The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Criminologists: Information for Writers with Diana Bretherick

Fiona -
Welcome, Diana. Can you tell the readers where you're from
and what you do (besides, of course, write fabulous books.)

Originally I am from Warwickshire in the heart of England, but I now live and work in Portsmouth, on the South Coast. I started my working life as a lawyer - a barrister. But after working in the law for 10 years, I wanted a change. So I worked as a counselor for prisoners in Brixton, London. At that time, I also began to study criminology - the theory of crime. I fell in love with that and became an academic.

Fiona -
Can you tell me more about the academic studies of criminal subjects?

I studied for a Masters in criminology and followed it with a PhD in Criminology - where I specialized in Crime and Popular Culture. I did a second Masters in Creative Writing, and I am now studying for a second PhD in Creative Writing. I have brought into my work my love of crime fiction - reading and writing it. The best thing about criminology is that it can incorporate lots of disciplines including policing, criminal law, forensics and psychology as well as cultural criminology. That's why I love it!

As a criminologist I study the causes and consequences of crime and teach at the University of Portsmouth. My particular interest is how crime and criminals are represented in the media and popular culture - so anything from the news to films and TV drama as well as crime fiction. My novel, City of Devils, is a historical novel set in 19th century Turin, home of the first criminologist Cesare Lombroso who is one of the central characters in my story. He believed that some criminals were born rather than bred into crime and that they shared characteristics of primitive man. He also thought that you could identify a criminal by looking at their physical characteristics. The novel tells the story of what happens when he is challenged to use his theories to solve a series of macabre murders. Each victim is horribly mutilated and left with a note, written in blood, saying 'A Tribute to Lombroso'.

Cesare Lombroso, Wikipedia
Very cool premise for a novel. So you don't study criminals directly. You are studying their portrayals?

Diana -
Correct, I look at news media, crime fiction, TV Drama, Films, Theater, etc. and analyse examples to see how crime and criminals are portrayed. This is how most people get their information about crime, so it is important to examine how these messages are conveyed to us. Also, I get to watch a lot of TV and movies and read lots of crime fiction which is a definite plus!

I want that job! Can you tell us where the media gets it wrong? For example - if I am a writer, and I am basing criminal actions on a news account for my fictional work - what aspects would I be missing?

The news media has a different agenda to just reporting news.
(Though they would like us to think they are devoted to giving us the facts.)
They are interested in selling newspapers, television
News Time
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
programs, etc. They present things in a way that we, the audience, will find 'entertaining'. An example is with sex crimes. Usually offences committed by strangers get into the news, but it is acquaintance rape and other sexual offences that are more prevalent. We get the idea that there is more of this kind of crime than is the case. We also see individual offenders represented in particular ways. Women who commit violent offences are often portrayed as being either plain evil
or mad [crazy]. There may be a thousand other reasons for their
actions, but these are not reported. The drama of danger is perceived
as being much more interesting and salable, so that is what makes it
into the news. If you are researching a story for a novel, you will get a
distorted version. The facts may be there, but they are presented
according to the media's agenda. That can mean that accuracy is lost and/or blurred.

Fiona -
How are your studies applied? And are they funded by government grants?

As a cultural criminologist my work informs my university teaching. I don't do funded research although some of my colleagues do on different subjects. I write about crime and culture and teach my students how to be discerning about the information they receive. I feel that it is important to inform people that what they see and read isn't always as reliable as they might think

 In your book, City of Devils, with James Murray on the cusp of the new study of criminology - how does your research inform the book and your writing in general?

Amazon Link
The idea for the book came from my teaching. I was in a seminar discussing with students about the beginnings of criminology. In particular we were discussing Cesare Lombroso, the Italian who is known as the "father of modern criminology." My students asked me whether or not he investigated crimes. I'm not sure that he did in reality, but he could in fiction. I decided to write about it and use a fictional character, James Murray, to ask the questions that we might want the answers to. He is though very loosely based on Arthur Conan-Doyle, writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories (created around the corner from where I live!) I drew on my knowledge of criminology and also early forensics. I wanted to show how people thought about crime and criminals then, and how it isn't that different today. The media tend to focus on individual criminals and so did early criminologists like Lombroso. Most crime fiction is packed full of criminological theories even though not all the authors are aware of them.

Fiona - 
Can you give me an example of a theory that you see writers using - that they may not know is a criminology theory at work?

English: Old postcards and a magnifying glass.
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you have a character who is motivated by the need for material goods, perhaps affected by a desire to have what others do, then they may be an example of Robert Merton's strain theory. People are surrounded by advertisements for things but may not be able to afford them, so they respond to the strain of this by stealing. Someone may commit a violent offence because they have a psychological propensity to do so, perhaps because of a brain abnormality or injury (neuro-criminology).

Fiona - 
Is there a resource that you can recommend to writers who want to write about criminals - their motivations and realities?

First of all, check out a criminology text book that outlines the theories. Then try reading some accounts of their crimes written by criminals or criminologists. There are some great examples and most of them are from the US. Examples include:
* Sutherland, E. H. (1956).
* The Professional thief. Thrasher, F. M. (2000).
* The Gang: a Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago.
* And of course there are classics like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood - one of my absolute favorites.
* But the best book I've come across is by Jack Katz - Seductions of Crime.

Fiona -
One final question - please tell us about your favorite scar.

Diana -
I have two scars - each from an episode where my brain seems to have gone missing. The first is from chasing my dog in our garden when I was 5. I tripped over and cut my lip. The dog was fine! The second is from when I broke my arm. I had a plaster cast up to my elbow, it was itching and I stuck a pen down there to scratch it. You guessed it! The pen had a top but when it came out of my plaster - no top there. Embarrassing!

Thanks, Diana! 

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

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  1. Great interview. Do you have an index somewhere on your blog as a quick reference to all your interviews/articles? Or is everything listed here...

  2. Thank you so much for your interest. All of my articles are indexed by the tabs at the top of the page. The interviews are under "Expert Witnesses" and right now are in chronological order until another/easier way of arranging them occurs to me.

    But take a peek under the other tabs too because sometimes the articles lend themselves to a particular thought process. For example Sgt Pacifico has interviews under "Thriller 101" subtitle Arresting the Bad Guy and JT Sawyer, the survivalist, has an interview under "Saving Your Heroine" under Strategic Skills. If you can't find something you need just let me know and I'll be glad to help.


  3. I nominated you on Kindle Scout - good luck!