01/22/2013 09:52 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Sometimes We Root for the Crooks

I'm teaching a crime fiction class at Michigan State University as a guest author of a mystery series, and one of the things we've been discussing is how you don't always root for the good guys.

I'm not talking about cheering on the psychopaths and serial killers. But it's the charming rogues who win our affection. Especially in heists. Whom do we want to come out on top in Ocean's Eleven? Not Andy Garcia, no way. We want George Clooney's brilliant plot and colorful team to win. And the more elaborate the heist, the more we're fascinated by the mind behind it, as in Clive Owen's Inside Man, which turns on a fascinating historical horror.

Jason Statham in the new Parker movie, based on a Donald Westlake book, says he never robs anyone who can't afford it or kills anyone who doesn't deserve it.

This rough justice often carries readers and viewers along to cheer for the law breakers. Maybe they enact our taboo impulses, maybe not. But there's something deeply satisfying in watching characters you like cross the line and work out their own form of justice.

Look at Scandal. We've just discovered the depths of the conspiracy to put Fitzgerald Grant in the White House. Are we hoping Olivia Pope gets caught and imprisoned? No way. We admire her strength, her resourcefulness, her steely courage (not to mention her fashion sense). It's a delicious paradox of the genre when lawlessness doesn't just seem commendable, but heroic.