I date my interest in murder mysteries back to the summer before my sixth birthday, just after my family had moved back to the United States from overseas. Between homes, we stayed for a little while with my grandparents in eastern Virginia. My grandpa, a retired Navy captain, was exactly the person you’d have cast to play a white grandfather in a movie: he had a grey beard and wore tweed caps and spent most of his time in his study, which was dimly-lit and filled with old books and leather wingback armchairs. He had been a civil engineer for most of his life, a career he chose out of practicality, but his real passion was writing murder mysteries. This interest was, perhaps, related to the fact that his own father had worked as a homicide detective in the Bronx. My great-grandfather had been a secretive, suspicious kind of man, my grandpa told me. When he left for work in the morning, he would tersely tell his family that he was off to his “business,” and so, for much of his childhood, my grandpa had no idea what his father even did. He first discovered the truth, supposedly, when he was buying sweets at the corner store, and spotted his dad’s picture in the local paper, spread across some gory story. (I can’t independently confirm whether any of this is true—my great-grandfather’s name was James Doyle, which makes him a tad hard to find, since this was the name of approximately 70% of the population of New York in the first half of the twentieth century.) In any case, whatever the reason, my grandpa loved murder mysteries.
Up until this point in my life, I barely had any idea what a murder was, to say nothing of a mystery, but the whole atmosphere of the house suddenly overwhelmed my child-brain with great intensity. I decided at that point that I was going to be a detective, or, failing that, a writer of detective stories. It helped that my grandparents’ house—which had a lot of dark wood panelling, and creaked like an old ship—looked like just the sort of place a murder mystery would take place. It was filled with a hodgepodge of strange souvenirs from my grandparents’ travels: there was a pair of crossed swords hanging on one wall, and a weird Polynesian harpoon thing on another wall. There was a stand of menacing-looking fire-irons on the hearth, and a deep, murky, slow-moving brown creek out behind the back porch. So many different ways to do away with someone!
I remember that my siblings, who were older than me and very kind, indulged my enthusiasm by one day staging a scavenger hunt through the house with clues for me to follow. I also recall that I asked for, and received, a magnifying-glass for my birthday in September, which I imagined I would use to uncover all manner of misdeeds. Around this time I penned my first-ever short story, a mystery that I enigmatically titled “THE MYSTERY OF THE CASE.” This was, alas, the first and probably only mystery-story that I have ever written from start to finish. The magnifying glass, ultimately, mostly came in handy for cataloguing the bugs in my backyard.
As with all things, the glamour eventually began to wear off the old house. It became simply one of several painted backdrops for my preteenaged and adolescent angst—and then evaporated entirely, when I learned that my grandparents, when they bought the house, had agreed to a clause that purported to forbid the future sale of the property to any non-white buyer. The fact that my ancestors were cops, too, now feels decidedly uncomfortable: what did James Doyle actually get up to, I wonder, at his “business” in the immigrant slums of New York? Nevertheless, I am still very fond of murder mysteries, and associate them with a deep feeling of comfort and nostalgia. I suspect that this is in some way connected to my specific childhood experiences, but that can’t be the entire explanation, because I have met many people who find murder mysteries comforting in just the same way I do. And this, when one thinks about it, is an odd thing. To get an illicit thrill from tales of violence would make some kind of sense. To find them soothing is decidedly bizarre.
The murder mystery is relatively new as a formal literary genre in the English-speaking world, although mysterious murders, and stories about them, have been around forever. In mythology, folksongs, and fairytales, ghosts have been rising from their graves to accuse their murderers since time immemorial. Given this pedigree, it’s no surprise that one of the earliest prototypes of the modern detective story, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter, sprang from the mind of an author typically accustomed to writing horror stories of supernatural revenge. (I have also recently learned that there’s a much earlier tradition of detective fiction from China, dating back as far as the thirteenth century, where ghosts appearing as witnesses is also apparently a common trope.)
The modern detective story, sans supernatural elements, with an emphasis on scientific and deductive methods of “solving” crimes, was an innovation of nineteenth-century England. It’s been plausibly argued, in a very entertaining book called The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, that Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, who were among the first to incorporate mystery plotlines with “detective” characters into their novels, were strongly influenced by a real-life mystery known in the press as the “Road Hill Murder.” This grisly child murder case was one of the first to be prominently investigated by the newly-created “Detective Branch” of Scotland Yard. Since then, the symbiotic relationship between detective fiction and real-life investigative practice has continued: Sherlock Holmes was modelling cutting-edge forensic techniques at the end of the nineteenth century, while present-day commentators are constantly debating whether the influence of shows like CSI causes juries to be under- or over-skeptical of forensic evidence. Detective fiction has been wildly popular since its inception, and now has diversified to suit all tastes, whether you are a fan of “true crime”-style fiction about sadistic serial killers, or of the “cozy mystery,” a subgenre which mostly seems to involve middle-aged piemakers solving small-town murders with the help of their aged aunt and/or pet cat.
