A recent Netflix offering, River, is a one season (lobby for a second season!) crime drama that I stumbled across and then became fascinated with. Result: watched all six episodes over two nights! River stars Swedish acting legend Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Thor) as the eponymous Detective Inspector John River, an experienced and brilliant cop with a mind that even he can’t trust.
Obviously, I had to alert my old pal and fellow contributor, the poet Ken Cathers, to the show. He liked it also! And he would like to start a conversation here. He opens with this:
The Guilty Attraction of Crime (Fiction)
After recently watching the new Netflix crime series River I began to question
what is it that makes crime shows and crime fiction so appealing. As a genre crime fiction is generally regarded as an inferior, popular form of art largely circumscribed by its conventions. It is still the most widely watched type of program on television. There is also more crime fiction published that any other genre with only the possible exception of cookbooks. Food for thought, indeed.
Typically the novel or crime show will begin with the actual depiction of a crime or, at the very least, the body of the victim of the crime. This is quickly followed by the arrival of the hero: the detective. Generally, he is a loner; a jaded idealist. Often he finds himself in some sort of disrepute with his peers over some recent scandal or compromising situation. These details are not immediately revealed adding to his personal mystery and complexity as a character. Regardless, it soon becomes apparent that the detective is obsessed with finding the truth, solving the crime and restoring order to the community. In short, he may be seen as a kind of modern white knight, albeit one with slightly stained and dented armour.
In many instances the detective has an assistant or cohort who possesses special deductive or investigative skills. He or she will also act as a confidante who manages to draw out the detective’s innermost hopes and fears thereby making him more fully rounded, more believable. These partners range in personality type from Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson, through Jussi Adler-Olson’s Assad to River’s street-wise woman partner Stevie, who just
also happens to be dead.
Before the investigation can even begin the detective is often confronted by a foil or competitor. His role is to complicate and undermine his every move. This person is usually the detective’s social superior or commanding officer who feels somehow threatened or betrayed by the hero’s individuality. So it goes.
Once the investigation has actually begun the next relationship of importance to develop is between the detective and the criminal. Usually this begins indirectly through the unearthing of clues, interviewing of suspects, etc. Inevitably, it seems, the detective relentlessly closes the gape between the state of not knowing and the certainty of both the identity of the criminal and the motive for the crime.
In many, but not all, cases the criminal is eventually tried and punished or even killed in pursuit. This is, however, not essential to the genre and seems more prevalent in the North American crime shows.
So that, in short, is the framework of crime fiction. Tried and true. But that does not, in any way, explain its appeal. There have been numerous explanations offered. First, it may simply be our prurient fascination with violence; the raw material of scandal and gossip. We may, perhaps, identify with the victim: murdered, left unburied in a shroud of mystery. Some others may identify with the criminal. See the crimes committed as expressions of their own repressed desires. Or they may identify with the detective as an agent fighting for the common good in a kind of modern day morality play.
But no matter which of the characters we identify with a successful crime story draws us into its mysterious and threatening world. It is, in a sense a kind of literary crossword puzzle, a verbal Sudoku. It is a form of escape from our everyday life where complexity seldom gives rise to meaning and crimes and problems are seldom fully resolved. In the detective world there is only a finite number of clues, suspects. There is also a satisfying unveiling of mysteries where codes are broken, order restored. It is a world in miniature, a diorama finite in detail, comprehensible in its entirety.
To emphasize its inherent difference from our own mundane world it is often set in an exotic location: a remote resort, ancient foreign city or in the criminal underworld of some large metropolis. For most of us crime fiction places us in the position of travelers in a strange land. We are also tourists in a landscape of mental anguish and inconceivable deeds. How easily we step back into our own reality of comfort and safety. Relieved, we step away from lives gratefully not lived, crimes not witnessed.
Perhaps the strongest appeal of crime fiction is in its depiction of the process of how crimes are solved. The csi work, the lab work, fingerprint analysis, use of surveillance video, the interviewing of suspects create a mosaic of techniques that eventually reveal the identity of the criminal. We are participants in a successful hunt. In the end we are accomplices to the forces of good. Celebrants of some small imagined victory. At least until the next novel is opened, the next show begun.
Note: This article is not intended to be any kind of definite description of crime fiction. Rather, I hope others can use it as a spring board to stimulate some discussion and new ideas about the genre. I look forward to your comments. – Ken Cathers