Small Crimes In an Age of Abundance

By Matthew Kneale

Size is relative, so what makes the crimes in this collection of short stories small is really a trick of perspective. In fact some of them involve matters of life and death. But from the point of view of someone living in an age of abundance the consequences aren’t as drastic. The only thing at stake is a clean conscience. And that, as these stories make clear, isn’t a really big concern.

Matthew Kneale’s last book, English Passengers, was a historical novel that used colonialism as a way of talking about this difference of perspective between global haves and have-nots. The stories in Small Crimes In an Age of Abundance are all set in the present, but the theme is the same. The “criminals” are affluent Westerners who find themselves in an environment – often a poor, developing country – that they don’t really understand. They screw up. But, as Conrad put it when looking at people in similar situations, they are still “us”. And from our end of the telescope their crimes seem small.

Of course in the stories where the telescope is reversed – an African couple seeking a miracle cure for their sick child, a Colombian family fleeing CIA crop dusters – the neo-colonials seem giant-size. The military helicopter that hovers over the farmers in Colombia is an otherworldly and overpowering force of evil, but for the people who design and sell this kind of military technology, described in a couple of other stories, it’s just a job. They are family men. They might feel the odd twinge of guilt over what they do for a living, but they learn to get over it.

The first two stories are the the best. In “Stone” an English family vacationing in China unwisely depart from their tour and wind up mistakenly accusing an innocent man of a capital offence. This leads to tragedy, but given a bit of time to get on with their lives they look back upon what happened as “something far away, that was not quite real, and that could not touch them.” In the very funny story “Powder” an unsuccessful London lawyer finds a big bag of cocaine along with a cell phone one day and decides to go into business. The tone here is pure comedy, in part because Colombia is only mentioned in passing and we don’t get to see what’s going on “many thousands of miles away” until the next story. The pusher-lawyer is in no danger of being executed, and in fact profits from his crime even after getting caught. It’s one of the perks of living on the right side of the global divide in an age of abundance.

History novels are never as much about history as they are about what we find in history that still resonates today. So it’s no surprise to find Kneale as critical of the colonialist mindset here as he was in English Passengers. He sees a consistency in nineteenth and twenty-first century Western attitudes toward the rest of the world. That consistency has less to do with our inability to understand and relate to “them” than our inability to understand ourselves and see our actions in context. We don’t see connections. We remain unconscious of our small crimes.

Writing comic fiction with a political edge isn’t easy, and it’s even harder to get right in a short story. The best stories in this collection are also the longest. And in these he creates thoughtful work distinguished by a skilful handling of comic plot and a playful juggling of our sympathy for his confused criminals.

Review first published June 24, 2005.


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