Guilty of Being Not Guilty

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou in The Da Vinci Code movie.

Do you like “wac”-ky books? By “wac”-ky, I mean novels with “wrongly accused characters.”

It’s a compelling “genre.” The drama and tension are intense as we see people punished and/or put in danger for something they didn’t do. That obviously offends our sense of fairness, and we feel lots of sympathy for protagonists in those dire straits — as well as curiosity about how they’re reacting. Also, we wonder if they’ll get out of their predicament, and, if so, how?

All this is certainly a major motif in Dan Brown’s page-turning The Da Vinci Code, in which Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is falsely implicated in the murder of a curator at The Louvre. Langdon escapes that iconic Paris museum with the help of French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (the curator’s granddaughter), and various cliffhangers ensue as the in-peril pair try to solve a number of mind-bending clues that might lead them toโ€ฆThe Holy Grail!

Caleb Carr’s The Angel of Darkness, a novel I read just before The Da Vinci Code this month, includes a character (criminal psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler) who’s wrongly blamed for a suicide in the facility he runs for troubled young people. While this is not the main plot line of the riveting book, Dr. Kreizler’s placement on leave as the suicide is investigated gives him the time to join a group of other fascinating characters who are trying to catch a woman guilty of a kidnapping and various shocking murders.

A classic in the wrongful-accusation “genre” is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the innocent Edmond Dantes is framed for treason and jailed in the Chateau d’If island prison. That long incarceration sets in motion a series of events that has made that novel one of the great revenge tales ever written.

Sadly, minorities can too often be among the falsely accused. One of literature’s best-known examples of that is Tom Robinson, who is falsely charged with the rape of a white woman in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

There is also a character wrongly accused of rape in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, with profound effects on three lives.

Several of Lee Child’s 27 Jack Reacher books (the last few co-authored by Andrew Child) see the roving title character get falsely accused of a crime soon after entering a new town. Sometimes local law-enforcement officials actually think Reacher is guilty, while other times they arrest him as a distraction to protect the real guilty parties — who tend to be powerful players. Of course, those law-enforcement officials and powerful players get more than they bargain for from the almost-superhuman Jack.

Novels you’ve read that fit this topic? Other thoughts?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — which includes an offbeat tribute to my town’s terrific teachers — is here.

97 thoughts on “Guilty of Being Not Guilty

  1. Dave,
    “To Kill a Mockingbird” came to mind off the bat. Then I read its inclusion in your article.
    Would “Twelve Angry Men”, by Reginald Rose be an example?
    The accused is found not guilty, although the guilty party is never found nor named in the story.
    This brings to mind “In the Heat of the Night” by John Ball. Virgil Tibbs, a black man, is first arrested. However, he is soon exonerated, so there is no tension there.
    Others accused are Sam & Harvey.
    In the end Ralph is guilty.

    Fab topic!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Guilty of not beeing guilty seems to me a very strong topic to think about, Dave, and I would like to reread several of the books you mentioned, above all “The Count of Monte Cristo” ! I would also like to add “Tess of the D’Urberville”, who was, according to me, also one of the victims. Many thanks:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Martina! Glad you liked the post. ๐Ÿ™‚ And I appreciate the mention of “Tess of the Dโ€™Urbervilles”! Tess certainly deserved better in that Thomas Hardy novel.


    • Thank you, Esther! There’s definitely a strong impact on a reader when she or he encounters a wrongfully accused situation for the first time in literature. The reaction can be pretty visceral.


