Murdering Reality

In a recent post on her livejournal, fellow producer Niko Ford was complaining that she was having trouble writing a murder mystery story because she couldn’t think of many situations where the cops wouldn’t just come in and take over and leave our heros with pretty much nothing to do. While modern technology and forensic techniques have definitely improved our safety by keeping us in touch and tracking down the bad guys in a more definitive way, they certainly have been eating into the genre of the murder mystery.

I’m reminded of a story my 99 year old great aunt (who passed away recently) once told me as we drove along the waterfront in the city of Hamilton, Ontario. Born and raised in Hamilton she reminised about her family renting a beach house one summer there on the beachfront, and how it was such a huge event and a fun time in their lives. At first, it seemed strange to me because the place we were was only perhaps 15km from the house she was born and raised, but then it occured to yours truely that this was in an age before cars became common and people pretty much had to walk everywhere. 15km was a big deal for people who had to walk that distance, and that’s one of the reasons it had meant to much to her. My point being that once upon a time people were damn isolated, even in a city. We take things like electric steetlights, cars, telephones and even busses for granted, but for most to of human history and part of the 20th century they were visions of the future.

In such a state of isolation it would be relatively easy to murder someone and for help to be unavailable for even hours depending on how far away the nearest police station was. This left a lot of time for the participants to ponder who did it, and created an idea situation for murder mysteries which countless authors explored. This something that has been stripped away as we’ve all gotten more and more connected, and while it’s mostly for the better, it does leave the writers of murder mysteries in something of a lurch as they try to make their scenarios believable by the audience. As a result, as in most genres, they often have to bend reality a bit to make their stories work.

Let me give you an example- in 11 or so years of stumbling across murders, how many times did Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher not fail to show up the police on her series? She was generally a step ahead of them at every turn, and despite them being hardened detectives who knew the beat like the backs of their hands she would almost always leave them hanging around while she plowed through everything. Why did their IQ’s seem to drop 50 points the moment they got within a mile of her? (I feel sorry for the Sheriff who lived close to her her whole life, no wonder he was a slow thinking idiot…Poor guy. He might have been a genius if he’d only been born in other town!) Of course the reason is that if the writers didn’t do this, then there’d be no story for their hero to solve! Was it realistic? Probably not, but it’s a part of the mystery genre that unless the heros are police, the police who may or may not show up are ineffectual and/or idiots so we accept it with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief.

It’s funny, really. Many people will dismiss a genre they don’t like because it’s “unrealistic”, but the truth is almost every genre has unrealistic elements in it that make it work. Do relationships really happen like they do in romance novels? Can we really go faster than life like in a Sci-Fi book? Is there really magic and unicorns? Did cowboys really act and talk like that? Are there really vampires? We criticize other genres, but almost never look harshly at the ones we love.

So my advice to Niko’s ponderings about the subject was just to lighten up and not worry about it. The cops will just be unavailable or ineffectual, just like nobody ever notices that Clark Kent is Superman with a pair of wireframe glasses on- it’s just part of the story. Get over it and get on with telling a good tale.


2 thoughts on “Murdering Reality

  1. Interesting article. It’s easy to forget how much the world’s changed in such a short time.

    You touch on telephones: I think cell phones, almost above any other invention, have suddenly changed the whole landscape for thriller/murder mystery writers in a radical way.

    All of a sudden, the necessity for a hero/ine to trudge through the rain to the nearest isolated call box is gone and the staple Tv/film close up of a gloved hand cutting telephone wires is rendered completely pointless if those inside can just shrug and produce a cell phone. And a lot of the great comedic misunderstandings of past can be put right with a call to stop someone continuing on to the station before it’s too late, etc.

    Like you say with dumbing down the police characters,though, it’s still possible to get round things with dying batteries, no signal, characters losing the thing or refusing to answer it, etc. but it does mean there’s more to think about. 🙂

    The way things are going with CCTV & DNA databases etc, maybe one day murder itself will become a thing of the past.

  2. To take it a step further. At some point I suspect people will use personal tracking chips (RFID, which we have now) as their ID, their credit cards, and for life in general. One of the odd side benefits of these will be that we’ll be able to look back and see where people were at what time, so we’d literally be able to know if they were in the room with the victim. It would make murdering someone and getting away with it extremely difficult, although not impossible.

    Then writers will literally stop writing modern murder mysteries, and have to go into the past.

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