January 15, 2015

Horse 1821 - Are We Bad For Liking Murder Mysteries?

"Are we bad for liking murder mysteries? Is it bad that we find entertainment in people being killed?"

Those were the questions that Mrs Rollo posed to me whilst watching an old episode of BBC's crime drama Midsomer Murders during the week. This question cuts to the heart of all sorts of ethical dilemmas and so it was worth writing about.

Firstly, I don't think it either fun or entertaining when someone dies; no matter how horrible or infamous they may be. For instance, I can remember the immense outburst of macabre joy on the internet when Osama Bin Laden was killed and thinking that it was all quite a bit gauche. Even though he was the head of a terrorist organisation which was responsible for killing thousands of people, I still didn't take joy in the fact that someone had died. Likewise when Saddam Hussain was executed, I didn't rejoice at that either. Even if someone has committed terrible crimes against humanity, taking joy in their death just seems like a less than human response to me.
This isn't to say that I'm some sort of model saint either. I can't honestly say that if I was born 1900 years ago, that I wouldn't find pleasure in watching people being killed in Roman arenas, even if they were criminals. I also can't say if I would have been the sort of person who would have found a public execution entertaining enough to want to go and see someone being hanged in a medieval town square. Without being cast against that sort of cultural climate and prevailing social backdrop, I wouldn't like to guess what sort of person that I would actually be in such circumstances. Be that as it is and being born into a "civilised" society, I'm something of a pacifist and I already think that the arming of the population is a nonsense because it opens the potential for lots of people to be needlessly killed; so I don't think that I'm currently watching murder mysteries because I secretly like watching the death of others.
If that's not the case, then there must be some other underlying reason why I like watching murder mysteries.

I think that part of the answer lies in the fact that a crime drama is something of a puzzle. The writers will embed a series of clues into the narrative and by fitting them together, you can solve the mystery.
We see this sort of process going on in real criminal and civil court proceedings all the time; where it is given the somewhat confusing label of "discovery". This has connotations of people in tricorn hats and ships bound for countries unknown across the vastness of expansive and angry oceans. Instead of  discovering the world on board ship, the police and lawyers  discover crime scenes and even documents as their clues. A work of fiction like a novel or a television drama, does all of that boring and often tedious work for you. The writers themselves are aware of this and so will consciously and deliberately weave clues into the narrative. The most extreme consequence of this is "Chekhov's Law" which is named after playwright Anton Chekhov; which states that you should never place a gun on stage unless you intend to fire it. I don't know if this is a pragmatic choice because it involves moving fewer items at the change of scene but at the other end of the spectrum is the "Red Herring" when clues are placed in the story with the express purpose of throwing the audience off the trail. I'd like to propose a variant on Chekhov's Law, the Red Herring subclause; which states: never leave a fresh fish on stage, for fish are like bombs, they go off.
The thing about crime dramas is that there actually is a solution. I don't know how popular a novel or television drama would be if the detective didn't find enough clues to piece together what had happened. What sort of television show would it be if you'd spent 90 minutes only to find that you still have no idea who the killer or the thief was? The tale of Jack The Ripper is famous because it remains unsolved but I don't think that people actually find the fact that five people died in such gruesome circumstances, a fun thing. Even when there are programs about this, there's usually a degree of speculation as to whom it might have been; I suppose that half a solution is better than none at all. The stories which work lie around the questions which are posed but if you have too many unresolved questions, the story soon quickly descends into the land of annoyance.

The crime drama genre itself has quite a number of tropes that we like, built into it. Usually all of the characters in the story are disagreeable and horrible people, except the detective (and even that's not a hard and fast rule either), and so when the detective does finally solve the case, it appeals to out innate sense of justice because horrible people are finally getting what they deserve. I think that we generally like to see people brought to justice and being made to answer for what they've done. The very phrase itself "getting away with murder" suggests that something is seriously wrong with the administration of justice. We just don't like it if bad people aren't punished for what they've done.

Actually I must say at this point that I prefer British crime stories to American ones; mainly because even though the horrible people are just as horrible, there's an element of class distinction as well. The issue of class lends another dimensional level to a story because such people are expected to act in certain ways and then don't. It's assumed by the audience that people of the upper class behave with a higher degree of manners and deportment, and like a good joke, when they do not, they become acceptable targets of sport. Horribleness when added to a facade what amounts to self righteous vanity, lends a degree of tragi-comedy to things; whereas outright vulgarity is just dull. The mechanics of a crime drama are such that poor people although they might act in ways which are equally as horrible, can not by virtue of their poverty act with the same sort of motives because they wish to inherit something, when there is indeed very little to inherit.

As if by proxy we even get to compare ourselves to either the horrible people in the story and commend ourselves for not being as horrible as they; or we get to live vicariously through the detective and congratulate ourselves for solving the puzzle - they aren't called "whodunnit?" for nothing.
Sometimes this is played with though. There are some episodes of Colombo whee the criminal has been caught at the beginning of the episode but isn't talking. The question then is not "whodunnit?" but "howdunnit?" and then the game becomes one of recovery of facts to prove what is already known. Quod Erat Demonstrandum - that which was to be demonstrated.
I think it might have been an episode of Van Der Valk where the question being asked at the end wasn't "whodunnit?" or "howdunnit?" but "if?". If all the clues point to murder but then it turns out that there was no murder but merely the theft of a body from a morgue with the intent of perpetrating insurance fraud, that really messes with the mind of the audience. If you've just sat through 90 minutes only to have every assumption proved wrong, you either feel pleased because you've been tricked or grumpy because you've been deceived.

Once upon a time people might have marveled at how Sherlock Holmes used inductive reason (technically isn't actually deductive most of the time), or at how Poirot used the art of psychology to find his suspects but those days have long passed.
A private investigator like Philip Marlowe just asked questions and followed people and that seems far more real to us today. By the time that police procedurals hit the small screen, the age of the brilliant detective was gone. Taggart, Colombo, Lewis, Frost and Barnaby are still engaged in answering the same sorts of questions like who stands to benefit if someone died but they're far more pragmatic that detectives in stories a hundred years ago.

The two questions of "Are we bad for liking murder mysteries?" and  "Is it bad that we find entertainment in people being killed?", aren't that difficult to sort out. We're probably not bad people because the whole concept of the murder mystery is about finding someone and bringing them to justice and there's probably a degree of virtue in that. Do we actually find entertainment in people being killed? Maybe not. I already find myself asking "why?" when people are needlessly killed in movies and a lot of cases, it doesn't add anything to the story either.

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