, J. (2004), True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism, The American Historical Review, 109 (5):1377-1404.

The lone wolf: a media creation or a criminological phenomenon?

In a previous blog post, I spoke how the attention of the public is captivated by crime stories.  Family tragedies, acts of mindless violence and other unusual cases, that seem to capture the Zeitgeist, with public discussion becoming topics in social situations.  It happened again; Friday March 15 after 1:00 local time, a lone gunman entered the local Mosque in Christchurch and started shooting indiscriminately, causing the death of 50 and injuring as many, entering what the New Zealand Prime Minister would later call, in a televised address, one of NZ’s darkest days.

The singular gunman entering a public space and using a weapon/or weaponised machine (a car, nail bomb) is becoming a familiar aberration in society that the media describe as the “lone wolf”.  A single, radicalised individual, with or without a cause, that leaves a trail of havoc described in the media using the darkest shades, as carnage or massacre.  These reports focus on the person who does such an act, and the motivations behind it.  In criminology, this is the illusive “criminal mind”.  A process of radicalisation towards an ideology of hate, is usually the prevailing explanation, combined with the personal attributes of the person, including personality and previous lifestyle. 

In the aftermath of such attacks, communities go through a process of introspection, internalising what happened, and families will try to come together to support each other.  23 years ago, a person entered a school in Dunblane, Scotland and murdered 16 children and their teacher.  The country went into shock, and in the subsequent years the gun laws changed.  The community was the focus of national and international attention, until the lights dimmed, the cameras left, and the families were left alone in grief. 

Since then numerous attacks from little people with big weapons have occurred from Norway to USA, France to Russia and to New Zealand, as the latest.  And still, we try to keep a sense of why this happened.  We allow the media to talk about the attacker; a lone wolf is always a man, his history the backstory and his victims, as he is entitled to posthumous ownership of those he murdered.  The information we retain in our collective consciousness, is that of his aggression and his methodology of murder.  Regrettably as a society we merely focus on the gun and the gunman but never on the society that produces the guns and raises gunmen. 

At this point, it is significant to declare that I have no interest in the “true crime” genre and I find the cult of the lone wolf, an appalling distraction for societies that feed and reproduce violence for the sake of panem et circenses.  Back in 2015, in Charleston another gunman entered a church and murdered another group of people.  Families of the victims stood up and court and told the defendant, that they would pray for his soul and forgive him for his terrible act.  Many took issue, but behind this act, a community took matters into their own hands.  This was not about an insignificant person with a gun, but the resilience of a community to rise above it and their pain.  A similar response in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando in 2016, where the LGBTQ+ community held vigils in the US and across the world (even in Northampton).  In New Zealand, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern was praised for her sombre message and her tribute to the community, not mentioning the gunman by name, not even once.  This is not a subject that I could address in a single blog post (I feel I should come back to it in time) but there is something quite empowering to know the person who did the act, but to deliberately and publicly, ignore him.  We forget the importance celebrity plays in our culture and so taking that away, from whomever decides to make a name for themselves by killing, is our collective retribution.  In ancient Egypt they rubbed off the hieroglyphs of the columns.  Maybe now we need to take his name from the newspaper columns, do not make the story about him, but reflect instead, on the way we live as a community and the people who matter. 

Am I a criminologist? Are you a criminologist?

Bentham

I’m regularly described as a criminologist, but more loathe to self-identify as such. My job title makes clear that I have a connection to the discipline of criminology, yet is that enough? Can any Tom, Dick or Harry (or Tabalah, Damilola or Harriet) present themselves as a criminologist, or do you need something “official” to carry the title? Is it possible, as Knepper suggests, for people to fall into criminology, to become ‘accidental criminologists’ (2007: 169). Can you be a criminologist without working in a university? Do you need to have qualifications that state criminology, and if so, how many do you need (for the record, I currently only have 1 which bears that descriptor)?  Is it enough to engage in thinking about crime, or do you need practical experience? The historical antecedents of theoretical criminology indicate that it might not be necessary, whilst the existence of Convict Criminology suggests that experiential knowledge might prove advantageous….

Does it matter where you get your information about crimes, criminals and criminal justice from? For example, the news (written/electronic), magazines, novels, academic texts, lectures/seminars, government/NGO reports, true crime books, radio/podcasts, television/film, music and poetry can all focus on crime, but can we describe this diversity of media as criminology? What about personal experience; as an offender, victim or criminal justice practitioner? Furthermore, how much media (or experience) do you need to have consumed before you emerge from your chrysalis as a fully formed criminologist?