My own taste in murder mysteries falls somewhere between these two extremes. I am not an omnivorous consumer of detective fiction: I know what I like, and I return to the same things frequently. In general, my preferences do not run towards what you would call “hard-boiled.” I like my murder stories soft-boiled and perched in a dainty little egg-cup, awaiting a rap from the spoon of the lord of the manor, who is currently ensconced behind his newspaper. The undisputed master of this particular genre, of course, is Agatha Christie. I used to read her novels often when I was a child, but nowadays I’m more likely to simply default to a TV adaptation. Agatha Christie isn’t exactly renowned for the beauty of her prose, so little is lost in the translation from prose to film. After a difficult day, just hearing the saxophone intro to an ITV Poirot episode is usually enough to lower my blood pressure a few units.
But what is it about murder mysteries that makes them so curiously relaxing? In the case of Poirot and other “Golden Age” murder mysteries of a similar ilk, some of the appeal may be purely aesthetic. Most of the stories take place in inter-war England, in charming pastoral villages where people do nothing all day but post letters and perturb quail; or in art-deco apartment-buildings teeming with bright young things in smart suits and flapper dresses. But one can easily imagine a book or show that had all of these charming things, without the element of sudden violent death. Would I be interested? Probably not. Something about the murders is key to my enjoyment.
But I also can’t attribute my interest in murder mysteries to their abstract ingeniousness, or their profound grappling with the reality of human mortality. All Poirot mysteries, for example, are psychologically shallow and logistically implausible. Poirot is a cranky Belgian dandy with an aversion to dirt, and that is the beginning and end of his personality. Like most private detectives, he has a baffling quantity of disposable wealth, and never seems convincingly worried about money, despite the fact that his entire business model depends on people continuing to stage elaborate murders in his vicinity. Luckily, Poirot doesn’t need to exert any effort to attract clients. People sometimes come to him directly for a consultation, but in nine out of ten cases, a murder just occurs when Poirot happens to be around. Poirot has never boarded a boat, train, or aeroplane on which someone has not immediately been assassinated. If Poirot comes to your card-party, someone will be murdered. If Poirot attends your gallery-opening, someone will be murdered. If Poirot passes through your sleepy country village on the weekend, someone will be murdered. It doesn’t matter whether Poirot is just dropping by the corner store, or if he is visiting an archaeological dig in an uncharted corner of the desert: someone is getting murdered. If you invite Poirot into your home, you have just declared open season on yourself and all your loved ones. And yet people keep fucking inviting him places.
Once the murder happens, the police inevitably conclude that the murderer was whatever shifty bastard they saw first. Poirot knows better, because A) he is a genius, and B) this has literally happened to him three thousand times. The real murderer is, of course, someone who appears ordinary, but is, in reality, a neurotic sociopath who’s clever enough to plan a murder with five built-in double-bluffs, but is somehow too goddamn stupid to just wait for Poirot to leave town before they do it. Somehow, Poirot manages to convince all the suspects to hang around the area, preferably in the same house, while he solves the mystery. On average, this close-proximity arrangement will result 1-5 further murders over the course of the investigation, but since this death toll usefully thins the suspect pool, Poirot keeps insisting on it. Finally, Poirot will force everyone who’s still alive to gather in the drawing-room while he walks them through his deductive process, and will usually (playfully) seem to be on the verge of accusing any number of presumably terrified innocents before he finally makes his Big Reveal. Why does the real murderer ever attend this kangaroo court, at which the police are always present, waiting to make their arrest? Why do all the other suspects agree to be there, given the possibility that they’ll be falsely accused, and the near-certainty that they will suddenly find themselves in the same room as a cornered killer with nothing left to lose? Oh well—why not? Why does anyone do anything? Death is inescapable. At the end, Poirot solves the case, to great acclaim, and then goes home and sticks his head into a herbal tisane, which, for Poirot, serves approximately the same function as morphine and cocaine do for Sherlock Holmes.
One thing about this particular genre of murder mystery is that the crimes are never sordid. People rarely kill for the pure pleasure of killing, because they have some intrinsically disordered psychological relationship with violence. The culprit is not going to turn out to be a psychopath who is sexually aroused by decapitating women, or has a secret murder barn where they hang up their victims on meat-hooks and feed their viscera to pigs. There’s also rarely any morally complex socioeconomic backdrop to the killings. Sure, sometimes a person’s decision to kill is connected to some vaguely-delineated personal history of abuse or deprivation, but the killers are never portrayed as individuals trapped in some inescapable cycle of violence, where poverty and social exclusion have doomed them to lives of desperation. No, these are always very genteel killings, of middle-to-upper-class people by other middle-to-upper-class people. They’re usually committed for one of three reasons: 1. Rational self-interest (e.g. to get an inheritance, to cover up a career-ruining scandal, etc.), 2. In an isolated outburst of rage, jealousy, or romantic disappointment, or 3. For revenge (whether petty or high-minded).
