Posted March 8, 2012
No matter how you cast it – intellectualized, implied, luridly depicted – murder isn’t nice. CSI upped the ante on graphic visuals of murder victims, spawning a host of procedurals which routinely include shots of dangling intestines and partially digested eyeballs, but even without the gore, murder mysteries are fundamentally unpleasant. Not that I don’t enjoy them, you understand. It’s just interesting to me that despite the equitable finality of violent death, the classic murder mystery somehow maintains its image as genteel and respectable while other related genres are often considered trashy.
My mother and grandma were big mystery buffs and also fans of PBS, so I watched a lot of episodes of Mystery! growing up. I have fond memories of Vincent Price sitting in his chair by the fire and the sketchy black and white Edward Gorey intro with lethal falling gargoyles and a flapperish woman sighing melodramatically on a ledge. The series were adaptations of British mystery novels – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, PD James – and although I found them entertaining, some of the murders and motivations were actually quite macabre.
In classic murder mysteries, the violence is intellectualized in a way that fosters emotional distance and allows the genre to be perceived as more respectable than other incarnations which sensationalize violence to a greater degree. In the Mystery! series, the nastiness is hidden under the proper British surface, whereas in a series like Bones, based on the novels by Kathy Reichs, the ick factor of the forensic details is part of the draw. I think the difference can be summed up by saying that my family often used to spend a pleasant evening watching Mystery! over dinner, whereas whenever my wife and I try to eat a meal during Bones, we end up deciding we’re never going to do that again.
Take, for instance, Miss Marple. In the opening credits to the PBS series, the camera pans over a watercolor sketch of the quaint English village of St. Mary Mead, accompanied by a pastoral score. It seems so picturesque one might easily overlook the corpse in the shrubbery or the woman giving you the evil eye from her veranda. But it’s precisely that juxtaposition of the civilized veneer of society and the unpleasantness of murder that highlights how social niceties serve to conceal human brutality.
Sometimes you see an actor play a character on screen and their interpretation just becomes how you envision the character in your mind. That was the case for me with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. There was something very satisfying about how she used her quintessential old ladyishness to lull everyone into a false sense of security while she honed in on all their secrets with precise analytic intensity. She reminds me of my childhood cat, who used to hide under the bed and unexpectedly whip out her claws and scratch the feet of anyone foolish enough to walk too close to her.
Arguably one of the main intellectual focuses of murder mysteries is human psychology. Miss Marple works out what has happened and figures out who the murderer is because everything reminds her of someone or something she’s seen in St. Mary Mead, where apparently every human vice is to be found. I suppose that’s the point, though, that people keep doing terrible things to each other despite all attempts to pretend otherwise. It makes me think of the chorus of “the greater good” that motivated the creepy coven of villagers in Hot Fuzz.
Miss Marple is consistently underestimated and written off by other characters because she’s an old lady with a penchant for making intuitive leaps presented in the form of apparently unrelated stories about the town florist or her favorite niece. What she’s actually doing is using analogical reasoning. In Murder at the Vicarage, she talks about classing people “as though they were birds or flowers…genus this, species that,” using the micro level of behavior to understand and predict larger events. While those around her wallow in foolish stereotypes about dotty old ladies or “feminine intuition,” she’s busy reading them like a book.
One of the things I find most appealing about Miss Marple, though, is that she listens to those little voices a lot of us ignore because we can’t rationally support not trusting someone because they remind us in some random way of someone else it turned out we shouldn’t trust. We want our guts to be right. We don’t want to be crazy for feeling the way we do. We want it all to make sense.
In the end, good murder mysteries do that for us. Something unpleasant happens, and whether we prefer to dwell on the decomposing corpse or not, we still want all the loose ends wrapped up in a way that makes sense and is believable. And how do we know something makes sense? Because it feels right.
“…a guess is either right or wrong. If it is right you call it an intuition. If it is wrong you usually do not speak of it again.”
– Hercule Poirot in The A.B.C. Murders
alex macfadyen wants it all to make sense, but in the meantime he’s pondering other uses for his own loose ends. ideas?