Attila Girl Speaks: The Crime Conundrum

by Joy McCann on October 29, 2012

One of the reasons my fiction concentrates on crime is that suspense stories and mysteries are universally appealing: suspense because we all need to perceive ourselves as the heroes/heroines of our own lives, and mysteries because the thirst for judgement is utterly universal. We all want to see punishment for those who prey on the weak, or commit the Worst Crime of All—murder. In a murder mystery, that crime is a symbolic stand-in for a host of human evils: its power over our imaginations is profound because it is the one crime that cannot ever be redeemed. It is an injustice that will not be rectified, because there is no replacement, no way to make up for a human life.

That is why in many mysteries the person who is killed is unpleasant or evil: ordinarily, this doesn’t matter. And it helps the writer, who is, after all, trying to create a puzzle as much as a morality tale. If the person who was unjustly killed had “a lot of enemies,” it makes the puzzle that much more compelling . . . right until Agatha Christie comes along on the Orient Express to turn that formulation on its head.

At the end, there is either a chase scene or a meeting of all the possible suspects in a library wherein the killer is unveiled. Perhaps both. And for a moment, to the true mystery addict, there is order in the world. It may be bittersweet, and it’s certainly temporary. But order it is.

The creation of these stories presents a tremendous temptation: anyone who constructs them is likely to have a strong moral code, and that deep commitment to his or her morality will often lead him or her to injects politics into it sooner or later.

This has led to a sort of culture war in our crime shows, and a tendency to categorize them as “left-leaning”—like Law & Order—or “right-leaning”—like the NCIS shows, or Blue Bloods. Relatively few try to split the difference, as does Criminal Minds (when it isn’t descending into gun-controlling preachiness).

It is important, however, for writers to strive toward that ideal. There need to be some shows that deal with morality, but don’t adhere to ideology.

I’m not against us having some entertainment that makes us feel good—that props up our respective world views. But crime-fighting as idealistic spectacle, as much as sports, has the capacity to bring people together. I cherish the experience of comparing notes about favorite crime series with my liberal mom, or my liberal friends.

A healthy entertainment industry would pair writers up, left and right, and have them produce scripts together to keep the leftist writers’ worst instincts in check. We’re not there yet, with so much of conservative Hollywood still forced into the closet, and so many producers and story editors ready to employ litmus tests and employ only those they agree with on unrelated issues. Not everyone does this, but enough do that it suppresses “dissenting opinions” in an unhealthy way.

Until the networks and major production companies regain their equilibrium, the only way to “police” our entertainment is to find out which shows we still share with liberals, and write letters when the material contained therein is too offensive. Keep the writers in the center, as much as we can, or at least make sure they zigzag to the right as much as to the left. Perhaps there’s no point in doing this with the “write-off” shows we can no longer stand to watch anyway . . . but certainly it can be done when it comes to the ones we’re all—left and right—supposed to enjoy.

Morality belongs in the public square, but it should be a morality that we all agree with.

And there are moral principles we all agree with, like protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

John November 14, 2012 at 11:50 pm

Criminal Minds is an annoying show for two other reasons:

First, half of the dialogue is info-dumping of the script writers’ understanding of criminal psychology, which very often comes across as echoing commonly-held beliefs and an occasional urban myth or two.

Second, it seems that every episode involves some hapless schmuck falling under the power of a psychotic monster, with the strong implications that the same situation could happen to anybody, and that the police and only the police can save us once we fall in the traps of the fiends among us.


ZZMike August 4, 2013 at 11:57 pm

I was thinking of making a memorial to all the innocent victims who’ve been killed in murder mystery novels. I’d probably start with Agatha Christie’s books.

I’ve been avoiding TV for quite some time – though I do notice that a lot of it revolves around murder most foul.

The few that I have seen seem either formulaic or far-fetched, and usually involve tedious side-trips into the characters’ backgrounds and personal difficulties.

We need more guys like Spenser (Robert Parker). He rescues fair damsels from dragons, rights wrongs, and doesn’t go all Hamlet with worrying about doing or not doing.


Joy McCann August 5, 2013 at 12:57 am

So you prefer plot-driven over character-driven: good puzzles with so-so characterizations . . .


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