“Reader as ‘Murderer?’ Not Really.” (by Claire Ortalda)

A former journalist, editor, and teacher, Claire Ortalda has won various prizes and awards for her fiction, including the Georgia State University Fiction Prize. Her short story “Oglethorpe’s Camera” was included in the 2019 MWA anthology Odd Partners, edited by Anne Perry. The Psychopath Companion, her first novel, was short-listed for the Del Sol First Novel Prize. The California author has also written children’s fiction. With her writing experience (short fiction and long, adult and juvenile) covering so much of our genre, she’s the perfect writer to talk about some of the thorny issues surrounding violence in entertainment fiction. Don’t miss her first story for EQMM, “The Recipe Box,” either; it’s in our current issue, July/August 2020.—Janet Hutchings

We have all, recently, been witness to violent murder in the death of George Floyd. What implications does that tragic event have on our thoughts about one form of entertainment—the murder mystery?  What does it mean for readers and writers to repeatedly, enthusiastically, be “involved” in, to “witness” the violent taking of life?

I first began thinking along these lines months ago, when, for a novel-in-progress, I began research on support groups for families of victims of violence.  The websites for these groups are sobering and sad.  It was astonishing to me to see how many murders are unsolved. It was heart-rending to see the yearbook-style photos of the victims and to read the thumbnail sketches of the circumstances of their death.

Then I happened upon Murder Is Not Entertainment (MINE)SM , a program established in November 1993 by the National Organization of Parents Of Murdered Children, Inc. The tenets of this worthwhile group brought me up short because, indeed, as a mystery writer, I myself was writing about violent crime as entertainment, and as a mystery reader, consuming that kind of entertainment.

Certainly there has been a veritable explosion in the past few decades of reality-based crime shows.  A component in some of these is the participation of the victim’s families, who are, undoubtedly, so desperate for assistance in the apprehension of the murderer of their loved one, that they consent to this invasion of privacy, allowing, as well, a window into their grief.

I have watched many of these programs, putting myself into the detective’s shoes, as intrigued by the very puzzle-like nature of the investigation as I am by a well-crafted fictional mystery.  But is this exploitation?  Do we revel in the violence?  Why isn’t, for instance, a show or story about a clever fraud as fascinating as a murder?

Well, I think it can be, for those of us who like the puzzle aspect of mysteries, who have an unflagging interest in the psychology of the characters involved, who marvel at the confluence of decisions and events that bring people together in situations that become crimes.

Let’s take a typical Agatha Christie-type novel as an example, one with an aging or ailing patriarch or matriarch with sole control of the family money surrounded by potential heirs, all with varying reasons for needing their inheritance now.  Typically, the sequence goes thusly:  a murder is committed, then the sleuth interviews each of the suspects in turn. In these interviews, besides establishment of a real or fabricated alibi, the following may occur:

1) the character of the interviewee is illuminated to both reader and sleuth via the suspect’s appearance, mannerisms, and reactions to certain questions (nervousness, anger, dismissiveness, arrogance, prejudices);

2) the reader is “listening” and evaluating this suspect in light of what previous characters have said about this person (a complex assessment because the previous characters may have lied or been prejudiced against this person);

3) the interviewee may react guiltily or nervously as a result of the interview (immediately be seen calling somebody or leaving the house hurriedly, speaking sharply to someone, not allowing someone to speak, etc.) This usually occurs when the person thinks the sleuth is out of sight or earshot; and/or

4) both reader and sleuth may come to understand that the suspect is hiding another secret, unconnected to the murder, or is protecting someone else.

These are complex psychological analyses, often occurring in just a few pages.  No wonder mysteries are so endlessly compelling to the student of human nature, as so many mystery readers tend to be. Here, in fictional form, by the end of the book, the motivations and passions of the main characters are laid bare, something that very often does not occur in real life.  We are each a mystery to one another which is why this kind of probing and unmasking is so intriguing and, I would argue, the real impetus behind our fascination with murder mysteries. It’s not the blood that enthralls, it’s the mind behind the crime.  It’s the motivations and compulsions of diverse personalities.

I know. You are saying that these are examples of murder mysteries and yet I was arguing that any kind of crime compels interest.  One answer could be that murder, being the most extreme of crimes, serves almost as a metaphor for all crime.  Another answer is Aristotelian: tragedy is cathartic, purging the heart through pity and fear.

And now that we’re referencing the ancient Greeks, if we remember their original definition of comedy and tragedy, technically an Agatha Christie novel, for example, is . . . a comedy.

It’s a comedy by definition because it has a happy ending.   And it qualifies as having a happy ending because the good guy wins.  So despite the body count, truth (knowledge of who the killer is) and justice prevail at the end.  Just listen to the sprightly, upbeat music on the BBC version (Joan Hickson starring) of the Miss Marple books. It’s a cue to the viewer that all will turn out well.

Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and others of their ilk are all examples of what mystery writer David Corbett, in his book The Compass of Character terms “traveling angels,”  which he defines as “A descendent of the knight errant [who] . . . roams from place to place . . . solving problems with a unique skill set, then moving on.”  And it’s another reason why mysteries in which justice is done, no matter how serious the book’s content, are comedies in the Greek sense.  This almost supernatural being, with few personal ties, enters the arena of tragedy, shrewdly untangles the web of deception, and brings that malefactor who would rend the fabric of society (the murderer) to justice, thus mending that society.  The “angel” then rides off into the sunset a là Shane.

In perhaps more realistic mysteries, especially the hardboiled novels of the 1920s and 1930s (more recently exemplified by the movie Chinatown), the traveling angel, the detective for hire, does not win against the forces of wealth and corruption.  But in Golden Age mysteries and most published today, justice is served, society is made whole, and that, I think, mitigates the fact that such a tragic act is consumed as . . . entertainment.

Finally, I don’t think we really have trouble discerning the fictional from the real. George Floyd was real.  And his death rallied the world against real-life problems in an effort to accomplish the same things most fictional mysteries do: make society whole.  And make it just.

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2 Responses to “Reader as ‘Murderer?’ Not Really.” (by Claire Ortalda)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    An excellent, insightful, thought-provoking piece! Welcome to EQMM, Claire!

    • Claire Ortalda says:

      Thank you, Josh. It means so much to me to be part of the EQ community and this wonderful blog which has all kinds of thought-provoking essays, and I choose that word deliberately. Your comments made my day, Josh!

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