Sunday, March 13, 2011

John Q. Criminal

The crimes that fascinate me the most are those that go on day in and day out, perpetrated by everyday people.  When I first started writing crime fiction and did the research that comes naturally with the gig, I was awestruck to learn how many ordinary people knowingly commit crimes every day.  I’m not talking about running stop signs or fudging taxes, but actual crimes on which more experienced perpetrators build entire careers. The difference is, regular folks get drawn into doing them just to get by.  It’s a stop-gap measure, a temporary fix. 

In the riveting 2004 movie Maria Full Of Grace, a Colombian teenager becomes a drug mule when her family becomes desperate for money.  No one came to her school on career day and outlined being a mule for a cartel as a way to success and happiness. Her family needed money. They were poor with no resources.  An opportunity presented itself. 

In the Showtime hit comedy Weeds, a suburban housewife sells marijuana when the death of her husband leaves her broke and without any way to support her children. Yes, Nancy Botwin could have found a job and scaled down, but with a lack of employment history and no real marketable skills, her options were limited and her needs immediate.

In the HBO comedy Hung, a school teacher supplements his income by becoming a male escort after his home burns down.

Shameless, one of Showtimes new series, follows the escapades of six siblings left to fend for themselves while their father drinks himself to death. The kids are into all kinds of larceny from stealing toilet paper from public restrooms to taking SAT exams for other students. All to survive and keep the family together.

You would be surprised to discover how common stuff like this is in the real world and how fast normally law abiding people enter into such practices. And it's no laughing matter.

Two true stories I uncovered while researching my first Odelia Grey novel, Too Big To Miss, involved prostitution.  I had two interviews with women who were actively engaged in the world’s oldest profession.  Were they walking the streets of Hollywood asking men if they needed a date? Or hooked up with some call girl agency? Absolutely not. These were women you would never suspect as having a double life.  One had a decent but mediocre paying job who needed money to keep her home.  The other woman was a mother of two who was meeting men during the day to save money to leave her abusive husband.

The world is full of Marias and Nancys and soccer mom prostitutes.  It’s full of laid off fathers who drive stolen goods across state lines, and desperate people who agree to deliver packages from one unsavory party to another. A secretary may skim cash from her employer to stop a foreclosure. A straight-A teenager might drive a get-a-way car to pay for medical care for his ailing mother. It’s done because they feel they are out of options and out of time with no place to go. The common driving denominators are great need and immediacy.

My fascination with these types of crimes isn’t with the crimes themselves, but the human stories behind them. Do actions like these forever change the person involved? Do they weigh the serious consequences before doing the crime? Or do they shut it out of their mind, preferring to cross that bridge if and when it presents itself? And what happens to the people around them if they are discovered? More importantly, can they get out when they need to?

I started a novel a while back that explores these themes. One day, when my life quiets down and the books I have under contract are behind me, I’ll finish it. With the economy the way it is, I certainly won’t have to worry about it becoming a stale-dated topic.

Sue Ann Jaffarian
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Reece said...

Excellent post, Sue Ann. I think the most interesting crime stories are always the ones where an average person crosses the line out of desperation, greed or a combination of the two. The ultimate bad guy in my book certainly fits that description. I hope you get a chance to finish that novel one of these days; it sounds interesting.

Diana James said...

Sue Ann - what a great post. We don't think of the people who surround us every day as potential criminals, what a wakeup!

I once hired a receptionist for a firm that I managed. The receptionist was caught attempting to cash a check that was made payable to our company. We later found out she had successfully cashed several checks... she was using the money for cocaine.