At Home with the Noonans: An insight into one of the country’s most notorious gangsters
A few years ago I was asked to nominate the six books that I regarded as having made the most important contribution to the development of criminology as an academic discipline. And, while the works of some of my academic heroes – people like Colin Sumner – were on my list, most people were surprised by my inclusion of two “true crime” books – In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and As If by Blake Morrison.
For me academic criminology all too often forgets to discuss the very subject areas that it is supposedly concerned with – crime, policing, criminals and their motivation – and in the process regularly leaves students wondering why they bothered to read the subject in the first place.
No such problem with true crime, and books such as In Cold Blood about the murder of Herbert Clutter, his wife, and two of their four children in Kansas in 1959, and As If about the murder of James Bulger in Bootle, near Liverpool in 1993 grab the reader by the throat, and in beautifully executed prose that can only come through the author immersing – embedding if you prefer – himself in the community where the crime took place, and where the drama of who and why the offenders “done it” unfolds.
True crime, as I know only too well, is difficult to get right, and involves not only gaining access to the right people who can tell you the story as it actually happened, but also requires the author to understand a series of complex relationships which need to be re-negotiated almost daily, and the criminological and psychological insight to understand what is important and what is not.
Good true crime helps the reader to understand why people can behave in the most appalling ways to their fellow human beings, and why offenders can often be monstrous but compelling.
I regard Donal MacIntyre’s At Home with the Noonans as true crime on a par with Capote and Morrison, and I rather suspect that if the former had been alive today this is exactly the type of documentary that he would want to be making.
At Home with the Noonans is a one-stop shop of criminological and psychological insight into the life of one of the country’s most notorious gangsters. It’s all here – the joys of transgression; criminal innovation; techniques of neutralisation; gangster chic and gangster social work – academic theories that come to life on the screen, prompted by MacIntyre’s understanding of what it is that he has been allowed to see and record.
MacIntyre has filmed Noonan before, in a documentary called A Very British Gangster – which I still use to teach my postgraduate students at Birmingham City University – and has used this unique access not to glamorise Noonan and the people who surround him, but to show us what happens when some sections of society are cut off from the mainstream, abandoned by all and sundry and so left to fend for themselves. He uses his own criminological knowledge to help us to understand what makes this complex character – someone who speaks Urdu, and whose sexuality clashes with his “hardman” image – tick; why people are warily attracted to him; and the intricacies of the daily cat and mouse game that he plays with the police.
As a by-product the documentary also exposes the reality of a neo-liberal wasteland that has left the deserving and – sometimes – undeserving poor of Manchester with few work or educational opportunities, but who seem to express a resigned determination to make the most of the little that they have – and, unsurprisingly many were only too willing to take to the streets during the riots of last summer.
At Home with the Noonans, Sunday at 10pm on Crime & Investigation Network.Tagged in: At Home with the Noonans, Blake Morrison, Colin Sumner, crime, criminology, Donal MacIntyre, Herbert Clutter, In Cold Blood, James Bulger, true crime, Truman Capote
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