The criminal underworld is a rich part of Star Wars’ tapestry. Han Solo was one of the three main characters of the original trilogy, and supporting characters like Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and Jabba the Hutt abounded. Our introduction to the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” was one of the most memorable moments of A New Hope, and Return of the Jedi spent its opening act in Jabba’s palace. Smugglers, crime lords, bounty hunters, pirates, and grifters all play major roles in many Expanded Universe stories. This is fairly natural, as crime stories are a major part of modern fiction in general. The number of popular movies, TV shows, and books about crooks is massive, reflecting the tremendous storytelling potential of criminality, which comes prepackaged with loads of the element most key to storytelling: conflict.
Not every story featuring criminals or crime is what I would count as a crime story. Crime fiction focuses on the stories of the criminals — unlike, say, mysteries, which tell the stories of the people investigating the crimes. It can come in many forms. The great “gangster movies” of cinema — The Godfather and its sequels, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, Casino — have associated the genre with stories of the rise and fall of organized crime figures (and primed audiences to expect Robert De Niro to play a major role). A very different type of crime fiction is the heist story, following crooks who execute a complex plan to make a major theft. Many films noir documented an individual — crook, innocent, or investigator — caught up in a web of crime that threatens to consume him. Think Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, Night and the City, and The Killers. The varieties of crime story are even more numerous than the varieties of crime.
As might be expected of a franchise with such a large share of criminals among its cast, Star Wars features a reasonable number of crime stories. The recent Scoundrels is a high-profile example of a heist story, and I could stand to see several more such capers from Han, Lando, or the other scoundrels of the setting. The Ahakista Gambit is an overlooked entry in the same subgenre, and similar caper elements can be found in almost any story involving the execution of an elaborate plan, the Knights of the Old Republic comic series being a good example thereof. In its depiction of an underworld broker caught in a nightmarish scenario as a result of a bad deal, Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter has a great deal in common with the film noir style cited above. The Han Solo Trilogy does not engage in particularly heavy use of crime story tropes, but it is certainly the story of Han Solo’s criminal career.
Far more stories make heavy use of “the fringe,” the Star Wars underworld, in a way that brings criminals and crime-story elements into play without revolving the entire story around crime. The pirate Nym plays a lead role in the Starfighter games. Talon Karrde’s smuggling and information brokering storylines play a significant role in the Thrawn trilogy and The Hand of Thrawn Duology. Scourge explores the Hutt crime syndicates, Darksaber uses a Hutt kingpin as a major villain opposing the New Republic, the comic Darth Maul sets the Sith Lord against the gangsters of Black Sun, and Shadows of the Empire plunges the heroes deep into the criminal underworld to face the galaxy’s biggest crime lord, Prince Xizor. The fringe was central to West End Games’ roleplaying game, which envisioned players acting out their own underworld stories, and it is reassuring to see the fringe again taking a leading role in Fantasy Flight Games’ RPG. Of the many genres I intend to tackle, the crime story is certainly one of the best-represented in the EU, with numerous stories revolving around criminal endeavors.
Yet for all the presence of the underworld in the Expanded Universe, it could still stand to show off a greater diversity of crime stories and to focus more on stories about crime, rather than about petty criminals who get caught up in bigger Empire-and-Rebellion plots. We get some smuggler stories featuring Han or others, but efforts to make a major storyline, something on the level of a novel or comic arc, out of Han’s criminal exploits have been relatively lacking. A story about one of Lando’s grand con games wouldn’t be amiss, but Lando stories are depressingly rare to begin with, and those that do feature him have tended to look elsewhere for their material. Efforts to get a fringe-set game off the ground at LucasArts have come to nothing, most recently with the cancellation of 1313. The rise and fall of crime kingpin Jorj Car’das, together with the rise of Talon Karrde as his successor, cries out for “gangster movie” treatment in a novel or two. Star Wars has many bounty hunters who could hold down a gritty novel about tracking down dangerous criminals. A war between crime syndicates could provide a fertile setting for storytelling. Everyone likes pirates, and a pirate crew could make interesting protagonists. The proliferation of fringe supporting characters in his circle — Karrde, Booster Terrik, Droma — and the breadth of enemies in his past offer many avenues for a story about an older Han (and Lando) being dragged back into the fringe for a bar-brawling, cargo-smuggling, con-playing, card-sharking adventure in the classic “one last job” tradition.
The underworld has gotten a lot of mileage as a key Star Wars element, and is among the genres most exploited in the Expanded Universe. EU storytellers could still stand to do more, however, as many potential angles for crime fiction remain underused. Hopefully, with Scoundrels and Scourge leading the way in the recent embrace of standalone stories and genre exploration, that will change.