Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Murder Mystery

with 4 comments

Well, it’s the new year, and I’m feeling a lot cheerier, so I’m half obsessed with murder and mayhem, or something.  Not really.  Yesterday, for some reason, I spent a lot of time thinking about Lizzie Borden.  The Borden case continues to fascinate a good solid swath of the American public, and for all I know of other publics as well, and I think it may have something to do with the fact that there isn’t any sex in it. 

But what really started me thinking about Lizzie Borden was that I remebered a ook, written in the eighties, I think, or possibly a little earlier, written by a woman who had been a young girl in one of the “better” families in Fall River, Massachusetts, at the time of the crime.  The  Bordens were a member of those same “better” families, and the book was fasinating because the woman who wrote it was quite clear that, in her recollection, the entire social establishment of  Fall River knew that Lizzie was guilty and did everything they could to obscure the fact so she wouldn’t be convicted.  Then with the acquittal safely in hand, they stopped talking to her.  Lizzie’s own sister stopped talking to her a few years later, propelled out of the house they shared because of mortal fear for her life.   At least, that was the rumor.

Here’s the thing.  I understand why people would want to read a book like that.  I understand why people are fascinated by Lizzie Borden.  What I don’t understand is why people read murder mysteries.

Or “crime novels,” if you prefer.  I personally think the term “crime novel”  was invented in order to get myseries out of the mystery section of the bookstore, and the reviewing pages, and into the consciousness of the general public.  But it seems to me that “crime novels” are so much in the consciousness of the general public that it sometimes looks as if there’s nothing else on offer.

And not just in books, either.  There’s television.  I mean, how many versions of Law and  Order and CSI

Back in the first “golden age” of detective novels–there’s an alternative term for you–there was a fairly easy division between British (Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, amateur detectives, country houses) and American (hard boiled private eyes walking down mean streets and meeting women who slept around and murdered people). 

Okay, that’s not fair, and there were of course other kinds of detective novels even then.  The police procedural has been around from the beginning.  The television shows mentioned above, the ones that clone themselves every forty-five minutes, are police procedurals.   And there have always been true crime or nearly true crime stories–about Jack the Ripper, about Dr. Crippen–although those tended to be written more like horror novels than like detective stories. 

But what interests me, at the moment, is the mountain of material on offer in books and on television–in movies, not so much–that is one kind of detective story or another, so that almost anything anybody can do has already been done forty times last week.

That wouldn’t necessarily matter, because there really aren’t a whole lot of different plots out there to choose from.  Shakespeare never invented a new plot in his life, and yet he was able to make everything old new, just by being Shakespeare.

Most people are not Shakespeare, or  Stephen King, but what we have now is not just the same plot over and over again, but the same sensibility.   This is what I think of as the “I’m a cop, and I know that all human beings are really scum” sensibility.   You can substitute something else–private detective, social worker–for “cop” and have it work quite well, and some people do.  So we have a ot of different kinds of cops and private detectives.   We’ve got pathologists, park rangers, insurance investigators, forensic psychologists–you name it.

What’s more, all these people live in a world where crime is not only pervasive, but committed willy-nily by all sorts of people from all walks of life.  It doesn’t matter who you are.   If you’re Mother  Teresa and you show up in one of these novels, or on one o these television shows, you’ll be a phony, a liar, and a fraud, and that’s if they’ve decided to like you.

A lot of people describe this sort of thing as “realistic,” but it isn’t, really.  Virtually none of us live in a world like this, and I’d guess that most of us are honest enough not even to be able to pretend that we do.  Out where I live, we don’t lock our doors most of the time.   I lived in New York for years and knew only one person who was ever mugged, robbed, or touched by crime in any way, and she was walking home alone up Broadway at three o’clock in the morning on her own.  He took her wallet and otherwise left her alone.

For all the reputation Americans have gotten about being violent and crime ridden, a number of writers who have come here from England and Western Europe over the last decade have remarked on just how very little of it there is, not only from what they’d expected but from what they were used to at home.

Of course there are terribly crime ridden neighborhoods in some places, but most Americans don’t live in them, and the neighborhoods and towns we do live in are largely stable and secure.  And there are drugs, because whereever there are teen-agers there are drugs.  There are not, however, gangs.  What there are are various kinds of people at various levels in the middle class, some of them good, some of them bad, most of them indifferent. 

If we go back to the first few days of this blog–that novels create a moral universe and ask us to live in it–my question is why anybody wants to live in this one.  There is,  I suppose, a whiff of the old hard boiled private eye magic going on–everybody is scum but me, I’m the lone pillar upholding the good and the right and the true–but even that doesn’t remain constant. 

I get a little nervous,  I think, at so many people who want to believe their world is worse than it is, and that their fellow citizens are worse than they are.   But I also get nervous at the one alternative that seems to be available in any quantity:  the sugar coated world of the modern “cozy,” a world that exists nowhere and never did, a situation comedy world with a crime in the middle of it.

