Our fascination with crime

The New York Times has finally caught up with us and reviewed River.

You can read their review here.

Our December 15th post is republished below.

 

RiverA 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

 

6 thoughts on “Our fascination with crime

  1. I started to watch River but quit about ten minutes into episode #1. Now I’ll try again after hearing from Bob and Ken!

    I use the following list when talking about crime novels:

    “Twenty rules for writing detective stories” (1928)

    (Originally published in the American Magazine (1928-sep),
    and included in the Philo Vance investigates omnibus (1936).
    by S.S. Van Dine
    (pseud. for Willard Huntington Wright)

    THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

    1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

    2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

    3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

    4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

    5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

    6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

    7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

    8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

    9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

    10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

    11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

    12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

    13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

    14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

    15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

    16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

    17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

    18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

    19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

    20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se’ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.

    (End.)

    [Gaslight is a volunteer project under the auspices of the English Department at Mount Royal College. The coordinators can be reached at: Gaslight-Safe@MtRoyal.ab.ca ]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I almost stopped after the first few minutes too. But because of the actors I stayed with it and soon was engaged. The kinds of questions Ken mentioned began to hook me: who is this woman? what happened to her? how are these people connected? what’s the back story? who is the new detective sergeant? how can he possibly work with River? As it unfolds the answers are revealed in some marvelous moments.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have probably watched dozens of the “Midsomer Murders” series and found them easy to take – you know, the murders never seem real at all – just a necessary part of the plot (we need some crime(s) for Barnaby to solve. And then a replay of the murders later on with the added information that we as audience didn’t get the first time through. Fun, easy, light, and one of the many aspects of the genre. “River” is not “Midsomer Murders” and River is not Barnaby.

    Like

Please join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s