Noir and the future

I have a particular love for film noir. So moody. So blunt. So smoky. I love the ambiguous morals of the heroes, the gritty settings, the hard and dangerous femmes fatales. I also like how well film noir can be adapted into speculative fiction; Blade Runner is on of my all-time favorite movies. I’m in edits now for a novel that’s a noir private detective story in a medieval fantasy setting–with a bit of gay romance added in.

Last night, I watched the film M, which is considered to be a bridge between German Expressionism and film noir. It was made in 1931 and was Peter Lorre’s first major role. It’s interesting from a film history point of view, in that it demonstrates early use of techniques we now take for granted. But what I especially enjoyed was the cinematic journey to pre-WW II German criminal justice procedures and issues. Since I’m no expert at all on that particular topic, I have no idea how accurate the depiction is. But it’s a good reminder that if we’re successful as authors, our versions of reality will remain long after living memories are gone. In a way, this gives us enormous power. Imagine some historian from the future using your work to help discern what life was like in the early 21st century. What kind of picture would they get?


I’ll be on hiatus here for a few weeks as I travel in Zagreb and Paris. In the meantime, feel free to submit questions!

How long, how long?

If you watch crime shows on TV, you’re used to seeing miraculous scientific analysis occurring within less than an hour. And you probably know that the reality is quite different. In fact, crime lab backlogs mean that law enforcement (and others) may wait for well over a year before the results are in.

But what about the trial itself? What kind of timeline is reasonable?

The 6th Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial, but it doesn’t give an guidelines for what’s considered acceptable. In practice, a criminal trial might not occur until several years after the events, especially if the case is complicated or if it requires a lot of preparation by either side. For example, I was recently consulted as an expert in a fairly straightforward homicide case. The person was killed in 2015, but trial is only now set to happen.

While long delays by the prosecutor may result in charges being dropped (because of the 6th Amendment), such an outcome is extremely rare. In most cases where the prosecutor wants a long time to prep, so does the defense, and the defense will agree to continuances.

Long delays in criminal cases are problematic, however. If the defendant can’t make bail, he’ll be stuck waiting in jail. Furthermore, witnesses disappear or die, evidence gets lost, and memories fade.

If you’re writing a story involving a criminal trial, make sure your timeline is realistic. And don’t forget that 95% of cases get settled (usually by plea bargain) without ever making it to trial.

Not much new under the sun

Today’s post might be of particular interest to you if you write historical or spec fiction.

One of the interesting things about the US criminal justice system is how old many of its components are. Although we’ve modernized certain aspects over the centuries, most of the basic building blocks can be traced back to England in the years shortly after the Norman Conquest. Circuit judges, juries, sheriffs, coroners, writs of habeas corpus… all of these concepts would have been familiar to a 12th century English person. Many of the modern definitions of crimes and defenses also are evolved versions of common law definitions created many hundreds of years ago. This is a handy thing to know if you’re writing something set in medieval or Renaissance times.

However, you still want to be careful. Last night my husband watched a King Arthur movie. I only saw bits of it–enough to know that the writers got stuff wrong. King Arthur was around several centuries before the Norman Conquest, and the CJ system then–such as it was–would have likely followed Roman and/or Celtic traditions rather than the rules laid down by Norman King Henry II and his successors. So if your story takes place before 1066, don’t expect anything much resembling our modern CJ system.

Furthermore, some pieces of our CJ system were developed well after the Henry II was dust in his grave. For example, although England had poorhouses and workhouses as early as the 16th century, prisons weren’t really used as a method of punishment until the 18th century. (Jails have been around much longer, but then–as now–they were used mostly to hold prisoners who awaited trial.) Professional police forces originated with Robert Peel’s London Metropolitan Police (the Bobbies, of course) in 1829. The first juvenile court was created in Chicago in 1899.

A good working knowledge of history can give your story a solid grounding, whether you’re writing a historical piece or one set in an alternate universe.