Monday, July 22, 2013

What Makes Us Laugh: Crime, it Binds us Together

Public vs Private Eye.
Now we arrive at possibly my favorite genre to read or watch. I always love a good mystery, thriller, or detective story. And arguably they're the collective genre that is about as ironic as a comedy can get without completely crossing over into the territory of irony or becoming so consumed in its own pathos to become tragedy. Writers who understand these borders do well in this genre and go on to become well known in the genre--Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc. When the boundaries are pushed to the breaking point that's typically when people begin rolling their eyes at the story. However while I thoroughly enjoy this genre it should be noted that it wouldn't be capable of existing if the society we lived in weren't as all sad as it is. The fact that it's popular marks an inherent distrust amongst the population for one another and a growing lack of community and common purpose. When you stop to think about it, it's extremely depressing the world of this genre, and rather bleak.

What else do you call "diversity"?
What do you need to know to understand this genre? Quite simply that this genre exists in a highly individualized society that has a low level of social cohesion. There's very little that ties people together left in this genre. That's why so many people "could have committed the crime" because "everyone has a motive" and "no one can be trusted"--even the gentlest of souls could become murderers or thieves if "pushed to the edge of reason" in this genre. This inherent distrust of others stems from the fact that our world is made up of a lot of quirky individuals who don't share the same values. The only shared communal value that people have anymore is that murder is wrong, stealing is bad, and vast corruption conspiracies are extremely evil and that's about it. Those are the only communal value shared by the people, and everything else is tolerated or made allowances for. A detest for crime is the only thing that holds this genre's society together. Beyond that our cast of characters come from many varied walks of life, come from many different types of "clans", and have many varied individual beliefs. Often they'd never actually come together to help one another, until someone gets murdered, something gets stolen, or a vast conspiracy is exposed.

Just a beat cop? Yeah right...
There is one figure who is able to get this otherwise highly individualized society to "get along" and "work together", and that is the "detective". The detective can be a professional police officer or simply an amateur who's brilliant at knowing simple human nature. The detective is a highly detailed character who's good at noticing the small things most people simply overlook. And as a character type they often don disguises and engage in tricks which usually work to make the "villain" underestimate the detective or to unconsciously expose themselves. This is how you know what character type they evolved from, they're the modern version of the "clever slave" or "tricky servant" who's become in this incarnation a "servant to the state" or to the "community at large". They know the vast complexity of their society like the back of their hand and know all the little tricks to getting people to "work together". These are the last figures standing between you and total anarchy.

You know who they are just by looking at them...
Other characters are all marvelous individuals and should be unique while at the same time playing up to a lot of stereotypes commonly known to the public: bored young Socialists mooching off their parents and waiting for the day we wake up from our "bourgeoisie existence" so the "real revolution" can begin, wealthy snobs with nothing better to do than spend money without any concern, a couple of mafia guys who do petty stuff but don't condone murder, an astrology obsessed mystic and author who's overly obsessed with sex in her writings, an overly perfect nun who quietly obeys the laws of god, a wealthy American business man who's a little too slick, a good ol' country boy with a taste for the finer things in life, or a coke dealer with a MA in Chemistry who likes to listen to classical music while snorting, etc. There is nothing typical about this wide cast of characters except that they should be very individualized and extremely unlikely to work together. And they're all hilarious when they interact with one another.

What is up with this guy's hair?

The villain is simply the worst person of the bunch of individuals--the one who went so far as to think that they were such a special person that they could get away with the crime. Typically they're a sociopath who can't be reconciled to society and thought for no other concern than their own. And as such the community comes together in a kind of scape goat ritual more common to tragedy to get rid of the "worst of the lot". The most ironic stories of this genre of course go out of their way to point out the society casting them out is just about as bad as the person they're casting out. The only thing that keeps it from falling into the category of tragedy is that a tragedy is about the person who falls and how brilliantly right they were and is told from the perspective of the individual. In this ironic comedy perspective on the scape goat ritual that person is being banished from the society just because of how "wrong" they are and the story is told from the perspective of the society banishing the wayward individual.

It begs the question, which comes first, the body or the outline?
Your typical plot a child could explain, but usually it follows the crime is committed, the detective begins examining all the possible ways the crime could've been performed and interviewing all the possible suspects. While doing so gets too "close" to solving the crime, prompting the criminal to have to act in a hasty manner a second time to try and cover up their tracks--by doing so the criminal exposes themselves to the detective who then goes about playing dummy until the criminal thinks they've gotten away with it, at which point the criminal is exposed by the detective and supported by society to "lock them away for good". All the while the reader is kept in the dark about the true nature of things until the end, so that they--like the villain--can be surprised at getting caught. Simple, easy, and very formulaic, but also highly satisfying.

The only cover that
doesn't give away
the ending.
The history of this genre is much more recent than most of the others I've covered on this blog, and as such it is a very young genre--still in its infancy or childhood. The detective story couldn't possibly exist until the police were founded as an organization--which didn't happen until the Industrial age really it us and required such an organization to be formed. And such an organization's devotion to logic, evidence, and science denotes that it could only have formed after the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. And it should be noted that even after industrialization starts it isn't until nearly a century after it's begun that the first detective story pops up. It begins arguably with Edgar Allen Poe. He arguably wrote the first detective story with his story: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). From there it became popularized with the Sherlock Holmes stories, then came the British Gentlemanly Detectives, followed by the Private Eyes of the Film Noir world, and the police detectives you see on television today.  For the large part all that's changed about the stories is the time period it's set in. The rules of the genre adapt to whatever time period it's set in.

In Poe's book the story is about how a retired police detective wants to prove that he's "still got it" and while about him solving a crime, the larger focus of the story is about how age isn't a limiting factor. That's another part of the irony of the genre, in it the elderly and the people with the most experience are usually the best detectives. There's something about age that provides experience, which a lot of these elderly or older detectives provide. On the top of my head I can think of very few popular "young" detectives--they're usually the exception in this genre--and more often they're found in the juvenile version of this genre aimed at kids (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Boxcar Children, etc.) or are attempts at being ironic. More often
Dowdy exterior,
Mind like a steel trap.
it's an older gruff male character who has a young protege they're training to be just like them. And eventually the young protege after they have enough experience under their belt either takes over or breaks off and begins solving crimes on their own. Somehow, someway the detective is associated with age and experience, even if they don't have any themselves. Often times these old detectives will use their age as a kind of "mask". The elderly Miss Marple plays up that she's a dotty old woman just so to fool the people she investigates. It's extremely ironic thus that age and experience play such a pivotal role in this type of comedy as Comedy traditionally is about youth, vigor, and vitality replacing age, ineptitude, and the decrepit. Essentially a story about how "life conquers death". That the "old folks" can still prove they've "got it" and aren't ready for the grave just yet, is a complete ironic turn in comedy, and yet it works somehow for some strange reason.

That's Ironic Comedy, aka Mysteries, Detective Stories, Crime Novels, Murder Mystery plays, Forensics-based TV Shows, and Thrillers in a nutshell. It's a modern genre for a modern world, reflecting and valuing experience, age, over the naivety of youth. A world full of a lot of various clashing cultures and individuals, that all share exactly one common value: crime is bad, but who otherwise don't get along very well. And if that doesn't describe "today" then I don't know what does.