The answer to that question has gone through several phases in my lifetime. When I was a kid, bad guys were shot dead left and right, and nobody gave them a second thought. Then we got into the idea of rehabilitation, and bad guys were arrested and led away with "Book 'em, Dano" or something similar. When cop/sleuths' personalities began to enter into fiction, we had to deal with the fact that they FELT like killing the really bad guys. For a while there, it became pretty common for the bad guy (or girl, this was the awakening of women's lib) to off himself. You'd see him eyeing the cliff, the building edge, or the ground below the platform and know that he was going to do the Right Thing and jump. These suicidal thugs came along when many people lacked faith in our prison/court system. Arrest wasn't enough to satifsy reader/viewer sensibilities, but it saved the hero from becoming as bad as his object.

The whole "Don't do it, Jim; he's not worth it" era was fun, too. The hero ALMOST took his revenge by killing the very deserving bad guy, but a friend or coworker intervened to keep him on the side of Right.

So the question for writers of crime fiction remains: who deserves to die, who has the right to make the judgment, and what happens after that judgment is made?

LAW & ORDER has had a long run with following crimes from perpetration to adjudication, and audiences seem satisfied with the occasional bad guy who works the system and gets away as long as most are exposed and punished. Other shows, like CSI and NCIS, make the assumption that catching the crook well and completely is good enough to "put him away" and make us all safer. We even have guys like Dexter, who is allowed to kill and get away with it because he does it in a good cause. (You're supposed to ignore the fact that he gets a real kick out of it.)

The nice thing about today's array of sub-genres in crime writing is that you can find your own favorites and stick with them. You want the bad guy stomped to death by hard-soled shoes? It's out there. You want him arrested and put into a high-security cell with 24-hour monitoring? Got it. And if you like, even occasionally, for the bad guy to prevail, that's available too. I bet those noir novels are really popular in prison libraries.

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Comment by Peg Herring on December 17, 2008 at 9:26pm
Nobody could kill those guys; they had more lives than Wile E. Coyote! My favorite line is when Curly's put on the stand in a courtroom. The clerk begins, "Do you swear...?" And he says, "No, but I know all the words!"
Comment by Pate Grantwell on December 17, 2008 at 7:45pm
"Of course we have Cool Hand Luke, a lovable villain who essentially died for sawing the heads off parking meters, but that's literary writing, not crime fiction."

Your comment brings to mind another distinction books and movies draw with respect to lovable villians. There are generally two kinds:

1. Those that commit their crimes successfully, fully comprehend the illegality of their actions but possess redeeming traits, and

2. The hapless, bumbling ones who present more of a danger to themselves than to society.

The ones in the first category, which includes Luke, do in fact die quite often. And their deaths usually adds a pathos to the story that wins the sympathy of the viewer or reader.

Those in the second category are NEVER KILLED under any circumstances. The reader or viewer will react to their deaths the way we react when mentally retarded people are sentenced to die. I mean, could you really ice Larry, Moe and Curly if they tried to pull off a heist?
Comment by Peg Herring on December 17, 2008 at 7:44am
True, it is a story, and as such, the end should fit the mood. Real life not so much.
Comment by Dana King on December 17, 2008 at 6:32am
This may sound flip, but I think David Simon said it best when confronted with killing off the Stringer Bell character in THE WIRE: The story always comes first. Based on everything that has happened up till now, what will make a better story? That decides. And every writer will decide differently, which is what makes it interesting.
Comment by Peg Herring on December 17, 2008 at 5:39am
That's pretty good! Of course we have Cool Hand Luke, a lovable villain who essentially died for sawing the heads off parking meters, but that's literary writing, not crime fiction.
Comment by Pate Grantwell on December 16, 2008 at 11:06pm
I think that creative writing has always observed an unwritten rule for determining the degree of severity of various crimes, and assigning punishment accordingly. From watching movies and reading blooks over the years, I have deduced the following system which is unscientific but more or less consistent:

1. Those who commit murder, especially for financial gain, are generally killed, either by their confederates or law enforcement officials.

2. Rapists who commit rape by lying in wait or stalking, are generally killed, whereas date rapists usually get a hearing in court, and sometimes even a sympathetic ear.

3. Armed robbers who do not commit murder are generally arrested.

4. "Lovable villians" are invariably arrested. Oftentimes, they elude punishment altogether.

5. Female accomplices in the past were generally arrested. Lately, they have been going the way of all flesh, especially in the movies.

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