As if a crime wouldn’t matter to people more than the winner of the bake-off does.

Cozies are like police procedurals, and serial killer novels, and hard boiled private eye novels–there are good ones and bad ones.  Charlotte MacLeod wrote some very good ones before her death.  I picked up The Family Vault in paperback my last year in graduate school, the first mystery I’d read in a decade and a half, and it’s probably responsible for the fact that I went on to write them.

But the essence of the cozy is the cute, and the funny, and a vision of human personalities and human relationships shaped by punch lines and lack of real conflict.   I sometimes think that “lack of conflict” is the entire reason behind the cozy as a subgenre.  These are books for people who do not want to think, do not want to feel, and do not want to be distrubed by anything like anger or hatred or greed.

There’s a kind of person who shows up on Usenet news groups and e-mail discussion groups who is allergic to anything that smacks of disagreement–no, no, we can’t have people angry with anybody!  and I want to say my piece and you have no right to criticize it!  I have an essay on the main site, called “Janes Rules of the Road,” that is an enormous fulmination on this sort of person.

I’ve become increasingly convinced, however, that these are the main audience for cozies.  A debate without disagreement is a contradiction in terms.  So is a murder without somebody being deeply and abidingly angry at somebody else.  They are like that “fan” who wrote in a while back–they want to be “entertained” and not reminded that the world is full of uncomfortable things. 

In both cases, I suppose, we’re looking at people who want fantasy and not life.  One kind, and by far the larger, wants a fantasy of ultimate mutual degredation.  The other kind wants a fantasy of ultimate irresponsibility.

What baffles me is that there are so many of them, and they say the same things over and over and over again, and nobody seems to get bored.

In the real world, most people are decent enough and law abiding enough and well meaning enough, and when they get seriously out of line they present an anomaly that has to be dealt with on many different levels.   There are writers–P.D. James, again–who try to do this, but there are very few of them, and I’ve got no evidence to suggest that readers are looking for them.

So I want to know–why does anybody read “crime novels,” “detective stories,” “murder mysteries,” call them what you want?   What do the readers get out of reading what they readd?  what are they looking for when they read?  And why read the  same thing, over and over and over and over and over again?

Maybe I’m still in the slough of despond, and just don’t know it.

I will, however, nominate for greatest “crime novel” of all time, P.D. James’s A Taste for Death.

I’ve got a copy of it around the office someplace.

Written by janeh

January 2nd, 2009 at 8:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Murder Mystery'

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  1. Why? For escape, of course. There is just so much of life that I can handle at one time without escaping into fantasy. I just happen to like mystery fantasy in the same way, I suppose, that I like watermelon and my brother likes cantaloupe (he plays pinball to escape). Of course it’s not real.

    My fascination with Lizzie Bordon is that (a) she either got away with it, or (b) someone else did it (her sister?) and got away with it. If I committed a murder there wouldn’t be a chance of a snowball in hell that I’d get away with it.

    So, that lead to character. What was it in Lizzie’s character that enabled her to murder her family and then get away with it? I suppose it’s the same reason I’m so drawn to your novels . . . they’re character driven.


    2 Jan 09 at 8:50 am

  2. So why do you write murder stories, Jane? (yes, I followed you here from RAM, I missed you) Other than that “making a living” thing. Clearly you write for different reasons than we read, but I find it odd you can write so effectively without having a closer connection to your target market.

    If writing popular books were only marketing, (yes, sometimes it is) anyone with a PR background could write bestsellers. Writers who write compellingly write out of their own needs, but must understand, at least instinctively, what the readers want to experience.

    Sometimes I read for escape. Sometimes for a view into another reality. You know, those people you see in courtrooms and you wonder “how the hell did their lives get so screwed up?” It’s a way to see that side of life without actually catching the body lice.

    Sometimes I read because I like the characters and want to spend some time with them, like old friends. For what it’s worth, I do read some cozies…Donna Andrews is a particular favorite, as her characters are wacky enough to be interesting, and real enough to be believable. But I also read & enjoy (for some values of “enjoy”) really grim stuff like Karin Slaughter.

    The elements I enjoy in mysteries or detective fiction have mostly to do with character, dialog, setting, suspense, and resolution. Bad guys should get theirs, satisfyingly. That’s an element sadly missing in most of real life.

    As to Lizzie B, my take is that the family was sadly dysfunctional, in ways that would have Family Services involved today. Lizzie might have been sociopathic, but on the other hand, never murdered anyone else. Her problem, whatever it was, was solved when her parents died. Modern forensics would have come up with a different answer, I think. People are fascinated because it was *true* and they’ll always stop to gawk at the bloody accident at the side of the road, or the coroner’s wagon outside the neighbor’s house.


