Posts Tagged With: homicide writing

The Butler Did It – Again: Mystery and Thrillers as a First World Problem

Let’s face it folks: Mysteries and Thrillers are more often than not a first world problem sort of indulgence. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when was the last time you picked up a book or watched a show in which everyone involved WASN’T of a certain – shall we say – social class? And yet you flip the page of the newspaper or turn on The First 48 and… well… it’s a little bit different isn’t it? No Lexuses in the $450,000 driveway, no petty squabbles turned homicidal amongst the Real Housewives or wherever. In short: when the fictional world of homicide mirrors the real world of homicide it becomes NATIONAL news: OJ Simpson, Drew Peterson etc. But when it’s your average run of the mill street shooting you tend not to see too many novels about it and the most it gets is a 3 minute blurb on the evening news. (Honestly – do NOT get me started on the evening news. I’m apt to go completely off the rails in to a frothy hateful mess.)

For starters, let me just say I’m not trying to be political about any of this. If I do venture into that in regards to this here bloggy thing and you manage to take some offense just take a deep breath and relax. There’s plenty of room in the genre for everyone. All I’m trying to say is that we pick and choose our stories, right? Mysteries are more often than not a tale of class and the intrigues of the upper crust. They are awash with the splash and flash of a certain segment of life – particularly if we’re speaking about the ones on television. When was the last time you saw Castle investigate the mysterious homicide of a well-known drug dealer? Or CSI bothering to work a scene in a flop house? Nah. The sorts of scenes don’t play well on the screen of glitter.

Things are written this way because of the escapism involved. Your average gutter homicide just isn’t terribly interesting to readers, right? But why not? Writers need to connect the victim and the suspect and they need the reader to identify with both and it’s so much easier to do this when everyone involved is of a certain strata of society. In most instances, of course, the investigator is somehow outside of this strata which enables them to observe it and impart their observations in the form of a critique of sorts. Just think of all the times television mysteries (and many literary ones) explore and engage in sub-cultural analysis. Now either the investigator can do this analysis from the perspective of being almost brutally ‘normal’ which is fine. What  better representative of the cultural center than those who are tasked with patrolling it? Or they can be from their own distinctly abnormal subculture – think Lisbeth Salander who is pretty much in her very own, self-created category and therefore an apt critic of all of them.

Any way you cut it: the group or social structure at the center – the one being critiqued by the investigation – needs to be enough ‘us’ to be identifiable but distant enough to allow us to agree with the critique and internalize it in some way. We have to agree, in short, that ‘those people are a little weird.’ Implied in this, of course, is the idea that it is this centrally identified ‘weirdness’ that results in homicide.

Just for instance – think of House. Ingrained in the opening scenario of the episode was the connections that revealed the case, right? Weren’t they almost always tied to something distinct about each person? Dancer, Actor, A guy who’s happy all the time? Wasn’t it their central ‘non-us-ness’ than proved the case and revealed the malady to which they were afflicted?

Generally in thrillers it is much the same story though writ on a much larger scale. The implication is always ‘to save a world’ and generally entails a race against time to preserve something threatened with destruction but implied within is the idea that the world to be saved is not the world of the impoverished, the lower class, the forgotten or ignored. It’s our world: the world of decent jobs, homes, kids and pets.

But what if you were to work differently? We’ve already seen in some examples going all the way back to The Great Gatsby an attempt to humanize the criminal element and it continues on through Red Harvest, The Godfather, Breaking Bad. I’m a huge fan of Red Harvest actually. Not only because it’s very funny in spots but it’s one of the few examples I can think of off the top of my head where the goal of the hero is nothing short of the absolute destruction of the status quo. He’s not trying to preserve anything. Which makes me think that Hammett was aware of the class conundrum in mystery way back when. Would it kill us as writers to write towards speaking for the dead – whichever social class they happen to come from?

Think about it from the perspective of a news article (once again. I HATE the news but this is just an example) Even in cases where the victim is not a middle class soccer coach they always attempt to find something redeemable about them don’t they? “22 year old man, father of 2.” and they almost always consistently leave out the portion of the bio where he’s also a drug dealer, has 5 priors for assault with a deadly weapon etc. No. They humanize first, in the off-chance that we might immediately identify with them otherwise there would be no news and it wouldn’t even be worth their time reporting it. What would your immediate response be if the news was: ’22 year old active member of the (insert gang name here), well-known heroin distributor, found murdered today. So and so had priors for assault, intent to distribute, Burglary, Armed Robbery. He also had three children on whom he owed 3 years of back child support.” Would you even care?

But what if you wrote it like you did care? What if it was your job to care? What if it was your protagonists job to care? Could you write that story? Would you write it? If so why not? (It seems oddly appropriate that the Rolling Stones Sympathy for the Devil just came on my iTunes) Is this the sort of story you would even want to read? If not why not?

As I’ve addressed other places in this blog i feel like we mystery writers get a wee bit too taken with the way things are. We seek out the standard plot lines and work within the standard of first world problems. And yet we have a booming fantasy/sci- fi genre these days who seek to create new worlds and new ways to portray those worlds. One of the ways they do this is by soaking themselves in the seedier, less ‘swords and sorcery’ side of fantasy. They re-imagine. I think there is a new world out there that is really no less fantastic than any of those: flop houses, alleys, homeless squats, prostitution rings. Get dirty people. Write scenes that make you want to throw up. Don’t they always say you need to get out of your comfort zone? Be willing to take your mystery out of the upscale clubs or town homes. Imagine the last place in the world you want your own body to be found. Write that and do it like it’s your job to give a shit, knowing the whole time that you’re the only one who does.

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