Could it be that you need to join a club or mix with other interested persons? Which brings another question; what do you call a group of criminologists? Could it be a ‘murder’ (like crows), or ‘sleuth’ (like bears), or a ‘shrewdness’ (like apes) or a ‘gang’ (like elks)? (For more interesting collective nouns, see here). Organisations such as the British, European and the American Criminology Societies indicate that there is a desire (if not, tradition) for collectivity within the discipline. A desire to meet with others to discuss crime, criminality and criminal justice forms the basis of these societies, demonstrated by (the publication of journals and) conferences; local, national and international. But what makes these gatherings different from people gathering to discuss crime at the bus stop or in the pub? Certainly, it is suggested that criminology offers a rendezvous, providing the umbrella under which all disciplines meet to discuss crime (cf. Young, 2003, Lea, 2016).

Is it how you think about crime and the views you espouse? Having been subjected to many impromptu lectures from friends, family and strangers (who became aware of my professional identity), not to mention, many heated debates with my colleagues and peers, it seems unlikely. A look at this blog and that of the BSC, not to mention academic journals and books demonstrate regular discordance amongst those deemed criminologists. Whilst there are commonalities of thought, there is also a great deal of dissonance in discussions around crime.  Therefore, it seems unlikely that a group of criminologists will be able to provide any kind of consensus around crime, criminality and criminal justice.

Mannheim proposed that criminologists should engage in ‘dangerous thoughts’ (1965: 428). For Young, such thinking goes ‘beyond the immediate and the pragmatic’ (2003: 98). Instead, ‘dangerous thoughts’ enable the linking of ‘crime and penality to the deep structure of society’ (Young, 2003: 98). This concept of thinking dangerously and by default, not being afraid to think differently, offers an insight into what a criminologist might do.

I don’t have answers, only questions, but perhaps it is that uncertainty which provides the defining feature of a criminologist…

References:

Knepper Paul, (2007), Criminology and Social Policy, (London: Sage)

Lea, John, (2016), ‘Left Realism: A Radical Criminology for the Current Crisis’, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 5, 3: 53-65

Mannheim, Hermann, (1965), Comparative Criminology: A Textbook: Volume 2, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)

Young, Jock, (2003), ‘In Praise of Dangerous Thoughts,’ Punishment and Society, 5, 1: 97-107

Productive Procrastination

Jess blogThere’s the saying ‘Find your passion and you’ll never work a day in your life,’ however I much prefer the updated version ‘Find your passion and you’ll work every day of your life’ BUT you’ll love it. Criminology and the law are everything to me and I enjoy my profession and my ability to work in a field that allows me to direct my interests. It is a very special position to be in and not something I take for granted. I am fortunate to be starting at The University of Northampton this coming semester as a criminology lecturer and I’m looking forward to meeting and getting to know all my colleagues and students.

As a student you may not always want to study, and it is also important to take time off. You may feel guilty if you’re not studying as there is always more reading or research to do for your assignment – it is a veritable rabbit hole. I highly recommend that you undertake ‘Productive Procrastination.’ Productive Procrastination is not working on the task you should be working on, but it is still related closely enough to your work that you don’t feel guilt. (Yes, maybe some mental gymnastics to get to this point!)

It is very important to stay up to date with the current news and research in criminology and criminal justice. To achieve this I use Twitter, read books, and listen to so many podcasts. Apart from being entertaining and educational, the best thing about listening and reading is it often gives your mind to think about what you’re learning differently.

Some of my top podcast recommendations are:

  1. Criminal
  2. My Favorite Murder
  3. Once Upon a Crime
  4. RedHanded
  5. Casefile
  6. Hidden Brain
  7. They Walk Among Us
  8. Death in Ice Valley

Some book recommendations from my reading over the last couple of months are:

  1. Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer – Michael Mansfield
  2. All that Remains: A life in Death – Sue Black
  3. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
  4. Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
  5. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  6. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
  7. The Secret Barrister
  8. Women & Power: A Manifesto – Mary Beard

If you like any of these podcasts or books, please let me know as I can make a lot more recommendations. Alternatively, please provide me suggestions! Happy Productive Procrastination!

I have a personal blog Academic Traveller if you would like to read more about my experiences.

Reference:

Image is inspired by New Yorker Cartoon: Sipress, D. (2014). The New Yorker Daily Cartoon: Friday, December 5th [Online image]. Retrieved from <https://www.newyorker.com/cartoons/daily-cartoon/daily-cartoon-friday-december-5th?mbid=social_twitterImage created by Glen Holman.

Netflix and Study?

netflix and study

Bethany Davies is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in the first year.

As each year and each term goes by, it brings to light how much more we are all connected through media and also how we use media to socialise and also learn.

