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March 24, 2018

When Bad People Do Good Things

by Clark Hays & Kathleen McFall

As we get set to publish the second book in a “what-if” series recasting the lives of Bonnie and Clyde, we reflect on the factors that draw readers to tales of atonement.

Bonnie and Clyde

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Bonnie and Clyde, the anti-heroes of our speculative historical fiction series, embody a long creative and cultural tradition of elevating criminals and outlaws to folk hero status. As we set out to write this series, we talked at length about this tradition, trying to grasp — to the extent possible — why so many of us love bad guys who break good?

We batted this back and forth and scoured bad-guy (and gal) literature, movies and graphic novels. Our goal was to create a fictional world that mirrors the impetus underlying this fascination with reformed (and unreformed) criminals. We also wanted to be careful that the series would not, even indirectly, celebrate criminality.

We learned, or more accurately, were quickly reminded that getting your arms around the complexities of human nature is no easy task. But still, we finally settled on three issues to explore in our series — three reasons that helped us understand why scofflaws and delinquents consistently captivate and resonate.

Outlaws give voice to the frustrations of the common man and woman. 

Resurrection RoadWhat do Robin Hood, Jesse James, Ned Kelly (the armor-wearing Australian bushranger) and the like have in common? They were shaped by poverty, economic disenfranchisement or oppressive social systems and — right or wrong (mostly wrong) — they lashed out against a system they felt contributed to their fringe status. In so doing, outlaws (until they go too far) are rowdily cheered on by regular folks, especially during tough times like the Great Depression. There’s something timeless and appealing about those who have the courage to give voice to their rage and dissatisfaction, even though it’s often aimed in horrible directions.

Criminals have tangible and unique skills that can serve the greater good. 

Criminals and villains have certain skills — including freedom from pesky ethical calculations — that, if focused in the right way, can provide expedient solutions to complex problems. For example, the world increasingly relies on reformed hackers to help safeguard our networked computer systems. Convicted burglars are tasked with building better alarm systems. And during WWII, the U.S. Navy negotiated with famed mobster Meyer Lansky to commute the sentence of even more famous “Lucky Luciano,” considered the father of organized crime in the U.S., in exchange for information about potential Nazi activities in eastern seaports. Polite society doesn’t always like to admit it, but complex problems often require novel — and sometimes morally dubious or illegal — solutions. This truth can be mined for colorful characters and plots.

The road to redemption is more scenic for those who have fallen the farthest.

Dam Nation
One of the most powerful reasons the world seems to love bad guys is because their stories are ready-made for redemption. For the moral and upright, life can be an endless and boring series of good choices. For the fallen and depraved, the journey toward atonement is a constant struggle, and that makes it interesting. That’s why the entertainment landscape is often populated with flawed characters and villains who are given a chance to redeem themselves. Suicide Squad is one recent example. At its core, this type of storytelling encourages individuals to reflect on their own journey toward atonement, if not at a criminal scale. If a hardened criminal can make it to the other side, maybe we all have a shot at redemption, right?

Back in their day, Bonnie and Clyde captured the public imagination, a fascination that continues today, for the first of the three reasons outlined above. They were both products of the poverty crippling the nation in the 1930s and they lashed out against it. They went too far, of course, and innocent people died, but one of the reasons their myth and mystique live on is precisely because they acted on their rage. People then, and now, saw in them an expression of their own pent-up anger at economic injustice.

As a sidebar, there was another element — sex — that helped make Bonnie and Clyde famous. It was clear they were not only brass-knuckling the economic and legal systems failing so many during the Great Depression, they were also challenging traditional sexual roles of the day. Unmarried, they were in love and clearly having sex on a regular basis. It was both titillating and revolutionary.

From the standpoint of the second factor — useful criminal skills — the notorious duo had buckets of that, and this was the starting point for our story. Indeed, it is their criminal skills that make them valuable to the government — bank robberies and violence and daring escapes. In our books, their handler, “Suicide Sal” (her codename is based on one of Bonnie’s poems), who in the 1930s is fighting well-funded corporate interests intent on derailing the New Deal policies aimed at helping the working class, explains it like this: “You don’t use good dogs to guard the junkyard, you use the meanest goddamn dogs you can get a collar around.”

And then we wove in the third element — a chance for atonement — for which the real-life story of Bonnie and Clyde provided a tragic jumping off point. Their story is ripe for an atonement tale because of their violent end. In 1934, the outlaw lovers were gunned down without a trial, without a chance to separate fact from fantasy regarding their crimes, and without a chance to explain or atone. In our books, the two live beyond the ambush and are not only forced to help the federal government defend the working class, they must also confront their past and begin to make amends for the death and destruction they left in their wake. Atonement, and their unyielding love, are at the heart of the books.

There’s a fourth reason some outlaws find themselves transformed into folk heroes: timing. Said criminals’ stories resonate because they continue to shine a light on contemporary challenges. The timing now is compelling for the return of Bonnie and Clyde because — with the wealth and income inequality gap greater today than it was just prior to the Great Depression — there is a growing frustration from the lower and middle classes at a system that allows so many to struggle paycheck-to-paycheck so a few at the top can prosper. And who better than a pair of unrepentant criminal lovers to take on that issue as they careen down a road to redemption?

Learn more about the Bonnie and Clyde books by Clark Hays and Kathleen McFall, published by Pumpjack Press (Portland, OR):

Buy at Amazon

Book 1: Resurrection Road (May 2017)
Book 2: Dam Nation (March 2018)

Connect with the authors:

Twitter @cowboyvamp
Instagram @cowboyvampire

Praise for the Series

“As the rich get richer and the middle class becomes more desperate in present-day America, Resurrection Road is a timely reminder that sometimes the solution to a problem comes from the least likely source. Sex, danger and intrigue, coupled with just the right dose of cheeky humor.” East Oregonian Newspaper

“Hays and McFall make their Depression-era tale timely with reflections on wealthy fat cats and a rigged economic system that still ring true. More than that, the story is an exciting ride, with tight corners, narrow escapes, and real romantic heat between Bonnie and Clyde. Outlaws become patriots in this imaginative, suspenseful what-if story.” Kirkus Reviews

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