    2 Jan 09 at 2:30 pm

  3. The main reason? I like puzzles. I like seeing if I can figure out where the author is going this time (as long as that doesn’t demand actual work, like trying to work out if the suspect could have caught the 7:56 train from Reading in time to make the connection in London on which his alibi depends).

    I like other things, too. I like interesting characters, or at least moderately sympathetic ones, especially for the protagonists. I like exotic settings sometimes. I suppose in a sense I like justice being done, although I really dislike the type of book which ends with the villain being given a gun and told to do the ‘right thing’, and I’m not too fond of vigilantes, either. To my mind, mystery novels should either end discreetly with the arrest (I almost wrote ‘reveal’), or with the villain being arrested.

    I can easily ignore the fact that no one, nowhere lives with such a high murder rate as, for example, Cabot Cove has.

    I’ve read some books about serial killers and also about the alcoholic misfit loner cop or PI who roams a city filled with evil and corruption and who only does what violence is really necessary (it just happens to be necessary a lot of the time). I don’t like them much.

    I do read for fantasy and escape. It’s soothing, sometimes, to forget about my actual worries and lose myself in some that are either not real at all, or long since over (in the case of some of the history I’ve been reading lately).

    As an aside – just before Christmas, I quickly grabbed a bunch of old paperbacks at the library just in case I ran short during the holidays. They were mostly older British things – an early Dalziel & Pascoe, a Rumpole – and an Agatha Christie. It wasn’t a mystery, it was one of her Westmacotts, and to my surprise I was unfamiliar with it, so I added it to the pile. It was ‘Absent in the Spring’, and is the story of a middle-aged woman who ends up alone in the middle of the desert due to problems with travel arrangements. She’s never been one for introspection, but finds herself reflecting on her life. It’s an astonishing character study. I tend to think of Christie as a writer of nice twisty plots.

    So that wasn’t the same thing over and over again, even though I’ve read just about everything Christie wrote. I do sometimes like predictable books – sometimes so much I re-read. It’s got to be done nicely, though. Dick Francis is good at that. Just about all his heros are tough silent men, often underestimated by those around them. Even the ones who are famous top jockeys don’t think of themselves as heroes. But they all have a kind of tough honesty, and they always come out on top. Very predictable, and sometimes I want something I’m sure to enjoy rather than take a chance on something different.

    I think the fascination with Lizzie Borden is a result of the violence of the crime combined with the fact that most people are convinced that it was carried out by a woman – a nice respectable young woman. And, of course, no one was convicted. I read a lot about that murder at one time. I’m convinced Lizzie did it, and only the inability of the jury to believe that such a nice young woman could do something so brutal. The sister was some distance away, and the investigation wasn’t up to today’s standards – that dress Lizzie burned would certainly have deserved close examination!


    2 Jan 09 at 6:03 pm

  4. I tend to regard “crime novel” as a weasel word–conflating the detective novel, which I thoroughly enjoy, with a wider category I visit far less often. At a minimum a detective novel must pay heed to the Detection Club Oath–laying the facts squarely in front of the reader. Thus, a competently done detective novel is at least an enjoyable puzzle. Sometimes–my favorite in this regard is GAUDY NIGHT–the detective novel can ask a deeper question.

    When I read works on historical crimes, it’s also for the intellectual puzzle. I go through new analyses of Jack the Ripper–or the Borden case–the way I go through material on the character of Richard III and what really happened at the Little Big Horn–for a smattering of new facts, and interesting interpretations of old ones.

    But I do read about one proper “crime novel” a year plus rereads. JD Robb writes bad SF and an indifferent police procedural, but I have them all, and Chandler explained why: “…the best man in his world, and a good enough man for any world.” That, allowing for gender differences, is Lt Eve Dallas, NYPSD. Don’t get in her way.

    But as for why someone would seek out a “moral universe” where everyone was, potentially, a thief and murderer or worse–I suspect it’s done for comfort. If “everyone does it” and “cheating is getting caught” then no one can expect more of me, and I certainly can’t ask more of myself. I’ve met people who think along exactly those lines, and who will explain that there is no such thing as good and evil. These are only categories invented to keep the suckers in line. I try not to have dealings with such people.

    But choosing books for the moral universe they create may explain any disproportion of military SF on my shelves. These are stories, when you think of them that way, in which the private faults of the individuals are subsumed in the good of the larger organization to which they have dedicated their lives–“all members of one body.” Whether that body is the Galactic Patrol, Star Fleet or the Betan Survey Service, it is a purpose larger than themselves.

    In the book version of Jerry Pournelle’s THE MERCENARY, Admiral Lermontov explains that if one takes away “the bands, the dress uniforms, the flags and the ceremonies, you take away what reminds them that they are soldiers, and all that will be left is men with guns.” Those men with guns–but without discipline or morality–inhabit the worlds of far too many “crime” novels.


    2 Jan 09 at 7:17 pm

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