Now, watching television, movies and using music to learn is not a new concept, I understand this, but on a personal level, I have found more individuals using television and more specifically, crime documentaries to fuel their interest in criminology and their understanding of elements of the criminal justice system.

I believe firstly, the idea of enjoying, what is termed ‘binge watching’, crime documentaries, an interesting concept. As previously explored on the blog regarding ‘enjoyment’ and ‘fun’ of criminology, the themes in these documentaries are very dark and in most cases, the gorier it is, the more it seems to be enjoyed by some viewers. Each September that rolls around we have the (sometimes dreaded) ‘ice breaker’ session, where we get to know our students and what has made them want to pursue a criminology degree at this University. Within that you will always have some who choose to voice their love of a certain crime TV show. This does not always end at first introductions either, there is often a continuation of comparisons made between that of a serious historical event and that of Netflix documentary (for example) which can often contain more dramatic music and pictures than it does criminological discussion.

The question I would like to present is, do we nourish the idea of using documentaries and crime dramas to keep the interest of those who wish to pursue criminology as a field of learning, or would doing so be disingenuous to what criminology is and neglect the love for reading and debates in criminology? I do not necessarily feel this is a question we have to worry about tremendously as I feel those who seek to study criminology purely based on their love for crime documentaries will either soon realise that there is so much of criminology that does not fit those ideas and either love it or abandon it at that point.

But in years to come these questions may be more significant than they are currently. Especially if used as a tool in universities to attract more students into a certain discipline. There are such large elements of criminology that I feel have to be explored with literature or within a seminar setting with questions and debates, and it can be easy for institutions to say that these elements will always be fundamental to a criminology degree for years to come.  However, if other institutions start to use more and more media and visual aids to demonstrate a theory or issue of crime in the future, or what I suspect more as a marketing campaign to attract students, will we conform? There are some articles (from questionable sources) that some institutions are using Snapchat and social media takeovers to help attract students to certain courses, most of which I have read about have been media based, granted.  But let’s hope all this drivelling nonsense is just my brain after a long bank holiday weekend and not a possibly looming prospect of the future of criminology, right?

The criminology of real life

CSI_Logo

Ever since I joined academia as a criminology lecturer, I found the question asked “what do you do” to be one that is followed by further questions.  The role or rather title of a criminologist is one that is always met with great curiosity.  Being a lecturer is a general title that most people understand as a person who does lectures, seminars, tutorials and workshops, something akin to a teacher.  But what does a criminology lecturer do?  Talks about crime presumably…but do they understand criminals? And more to the point, how do they understand them?

The supposed reading of the criminal mind is something that connects with the collective zeitgeist of our time.  Some of our colleagues have called this the CSI factor or phenomenon.  A media portrayal of criminal investigation into violent crime, usually murder, that seems to follow the old whodunit recipe sprinkled with some forensic science with some “pop” psychology on the side.  The popularity of this phenomenon is well recorded and can easily be demonstrated by the numerous programmes which seemingly proliferate.  I believe that there are even television channels now devoted completely to crime programmes.  Here, it would be good to point out that it is slightly hypocritical to criticise crime related problems when some of us, on occasion, enjoy a good crime dramatisation on paper or in the movies.

Therefore I understand the wider interest and to some degree I expect that in a society dominated with mass and social media, people will try to relate fiction with academic expertise.  In fact, in some cases I find it quite interesting as a contemporary tool of social conversation.  You can have for example, hours of discussion about profiling, killers and other crimes with inquisitive taxi-drivers, border-control officers, hotel managers etc.  They ask profession, you respond “criminologist” and you can end up having a long involving conversation about a programme you may have never seen.

There is however, quite possibly a personal limitation, a point where I draw the line.  This is primarily when I get asked about particular people or current live crime cases.  In the first year I talk to our students about the Soham murders.  A case that happened close to 15 years ago now.  What I have not told the students before, is the reason I talk about the case.

Fifteen years ago I was returning from holiday and I took a taxi home.  The taxi driver, once he heard I was a criminology lecturer, asked me about the case.  I remember this conversation as the academic and the everyday collided.  He could not understand why I could not read the criminal intentions of the “monsters” who did what they did.  To him, it was so clear and straightforward and therefore my inability to give him straight answers was frustrating.  I thought about it since and of course other situations in similar criminal cases that I have been asked about.  Why do people want complete and direct answers to the most complex of human behaviours?

One of the reasons that there is a public expectation to be able to talk about individual cases rests on the same factor that makes crime popular; its media portrayal.  The way we collectively respond to real crime cases reflects a popularised dramatisation.  So, this is not just a clash between academic and lay, but reality and fiction.

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