That said, the world of the Genteel Murder Mystery seems as if it would be extremely disorienting to live in. You can never tell who’s going to turn out a murderer. Literally anyone you have ever met, whether they’re the new parish vicar or your childhood friend of fifty years’ standing, might kill you tomorrow to avoid the banalest of bourgeois inconveniences. Oh, so you want to get married? Good luck with that. Your partner probably introduced themselves to you with the express intention of marrying you, murdering you for your money, and running off with your cousin’s mathematics tutor; or maybe they’re your supposedly-deceased former spouse in disguise, testing your fidelity under a false identity, and will summarily execute you for allowing your fingers to linger a second too long over a handsome houseguest’s when they pass you the butter. Even if the marriage miraculously works out, you’ll probably just end up getting murdered by your ugliest granddaughter for refusing to pay for her ballet lessons. The balance of probability is that 90% of the time you have ever spent with your family members, they were all mentally choreographing your demise. You’d think people would rather pray for death to come quickly than endure the emotional agony of trying to figure out whom it was safe to love and trust in such a world.
What’s remarkable, therefore, is that everyone in the world of the Genteel Murder Mystery is remarkably serene. A sudden killing in a country-house is no big thing. We might expect more of the people in these stories to be having nervous breakdowns, or be shut up in their room for days on end, paralyzed by confusion and grief. But usually, the witnesses are merely A Bit Shaken. Ordered to remain at the scene of the crime, they placidly submit, drink their drinks, vaguely worry about the ongoing presence of the murderer among them, but not about the murder that just happened. The question of whodunit, and howtheydunit, is the paramount concern on everyone’s minds, which obviates any need for a conspicuous mourning-process. We might recall that Amanda Knox was suspected of murder by the Italian police because she was seen laughing and turning cartwheels shortly after her roommate’s murder. By that logic, the entire population of Agatha Christie’s England ought to fall under immediate suspicion for the sheer number of glamorous cocktail-parties they manage to attend in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s violent death.
With escapist art forms, it’s common to find yourself idly wishing that you could leave behind your ordinary life and go live in the fictional universe of your indulgence. And so, given the choice between the world I live in now, and the world of the Genteel Murder Mystery, where would I choose to live? It’s a tough question. The statistical likelihood that I would die violently in the Genteel Murder World is much higher: for the comparison to be fair, of course, we must presume a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, where I do not know if I am going to be a detective, a suspect, a murderer, or a victim. Anyone, naturally, would readily choose to be a detective in this universe—the fellow who, when he isn’t cutting cops down to size, simply loafs around cultivating eccentricities—but we must presume that I am fifty times more likely to be the stupid nincompoop who uses the poisoned salt-shaker, or gets a rock dropped on my head. Well: would it really be so bad? We already live in a world where we are all marked for death at an unknown moment. And in our world, the mystery of our being is insoluble. Our hearts cry out WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS EVEN GOING ON, but we will—at least within the conceivable scope of our temporally-constrained animal existences—get no answer. Many philosophical pedants tell us that the question itself is nonsensical. In the Genteel Murder World, by contrast, everything happens for an articulable reason. No one ever has to feel very much. The only real void left behind by a fellow-human’s untimely demise is an informational one, very soon to be filled by some reliable intellectual specialist. The puzzle solved, the death troubles its witnesses no further. And all right, it wouldn’t be very pleasant to be shot or stabbed or drowned, but my likelihood of being raped or tortured is also near to nil. Those things are vulgar, and consequently disallowed. Having eliminated those horrific extremes, is being strangled in a railway-carriage in my prime of life, whilst wearing a dashing hat, so much worse than dying alone in a nursing-home, probably wearing no hat at all? I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen.
When I ponder what attracts me to murder mysteries, then, I think that it must be the domestication of horror. I’m prone to be rather judgmental of people who like watching graphically violent television—but perhaps the Genteel Murder Mystery fulfills approximately the same function for me. For people who enjoy the simulated spectacle of human suffering, it’s all about inuring yourself to the horror of violence by learning to take an idle pleasure in witnessing it. But the Genteel Murder Mystery is about taking something horrific and making it charming, cushioning it in several layers of gauze, blunting all its sharp edges. It’s about shielding ourselves psychologically from a spectrum of human experience that, if we were fully conscious of it, would probably poison whatever sense of hope or pleasure we derive from our luckier existences. The fact that human lives can be snuffed out by violence—the idea that human beings prey on each other without pity, and that ordinary people die in confusion and terror, leaving behind their loved ones to a life of nightmarish misery—is so very bad that none of life’s feeble goods can possibly make up for it. A part of me knows this to be true, and I don’t want to know it. The Genteel Murder Mystery is comforting, at least partly, because it transforms the horror of violent death into an anodyne triviality, embedded in a familiar and unthreatening landscape. Murder, in this world, does not unmake the social order, or the human mind. In fact, it rather passes the time.
