My old-maid aunt loaned me the first book when I was eight. Of course, I didn’t think of her as my old maid aunt then. She was just my aunt, who was way older than my mom and drove a cool car and lived at home with my grandparents. She had the best records and still played them—vinyl records. But it was the books that made me seek her out. She had every Hardy Boys book ever written. As soon as I proved I could read the first one, then I got to read a new one every time we visited and we visited at least once a week.
I can’t say that I really understood them in second-grade, and I surely didn’t know what a mansion was, but I figured out that it was a big, old house and went from there. By my next birthday, the books were officially mine. All of them, hardcover, many original printings, were given to me because my aunt believes that children should read. That was the first one I actually remember, but my mother said it dates backs further; every holiday or birthday my aunt sent books. Through her I met Flicka and Big Red and Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but the love affair was with the detective novels, started by those Hardy Boys novels.
As a teenager, I moved on to James Patterson. Then, it was “The Maltese Falcon” and Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. For a long time, I was alone in my fascination with a good “Who dun it? ”, but as time progressed, I found that society is obsessed with figuring out the crime, finding the bad guy. My weirdness was that I was reading them instead of watching them on television. And, the modern whodunit is not merely a tale of murder and intrigue; it was a modified look at the forensic clues and figuring it out before the people on the television due.
Take for example, the third week in November, 2007. According to Nielsen Media Research six of the top 20 shows on broadcast television were detective shows, four of them directly related to the use of forensic evidence to solve a crime (Nielsen, 2007). Americans are obsessed with the crime drama, the modern variant of the detective novel that my aunt introduced me to. In short order, I can name a dozen of these shows, all virtually identical to those bright blue books I read as a boy. As I got older, it became clear that America has a fascination with the whodunit novel, or television series, as the case may be.
From the Hardy Boys to “Colombo”, Americans are fascinated with the detective story. Like many kids my age, I grew up thinking it might be fun to be a hard-nosed detective. The books in my life gave way to television and the books in general became television shows or movies and gaining a life the author never foresaw as he wrote the opening scene of death or mayhem. In fact, in 2007 the novel once again became the television series as James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club became Angie Harmon’s new show.
The novel series, which began with “First to Die”, is about a San Francisco homicide detective and one of my recent favorite reads. Harmon, who once starred in one of the Law & Order franchise crime dramas, stars as the lead detective. This movement of book to television and the continuation of the detective novel is remarkable, but not unique to the modern age. Of course, this wasn’t the first of Patterson’s to go main stream. Years ago, other young men and I were impressed with Detective Alex Cross as brought to life by Morgan Freeman in “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came A Spider”.
In his 1970 essay, “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel”, George Grella puts it this way,”The formal detective novel, the so-called ‘pure puzzle’ or ‘whodunit’, is the most firmly established and easily recognized version of the thriller” (30). And, he says, we are fascinated by the genre. It has become an icon onto itself and holds its own against other genres of literature quite well through the years. Dating back to Edgar Allen Poe, the detective novel has been through changes, but it is still basically the same, a comfort to most people.
“And almost since its inception, critics have been denouncing the rise, and announcing the demise, of the whodunit. ” (30). But while they were uniformly criticized by those “in the know”, the detective novel built up a strong following in modern American society, cleverly disguised as the crime drama on television and in the movies. The simple fact of the matter is that it is not supposed to be great fiction, but sometimes, it is. It is supposed to let people feel like they figured something out, outsmarted the author by figuring out the answer before the end of the book.
The author has to give the reader all the information and though they can tease a bit, directly tricking the reader is completely unfair (Grella 31). Misdirection is fine; lying is not. But the reality is that most readers are not equipped with the obscure knowledge that the detective use to solve the crimes and so the love of the mystery might be based more on a fascination not unlike our fascination with magicians. We want to see if we can figure it out and then revel in the fact that the really good ones were able to keep us from figuring it out.
And, Grella points out, it is formulaic. Good or bad, the formal detective novel is predictable. It is one of the curiosities of literature that an endlessly reduplicated form, employing sterile formulas, stock characters, and innumerable cliches of method and construction, should prosper in the two decades between the World Wars and continue to amuse even in present day. More curious still, this unoriginal and predictable kind of entertainment appealed to a wide and varied audience, attracting not only the usual public for popular fiction, but also a number of educated readers…” (32)
The modern television whodunit has followed the same basic formula, but with the twists and turns of modern forensics thrown in for good measure. Instead of an obvious clue like a matchbook or lipstick smeared on a tea cup, the modern story has DNA and fingerprints but the story remains basically the same: Bad guy kills (maims, mutilates, rapes, etc. ) someone and the detectives strive to gather the evidence and figure it out before the reader, or in the case of television, the viewer, figures it out.
