Unintended Consequence*

If you think about it, there are a lot of laws passed that are intended to do good and benefit society. For instance, laws against speeding and impaired driving are designed to keep people safer on the roads. Consumer laws are in place to ensure that the foods and other things we purchase are safe. In the US, that’s done by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), but each country has different laws. Most of us would probably agree that those laws are there for a good reason, and research shows that many of them are effective. We may grumble about bureaucracy, but I think that, by and large, we see why those laws are necessary.

And yet, some laws have had some unexpected (and unpleasant) consequences. And that opens up a whole set of new problems. A quick look at a few crime fiction novels should show you what I mean.

From 1918 to 1933, the manufacture, transportation, import/export, buying, and selling of alcohol was made illegal in the US. The idea behind it was that if alcohol wasn’t available, people would stop drinking too much and spending time and money in saloons. Instead, they would devote themselves to their families and their work. On the one hand, alcohol can be addictive and dangerous, and drinking too much of it can have tragic consequences. But Prohibition didn’t solve the problem. People still drank. In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, one of the characters, Cyrus Hardman, is an American who’s in Europe on the famous Orient Express train. When a fellow passenger is murdered, Hardman becomes a suspect, since his compartment was in the same coach. In one scene, Hercule Poirot (who’s on the same train and who is investigating the case) gets a look at Hardman’s luggage:

‘The contents of Mr. Hardman’s two “grips” were soon examined and passed.
They contained, perhaps, an undue proportion of spirituous liquor. Mr. Hardman
“It’s not often they search your grips at the frontiers – not if you fix the
conductor. I handed out a wad of Turkish notes right away, and there’s been no
trouble so far.”
“And at Paris?”
Mr. Hardman winked again. “By the time I get to Paris,” he said, “what’s left
over of this little lot will go into a bottle labelled hairwash.”
“You are not a believer in Prohibition, Monsieur Hardman,” said M. Bouc
with a smile.
“Well,” said Hardman, “I can’t say Prohibition has ever worried me any.”

Admittedly, Prohibition is not the reason for the murder in this novel, but Hardman’s attitude reflects what many people thought and did at the time. So, Prohibition didn’t stop the use of alcohol. What’s more, it sparked the very dangerous business of smuggling alcohol and of making one’s own alcohol – the so-called ‘bathtub gin.’ That resulted in plenty of poisoning and death, to say nothing of the rise of the gangsterism associated with the alcohol trade.

In many countries, prostitution is illegal. Many people see that as a good thing, as it means that young women are less likely to be involved in the sex business. But the fact is, people will still pay for sex, even if it is against the law. It’s a big business, and it attracts some very dangerous people. Some argue that, in fact, young women are in more danger when prostitution is illegal, because they are more likely to be trafficked against their will and be under the control of pimps and others who abuse them or worse.

We see this, for instance in Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate when the body of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found by a school caretaker. Before long, it’s discovered that the victim was a sex worker who worked for a pimp named Charlie Hawes. As Morriss looks into the matter, she finds that Hawes has a very bad reputation on the street. He doesn’t stop at beating his ‘girls’ to ‘keep them in line,’ and Morriss believes he could very well be the killer in this case. But there’s no real evidence, and Hawes can afford a good lawyer. And in any case, Morriss may dislike Hawes, but she wants to find out what really happened to Michelle. This is by no means the only crime novel that depicts what it’s like to be a sex worker who has a pimp and who could be arrested at any time. But it does give an example of some of the unexpected, unpleasant consequences of making prostitution illegal.

I think most of us would agree that it’s important to ensure that the food and drink we consume are accurately labeled and safe. And many countries have laws that provide for inspecting places like restaurants, meat packaging companies, grocery outlets, and food manufacturers to be sure that the food is clean, vermin-free, and so on. I know I wouldn’t want to give those laws up. But they have had unintended consequences. For example, in Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police, we are introduced to Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, Chief of Police in the small French town of St. Denis. The town is in the Périgord, the heart of French gastronomic culture, and people there have been making delicious food for generations. So, they are none too pleased when the EU passes new laws respecting the handling and cooking of food. They see no need for some bureaucratic meddlers to upset everything they do. In one sub-plot of the novel, EU food inspectors come to St. Denis on Market Day, when everyone brings their special breads, cheeses, meats, spices, and more to the town to sell them. The inspectors see their share of violations of the new regulations, but the people of St. Denis aren’t about to give in. Instead, they find an innovative way to make their point.

There are a lot of other examples in crime fiction of laws that have unintended consequences. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be laws – not at all. But those laws that are meant to protect people sometimes have consequences that no-one imagined – and that create other challenges.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rory Max Kaplan.