Portraying Drugs and Thugs in Literature

As the world progresses, literature also becomes more diverse and daring. To be clear, literature has always been bold. It has been an avenue for social commentaries, propagandas, and even revolutions. However, what distinguishes new literature from the old one is that the former is less afraid to depict the problematic elements of the society in a somewhat contentious but dynamic way. Thrillers about drugs and thugs are an example of this.

Nowadays, thrillers are becoming more and more popular among bookworms and literary enthusiasts. These books are largely characterized by their ability to elicit different moods and emotions: anticipation, anxiety, excitement, surprise, and suspense. Because their purpose is to arouse, engage, or excite readers, thrillers often tackle issues at their very core.

The issues talked about in thrillers commonly include that of race, class, gender, sexuality, or nationality. More often than not, books of this kind focus on the concepts of crime and justice. Recently, the issue of narcotics has been surfacing in the literary world of thrillers. Crime novels about drugs, drug cartels, and drug lords have been written and published several times over the past decades. In a sense, drugs are slowly becoming the new face of thriller fiction.

The portrayal of narcotics in literature has not been without changes. Drugs are first largely introduced in the literary world during the 19th century. As decades go by, several new elements have been incorporated to the narcotics narrative to add rousing flavors to drug thrillers – one of these are thugs and cartels. To help you understand drug thrillers better, this article provides a brief overview of the portrayal of drugs and thugs in literature.

Drugs in 19th Century Literature

Drugs became widely available in the 19th century. Opium, particularly, was openly sold all throughout the West by commoners like barbers, tobacconists, stationers, and merchants. By definition, opium is a narcotic drug whose main function is to slow down the messages travelling between the brain and the body. Many people across different social classes became users of this addictive substance. Some of them used it as a medicine, while others used it for mere pleasure.

Specifically, numerous authors became known users of opium. This includes Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, John Keats, Walter Scott, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For some, the use of drugs became both an inspiration and a subject matter for literature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, wrote an entire poem describing his experience of drugs. The poem Kubla Khan was a poem written by Coleridge after undergoing a drug-fueled slumber induced by the prescription of opium. Aside from Kubla Khan, Coleridge also wrote another poem entitled The Pains of Sleep, which described how he suffered the most harrowing and horrifying nightmares as a result of his withdrawal from opium.

Aside from poems, drugs were also largely talked about in 19th century fictional stories. For example, in one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories entitled The Man with the Twisted Lip, the main character Sherlock Holmes was portrayed to have a cocaine habit which Holmes described as one of his ‘little weaknesses’. Similarly, Oscar Wilde’s philosophical novel entitled The Picture of Dorian Gray also had an element of drugs incorporated in its narratives through the persona of the antagonist Lord Henry who smokes ‘opium-tainted cigarettes’ and whose character possesses an intoxicating amorality. Ultimately, all the mentioned literary works manifested how drugs were depicted in starkly different ways in the literature of the 19th century.

The Coming of Drug Cartels and Drug Lords

In the decades following the 19th century, narcotics narratives became more and more intense, especially with the coming of thugs in the picture. Generally, thugs are usually characterized as the local tough guys who engage in crimes like narcotics trafficking. These thugs are often grouped together in drug cartels led by drug lords.

In the real world, narcotics trafficking has become an urgent global issue. The commerce of illegal drugs has become one of the largest businesses around the world, especially in countries like China and Mexico. It is often controlled by drug cartels that operate clandestinely, transporting tons of drugs (e.g. cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy) primarily into the West. Aside from drugs, these cartels are also often engaged in the illegal trade of firearms. In this business, drug traders and drug lords usually earn billions of dollars each year. For this reason, more and more people are induced to enter into the cartel business despite its illegality.

With the combination of drugs, firearms, and tough men, thrillers about drugs and thugs have arguably added a stirring element to the narratives of crime fiction. Drug cartels and drug lords seem to possess a sense of bravado and machismo that can make crime novels more exciting, dynamic, and action-packed. Compared to the 19th century, drugs today are no longer portrayed as simply the ‘little weakness’ of troublesome characters. Drugs are now the archenemy in crime literature – the large-scale systemic business of the thugs who are always chased by the good guys. Examples of thrillers that talk about drugs and thugs are Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, James Carlos Blake’s The Rules of Wolfe, and Paul Shemella’s Jungle Rules. Overall, thrillers about drugs and thugs have been enriching literature for years. Because the issue of narcotics trafficking is becoming increasingly pressing, it is high time for authors to tackle it more and more in the literary world. As previously said, literature is an avenue for social commentaries. It is a platform in which the most important issues of the society are discussed and turned into creative merchandise for people to consume. Just like all the other societal issues emphasized in literary works, the portrayal of drugs and thugs in literature has certainly made readers more aware of the existence of narcotics trafficking in the world. It has helped them understand the nitty-gritty of the business, and it has added more action-packed elements to the stories of crime fiction.

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