Forty-five minutes into the show, whether we are ready and have solved it or not, comes the great reveal, the modern equivalent of the meeting in the study to show how it was done, by whom and why. This is the world that my aunt unwittingly introduced me to and I am not alone. In the modern era this has translated to the crime drama on television. Shows including any of the CSI variants, any of the Law & Order shows, “Cold Case Files”, “Without a Trace” and several others follow this tried and true recipe.
The newest of these, Spike TV’s “Murder” takes the concept to a whole new level—real people, solving recreations of real crimes, all neatly wrapped up in an hour long show. And, “Murder” even follows the rules that Grella identifies for formal detective fiction (31). It shows all the clues that reader/viewer needs to solve the crime and challenges them to do it before the contestants do “With “every pertinent detail” being recreated, the groups will assess the crime scene, collect evidence and even meet with an actual coroner who reviews the findings of the original autopsy.
” (Rocchio 2007) The show combines America’s current love of reality television with the tried and true formula of the detective novel. “For the viewer, Murder fuses the authenticity of a real-life crime scene with the suspense of trying to solve the murder before the contestants on the show,” Bunim-Murray co-founder Jon Murray stated. “We are excited to be working with Spike TV on such a cutting-edge series and hope the audience will take away a sense of how strategic and meticulous crime detectives must be on a daily basis. ” The show even features its own version of the great reveal.
After 45 minutes of show time, the contestants are required to set forth their version of the crime to the real-life detective who hosts the show. Then, helike a good author, points out the flaws in their logic and evidence collection and gives a narrative about what really happened. This movement toward more realism in the detective novel has taken it away from its farcical leanings (Grella 35), but continues to lead it in the tradition of the formal detective novel. Writers must put all the clues together, visually at the very least, in the 53 minutes or so of an hour long television show without making it obvious to everyone whodunit.
The element of besting the writer has again become the goal. Grella had argued that this theory of outsmarting the writer might not be the actual explanation for society’s fascination with detective novels, pointing out that detectives in the novels have access to obscure knowledge the reader would not have making it virtually impossible to figure out the end without an intuitive leap (33). His conclusion was that the puzzle aspect of the novel is not in fact the motivation of viewers/readers to seek out detective novels. However, what he failed to take into consideration was that viewers/readers need an excuse to be wrong.
When the villain is revealed at the end of the show or in the huge scene at the end of the novel, the reader needs an excuse to be wrong. Sure, we want to be right, but if we aren’t, we need it to be because we didn’t know the flight speed of an African swallow or some equally relevant but obscure piece of trivia. Perhaps it is because of a sense of pride in the viewer, but we need an excuse to be wrong. That way, the reader still wins. The guess about the guilty party being wrong doesn’t mean that we were outsmarted by the writer, but rather than the novelist came up with a piece of information that we did not know.
And, with as much of society as is interested in random trivia, finding that obscure piece of information that the average reader will not know becomes more difficult. It is any many ways the gauntlet those readers thrown down before their favorite authors: “Fool me if you can. ” The most modern of the new detective stories fool us with science, proving to us that even what our eyes see can be wrong. Authors like Patricia Cromwell and Kathy Reichs show us that the things we see may not be all there is to be seen (Palmer 2001).
The reality is that the puzzle is still the name of the game and so television shows must now explain the rules of the game as they go, showing the fingerprints of the DNA evidence and finding new ways to throw in the twist. Again, in the words of Sherlock Holmes, the game is afoot, and writers are challenged to find new ways to twist the evidence and manipulate the science to keep our interest. Grella and others have complained that the detective novel is formulaic and bordering on boring, but the reality is that we like them because they are so challenging to the writer.
A poorly written detective novel will bore us all to tears. We will see the buffoon of a police officer and the unsuspecting detective and even the misdirection a mile away. But a well done novel which takes what we know, what we have seen with our own eyes and forces us to see that it might not be the case is a masterful work of art. And, that is what we are looking for. We have leveled the playing field with a formulaic story and are expecting to be blow away by the puzzle. WORKS CITED: Grella, George. “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 4, No.
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