  3. I’ve read some of the books mentioned, including the Da Vinci Code. I have to admit, I never considered the common aspect of falsely accused people. I find these stories to be engaging and I get drawn in quickly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Dan! You’re right that a false-accusation theme can really draw readers in. We get interested, angry, and curious if/how the innocent person will escape the injustice heaped on them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The other place it’s used is in science fiction, usually with the alien or perhaps a mechanical creature is assumed to have committed a crime or be responsible for hurting someone. Those stories often end badly for the alien.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not surprised to see the Count of Monte Cristo mentioned, as it’s perhaps one of the most famous examples of this. I actually just read another fabulous book under this category called “the Maid.” I won’t go into too much detail in case you want to read it (which I highly recommend, the main character is so wonderfully unique). But it’s definitely a great case of wrongly accused and it’s a pretty wild ride of a book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B., for the recommendation of that Nita Prose novel! “The Maid” sounds VERY intriguing. And I agree that “The Count of Monte Cristo” might be THE wrongful-accusation classic.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The Da Vinci Code had me hooked from the first page. The pace is fast and intense. Time is of the essence. Dan Brown’s writing style did not bother me as I was so engaged in all the historical details of subject and world. He must’ve had help with the depth of such research. His premise is preposterous yet believable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Rosaliene! Yes, if a book has some elements done extremely well, it doesn’t have to have all elements done extremely well. It’s a rare novel that has absolutely everything: great prose, great plot, great premise, great settings, great characters, excitement, humor, poignancy, etc. “The Da Vinci Code” certainly had many of those elements. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think, like that, apart from the books you’ve mentioned and the replies mention, most of the oens I’ve read, the character is guilty. There was a pot boiler I read many years ago, off the cheap coutner in Wollies of all places, I can’t remember the title of where at the last line, it turned out the narrator was guilty, having portested their innocnece the whole way, because they remembered how good it felt, killing this character. There’s Val Jean in Les Mis, who is technically guilty of nicking that bread but come onthese days he’d be cut the slack, which raises what you could be brutally imprisoned for in other times. There’s another book prob out of print now, called the Sound of the Weir where the narrator is guilty, not of committing the supposed murder, at the heart of the story, but ensuring the noose goes round her cousin’s neck simply because she’s jealous of her, when the husband has framed his own death by committing the murder, as the narrator discovers years later. Also Pin to See the Peepshow based on a real life case, where the heroine is guilty of having a lover, an abortion, writing letters to her lover saying she wished her husband was no more but is hung becayuse she happened to be standing there outside her house, when the lover turned up and as we say here, ‘wellied’ the hubby with a stone. So a very interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Since I’m two books into writing a mystery series (PESTICIDE [2022] and SONS AND BROTHERS [2023], I think about characters being falsely accused or, in my case, falsely suspected all the time! After all, what would mysteries be without red herrings?

    Dave, thanks for reminding me about Caleb Carr, whom I haven’t read in a long time–I think I’ll try The Angel of Darkness.

    Re: Dan Brown. I thought his INFERNO was very entertaining, not only exciting but thought-provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kim! So true that wrongful accusations are a big part of a number of mystery novels. Red herrings are indeed crucial to the genre.

      As you might know, “The Angel of Darkness” is a sequel to “The Alienist.” I think it’s even better than the first book, which is saying something. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Glad to hear you found another Dan Brown book to be very good!


        • You’re in for a treat, Kim. ๐Ÿ™‚ Basically the same team of crime-fighting characters as in “The Alienist.” The sequel is a fairly long novel that didn’t feel that long because of how good it was.


  8. Two that popped to mind were Alias Grace, which someone has already mentioned, and Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. I think I enjoyed the movie more than the book, actually. I remember the book as more depressing than interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. The first two that came to mind are not quite (or at all) novels, but not guilty tales nonetheless: Emile Zolaโ€™s J’Accuse, which he risked his life writing, and saved Dreyfus’s, and, in a completely different vein, Much Ado About Nothing? ๐Ÿ™ƒ

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Endless Weekend, for the mention of that famous, courageous essay by Emile Zola. It definitely put him at risk, and there is a theory that Zola’s 1902 death was a murder possibly connected to his public support of Dreyfus.


  10. Thank you, Dave, for the shoutout. The Da Vinci Code was a great thriller, played brilliantly by Tom Hanks. The idea of being falsely accused is an underlying theme in many books, sometimes hidden within a larger issue. Why do we have a tendency to jump to conclusions and assume guilt before seeking out evidence of innocence? It seems to be a part of the human experience. I believe that books that feature the โ€œfalsely accusedโ€ theme help us identify and recognize our personal biases, societal conditioning – our desire for quick resolution. I just read an amazing article about how books help us heal in times of hurt and sadness. I also think that books challenge us to be our best selves.

    As Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms: โ€œThe world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.โ€

    I just came back from a blog break and am looking forward to catching up on our posts. It is good to be back home. Thank you again for a fabulous post.

    Liked by 5 people

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