One of the realities of law enforcement is that once someone has committed a crime, it’s easier for that person to commit another. In fact, recidivism is a major problem in some prison systems. And it’s one reason that there is an effort in some places to teach those in prison to make other choices and stay out of the legal system.
Sometimes that works, and there are many people who have committed a crime – even murder – but will not commit another. But the prison system includes plenty of people who’ve made jail time a habit, for a variety of reasons. Crime fiction contains its share of such characters, too.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s short story The Veiled Lady, Hercule Poirot gets a new client. A woman who calls herself Lady Millicent Castle Vaughan is engaged to be married. However, as she tells Poirot, she once wrote what used to be called ‘an indiscreet letter’ to another man. Now, a blackmailer named Mr. Lavington has the letter. Lady Millicent wants Poirot to retrieve the letter and the small box in which it’s hidden. Poirot agrees to take the case, and he finds that not much is as it seems. In the end, he locates the box and letter, and unearths an interesting case of recidivism along the way.
Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point is the story of brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. They grew up in Belize but have since moved to Miami. Patrick has gotten into politics; he’s got a very promising career. Leo is a poet, who also works at Jefferson Memorial, a mental hospital. One day, Leo gets a visit from Freddy Robinson, whom he used to know in Belize. Freddy hasn’t been able to stay out of trouble with the law. Even now, he’s working for some very dubious ‘associates.’ They are looking for a man named Herman Massani, who happens to be a patient at Jefferson. Freddy’s there to get Leo to release the patient – something Leo can’t do and wouldn’t anyway. Along with all of the medical and ethical (and legal) issues, Leo doesn’t want to have anything to do with Freddy, who’s become a convicted felon. But Freddy insists. Soon, he moves from a request to a threat. If Leo doesn’t co-operate, Freddy will use the knowledge he has of a very dark secret that the Varela brothers have been keeping. Now, Leo doesn’t see much choice, so he reluctantly agrees. He soon finds himself caught in a very dangerous and murderous web.
Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood begins as Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him, he takes probationer Lucy Howard. Tragically, White is murdered shortly after he and Howard get to the crime scene. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the juvenile justice system a number of times. In fact, he’s so accustomed to it that he knows how to work it. As you can imagine, the police are very eager to catch the person who killed one of their own. But they are under intense media scrutiny on this one, especially since Darren is part Aboriginal. So, they need to do everything very carefully and ‘by the book.’ And Darren’s been involved in the system often enough to know that. It makes for an interesting source of real tension in the story.
There’s an interesting case of how recidivism can work in Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. The body of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is discovered by a school caretaker. The police, in the form of Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss, investigate. It turns out that the victim was a sex worker, so there is the possibility that her pimp, a man named Charlie Hawes, is responsible. It’s also possible that one of her clients is the killer. There are other possibilities as well. In order to get to know Michelle a little better, Morriss spends time with some of the other sex workers in the area. As she does, we learn that several of them have been in and out of prison more than once. One of them even has a collection of stuffed pigs – one for every time she’s been arrested.
And then there’s Christina Hoag’s Skin of Tattoos, which introduces Magdaleno ‘Mags’ Argueta. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served time on weapons charges. He was set up by a fellow gang member, but he believes that serving the term demonstrates loyalty to his gang, and that goes very far with those people. Still, Mags wants to get a legitimate job, and maybe even get out of the gang-ridden area of Los Angeles where he lives. Then, a series of events happen that build on one another. And soon, Mags finds that he has no other choice but to get back into the gang life. He ends up getting drawn into things much more deeply than he’d planned.
And that’s how it sometimes turns out for ex-criminals. They want to build new lives, but they’re drawn back into crime. Or, they live the sort of lives that tend to get people arrested. Or… Whatever the reason, recidivism is a fact of life in the law enforcement system. And in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Prologue: Work Song.