This article argues that the early development of crime writing needs to be understood in relation to the consolidation of the modern state. It demonstrates that London in the 1720s constitutes a significant moment in this early development for three main reasons. First, the period witnessed a crime epidemic which reached its climax in the 1720s and which precipitated a set of particularly aggressive counter-measures by the state; second, it saw the rise and eventual fall of the infamous Jonathan Wild who acted as both thief and surrogate policeman; and third, it was also marked by a surge in interests on the part of writers like Daniel Defoe and Bernard Mandeville in the related matters of crime and punishment. This article explores the ways in which accounts of crime and punishment in this period deployed and in some instances interrogated the rhetoric of social contract theory and writings on statecraft, particularly by Thomas Hobbes and Mandeville. But while the criminal biographies and gallows sermons produced by the Newgate prison’s ‘ordinaries’ provided crude and reductive accounts of the efficacy of the state, the article shows how two accounts of the life of Jonathan Wild (by Defoe and H.D) responded in highly complex ways to the issues of crime and policing and provided a consistently and self-consciously ambivalent reading of the state and state power. To conclude, I suggest that this ambivalence can be read as a critique of the impartial or neutral state and that it constitutes one of the key features of what we would later understand to be crime writing as a dedicated literary genre.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Literature and Literary Theory