The Chow: Depictions of the Criminal Justice System as a Character in Crime Fiction

35 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2017

Date Written: November 8, 2017


Having been honored by a request to contribute to a Symposium honoring my talented friend Alafair Burke, I composed this essay describing the various ways the criminal justice system has been depicted in English-language crime fiction. This survey, necessarily highly selective, considers portrayals penned by writers from Dickens to Tana French. Various dimensions of comparison include the authors’ apparent beliefs about the rule of law (from ridiculously idealistic to uncompromisingly cynical), the characters’ professional perspectives (private detective, police officer, prosecutor, defense lawyer, judge, victim, accused), and the protagonists’ status as institutional insiders or outsiders or occupants of the uncomfortable middle. The essay considers as well the protagonists’ insights (often useful, too often nonexistent) regarding issues of gender, race, and economic status — in their own professional lives, and as determinants of how one accused of a crime, or victimized by one, will experience the institutions of criminal justice. The essay concludes with some worried observations about what the election of Donald Trump may portend for crime fiction, in its likely corrosion of the rule of law and thus of the institutions of criminal justice.

Keywords: Criminal Law, Criminal Justice, Law and Literature, Crime Fiction

JEL Classification: K14, K39

Suggested Citation

Wesson, Marianne Mimi, The Chow: Depictions of the Criminal Justice System as a Character in Crime Fiction (November 8, 2017). 51 New Eng. L. Rev. 101 (2017); University of Colorado at Boulder, Economics Department Paper No. 17-6. Available at SSRN:

Marianne Mimi Wesson (Contact Author)

University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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