Murder, She Blogged: Why Detectives?

I’ve come to the half-way point of the Murder, She Blogged series, and half way through my time guest blogging here at Bitch, so I just wanted to take a brief pause to address the question: Why detectives?

On the surface, the answer is easy: A police procedural like CSI or an old-school Sherlock Holmes movie is as interesting as any other kind of pop culture, and can tell us just as much from a feminist perspective.

Feminists do the same dance with a satisfying detective film as with any other genre: looking for the good, searching out interesting characters that reflect our identities back at us in a way that the majority of shows do not, or subvert the status quo in a small way.

And we can talk about the flaws of these shows, books, and games, and what they can tell us about the media messaging we’re getting and where our cultures are at right now. But I hope that in itself shouldn’t need justifying here at Bitch, of all places!

Personally I think the detective genre is interesting for another reason too; because how do we, the audience, with our wide-ranging experiences of violence and interacting with the real criminal justice system, relate to stories about crime and violence, in a genre where the police are often (if not always) the heroes? 

Cartoon image showing a grid of doors, for example to a school, library, lousing, drug treatment centre, arts and culture - all are locked except one, the door to a prison cell Some critics have argued that the underlying structure of the detective genre tends to be conservative; there’s a crime, a puzzle is solved, a criminal is “brought to justice” and the status quo resumes. 

From a social justice point of view, we obviously want to know, what sort of status quo is that? And that question may get a particularly interesting answer if you’re critical of the prison system.

Back in 1944, the New Yorker ran a particularly grumbly opinion piece by the critic Edmund Wilson about why people read detective stories, which ends:

The world during those years was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility. Who had committed the original crime and who was going to commit the next one?—that murder which always, in the novels, occurs at an unexpected moment, when the investigation is well under way, which may happen, as in one of the Nero Wolfe stories, right in the great detective’s office. Everybody is suspected in turn, and the streets are full of lurking agents whose allegiances we cannot know. Nobody seems guiltless, nobody seems safe; and then, suddenly, the murderer is spotted, and—relief!—he is not, after all, a person like you or me. He is a villain—known to the trade as George Gruesome—and he has been caught by an infallible Power, the supercilious and omniscient detective, who knows exactly how to fix the guilt.

Obviously the detective genre is these days a bit more complicated than that; it’s hard to see how Wilson’s argument could stand up to watching The Wire. Actually, maybe detective stories never were so simple… Wilson does start off his essay with a long explanation about how he never normally reads detective fiction, so probably his views need digesting with your Daily Recommended Allowance of salt.  

In practice, in the detective genre, often the status quo cannot be resumed. For example, on an individual level in The Killing, where the amount of time spent on the victim’s families shows that solving the mystery of who committed the murder can never bring her back, or undo the damage caused.

Or on a systematic level, like in The Wire, which might challenge (some of) the audience’s ideas about how the system works and what is accomplished by the institutions like the police and the courts, and the government, that are meant to deliver justice and freedom from violence.

We’ll continue to dig into some of these questions as the series continues!

Previously: The First Female Detectives?, Class and Fashion in Miss Marple

by Jess Mccabe
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2 Comments Have Been Posted

We need an omniscient hero...

So, I'm not sure this has been broached as yet, but there is the longstanding theory that detectives, particularly of the Sherlock Holmes/House/Poirot variety are a reactionary ideal of an all-knowing dude who will figure things out in the end, like super heroes who use reason rather than muscle-power or xray vision. Now, how Miss Marple fits into this, I'm not sure...

I can't find the article I remember on this subject, but this appears to fit the bill:

I don't know about other

I don't know about other mediums, but in modern mystery novels, many detectives aren't part of the justice system or private investigators. Cozy mysteries are pretty much defined by their protagonist being a 'regular' person.

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