But violent death, of course, is not just a laughable conceit of an improbable fictional universe. It is a reality of many parts of our planet. The stage for a dozen murder mysteries is being set as you are reading this, somewhere in the world, possibly in your city: usually of the poor, the homeless, the helpless, who may have no one to care, no one to look for them, no one to identify them. And then there are the places where disappearances are an epidemic, where people are being abducted and murdered at mind-boggling rates. The New York Times recently ran a story about a couple in Veracruz, Mexico who first came together over their separate investigations of the fates of their missing children, both of whom were believed to have been kidnapped by a cartel, and whose bodies still have yet to be discovered. Because Veracruz has run out of money for DNA tests, families of the missing panhandle in the street each day, hoping to raise enough money to pay a lab to analyze the sinister detritus that keeps turning up on their amateur searches: unidentified human remains, ominous buried caches of “baby outfits, women’s blouses, worn-out jeans and shoes,” whose owners are unaccounted for. “The entire state is a mass grave,” Veracruz’s attorney general has said. The government is no longer excavating clandestine burial sites because they have no more room to store the bodies. The streets are papered with fliers begging for information about missing family members.
One of the most disturbing real-life murder mysteries I have ever read about, which I think about very often, comes from El Salvador. The account was written up by Óscar Martínez, one of the country’s most intrepid journalists of gang violence and state corruption. Martínez tells the story of Israel Ticas, the only forensic investigator in the entirety of El Salvador, who is responsible for opening up graves and gathering physical evidence. In a country the size of Massachusetts, where roughly six people are estimated to be murdered every day, this is a herculean task for one man to undertake: Ticas is dealing with a bodycount that even the great detectives of fiction, those notorious murder-magnets, would have difficulty managing. In 2010, Ticas learned of a well in the countryside where gang members were rumored to have been disposing of their victims. Lowering himself down into the depths of the well on a harness, Ticas’ lamp illuminated “socks, clothes, junk, a collection of bones, feet, toes.” He knew then that there were at least four bodies in the well, and possibly many more than that. Because the well was fragile, it would have to be excavated at an angle, and for this, Ticas needed a backhoe and two dump trucks. After much delay, the Ministry of Public Works briefly lent him the equipment he needed, only to take it all suddenly back again. Ticas was reduced to advertising for the vehicles on Facebook. The longer the delay dragged on, the more complicated the operation became. Months and months went by; rains came and went; the well flooded. The excavation proceeded by stops and starts, whenever the weather was favorable, whenever the equipment happened to be available. Donning scuba gear, Ticas immersed himself in the muddy mire of the well. “I feel hopeless,” he told Martínez. “Duped. As public prosecutors we’ve tried everything we could to combat this impunity. There are more than fifteen people down there. I’m sure of it.” Because of a seepage of water from below the ground, the bottom of the well kept sinking lower and lower, so that Ticas kept excavating deeper and deeper without ever quite reaching the bodies. 805 days after the excavation first began, Ticas still hadn’t hit the bottom of the well, all because he couldn’t get the loan of a backhoe and two trucks back when he first needed them. “How many unknown wells are there?” the journalist Martínez wonders. “Nestled into our country’s cornfields, how many bodies are turning into compost? And how many bloody stories are hidden in the shadows of the jocote trees?”
Israel Ticas is very different from the dapper investigators of English detective fiction, or even the hard-drinking PIs of noir fiction, or even the humorously morbid forensic specialists on crime TV shows, enthusiastically cutting into cadavers. He, and the Veracruz families, and thousands of others, are simply ordinary people scrabbling madly in the dirt, trying to pull out the brutalized bodies of the poor before the earth swallows them forever, to give them a name and something of a story. This is what murder mysteries look like in real life. Many of them will never be solved, not because of a lack of detective-savants on hand to crack the case, but for simple reasons of poverty, and logistics, and silences enforced by fear.
These truncated, unfinished narratives, which are somehow both terrifying and mundane, would make for bad fiction. But we have to find ways to understand and care about these stories. I am still not sure myself whether the fictional murder mystery really is a harmless indulgence, or a troubling form of desensitization. Either way, it is clearly not a sufficient way to engage with the problem of violence. There comes a time when we all have to leave the country-house, and face the real world.
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