The Curious Appeal of the Crime Drama

I read a lot as a teen. I read young adult fantasy, regular old fantasy, Judy Blume, various smut, Tom Robbins, fucking Camus, Anne Rice… the list goes on. (I’m not really sure why Camus is fucking Camus, but somehow it seems right). Amidst all of that, one of the most atypical reading habits I had was Agatha Christie. I collected old pocket paperbacks with amazing mid-century illustrations on their covers — I still have a box of these under my bed. I’d often start one on a Sunday morning and finish by suppertime. This was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with crime fiction.

Sometimes — halfway through binge watching another British or Swedish crime drama series — I wonder why this genre is so comforting to me. The darker and more psychologically complex the better. I’m also strangely drawn to the figure of the lonely detective who probably drinks too much: Jane Tennison, Kurt Wallander. I find these characters far too easy to relate to.

But it all started with ‘Ten Little Indians’ (or — to be politically correct — ‘And Then There Were None’). It was a paperback that had belonged to my grandma. After she died I scavenged a few of her books. This isn’t the typical detective/ police procedural I would become so accustomed to later. It was a gripping tale of guests on a remote island being murdered one by one. It’s not far from the slasher horror genre that would come along later, but without the gore… and with an explanation at the end.

Once I’d read about five or six Christies (I was probably about 15 by then), I had absorbed the formula. Whodunnit was never the initial suspect, and it was probably not the first person I guessed either. There was always a vital piece of evidence that connected people in an unexpected way, and it was never revealed until the very end. When it was revealed, the murder made perfect sense. If you accept revenge, jealousy, or greed as sensible reasons to murder.

Maybe its this wrapping up that is so appealing. I started reading murder mysteries during the years when I was first grappling with the reality that sometimes people die young, tragically, and for no good reason. Crime fiction applies firm logic to this incomprehensible fact. When someone is murdered, there’s a motive.

In real life, it’s rarely easy to tie up all of the loose ends when someone meets a violent end. The charm of the murder mystery is that it presents a puzzle you know from the outset will be solved. There’s no such certainty in real life.

There’s also something strangely compelling about trying to fathom the psychological factors that lead a human to maliciously end the life of another human. It’s something that I can’t imagine doing, and yet people do it every day, whether out of anger or through calculated planning.

At the end of ‘And Then There Were None’ we discover that all of the murder victims have in fact committed murder themselves, and their deaths are meant to bring them to justice. There’s never a good reason to commit murder, in my opinion (self-defense, okay). The fact that a person can rather easily come to believe that there is a good reason to kill someone gets at the deepest, darkest corner of human psychology and morality.

I enjoy crime drama because it’s fun to solve mysteries, but also because it pokes at these dark corners of what makes us human.



I’m sorry, everyone, but I really don’t like Ender’s Game.

At the age of 42, I finally read one of the most renowned 20th century novels in the young adult sci-fi category. Pretty much anyone my age or younger who has ever been a little geeky has read Ender’s Game. I’ve certainly been known to be a little geeky, but my tastes ran to the fantasy side of young adult fiction when I was an adolescent. When I hit fourteen, I became more interested in novels with lots of sex in them and left the elves behind (if there’s an elvish erotica genre I really don’t want to know about it).

Since they made a movie, and everyone seemed really excited about that, and I do love good sci-fi (with or without sex scenes — I’m a grownup now), I decided to read Ender’s Game. I figured I’d breeze through it in a couple of marathon sessions, like I normally do with YA fiction now. I read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy in about a week, and did the same with The Hunger Games series. It took me several months to finish Ender’s Game.

I just kept losing interest. It’s hard to care what happens to Ender or his sister or all of human civilization, partly because it is never established that the “enemy” is actually hostile. Of course, this becomes the crux of Ender’s moral dilemma later in the book, but until then the reader is expected to believe there is a good versus evil dichotomy, and side with the humans. I found the humans in this novel pretty despicable on the whole.

LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD (all the spoilers!)

What’s up with the eugenics? This dystopian society is centered around creating a war machine and military force capable of taking out the “enemy.” At the pinnacle of this machine there must be one Strong Leader, and not someone with experience who happens to have good leadership qualities, but it must be The One. The search for this Strong Leader is done through selective breeding. Parents with high IQs are selected by the government, and their children are monitored to determine whether they might be The One. Ender’s brother is too aggressive, and his sister too empathetic, but Ender is just right. And effortlessly better than everyone else at everything. Because genes.

I thought that whole Übermensch thing kind of went out of fashion with the Nazis, but in Ender we have a portrait of genetic exceptionalism. At several points I got the same queasy feeling I got reading Ayn Rand. The theory that some people are simply better than everyone else is the foundation on which this story stands. There’s an argument that some people really are better at certain things by nature. Sure, ok. But not by much. There are the outliers that turn out to have some amazing propensity for something, but as a rule a little kid is probably not going to turn into the world’s most brilliant military strategist in a couple of years, no matter how many mind games you play.

Genocide? That’s cool I guess. There’s a bit of moral ambiguity around how the genocide of the alien species is portrayed. Ender gets understandably freaked out when he discovers that he just wiped out an entire species when he thought he was playing a video game. But no one else seems particularly phased. It’s all “good job winning the war that wasn’t actually happening in the first place.” I’m not sure what the reader is supposed to make of this, apart from: people are horrible. There’s very little opportunity to understand what the enemy’s deal is, beyond the fact that they operate much like ants and communicate telepathically. There’s certainly nothing to indicate that they earned the destruction of their entire planet and all life on it. That seems rather harsh under any circumstances. At the end of the novel, Ender does some kind of mind-meld and takes the only remaining eggs left by the species to go find them a new home. That’s the least he could do, but I still have no idea whether that’s a good idea, or just an attempt to insert some morality at the end of a very amoral story.

Violence is mandatory. Part of Ender’s character development is the brutal murder of two boys who bullied him. I don’t like bullies, but I’m pretty sure beating them to death is not the answer. Ender doesn’t feel good about this, but to the powers-that-be this proves that he is cruel enough to lead. There’s some seriously fucked up reasoning going on here. I might argue that people who respond to stress or difficult situations with deadly force are precisely the people we don’t want in charge of the military.

The violence is set up as the classic underdog scenario, but when the underdog always wins and in the process kills people and entire alien species… it’s hard to buy the underdog thing.

The token female… There are actually two token females in the novel. Ender’s sister Valentine is the emotional crux of the story, because she’s the only person he loves. This is his motivation for pretty much everything: to save Valentine. Nevermind the fact that she doesn’t particularly need saving. Ender’s friend Petra at the academy is the classic token female. Hey look, there’s ONE girl who is good at stuff and smart enough to challenge the boys. Apparently girls in general are just not as good at video games and aiming laser pistols and floating around with no gravity, because there are no other girls who actively participate in Ender’s battles.

I don’t think all books and movies have to pass the Bechdel test to be worthwhile. If your story centers around, say, the D-Day invasion — fine, there were no women involved (at least not on the beach — pan out a bit and there were plenty of women involved). But when it’s 1985 and you’re writing about the distant future… is it that hard to imagine a teeny bit more gender equality? My guess is that Orson Scott Card felt like he was being generous to women by developing these two characters.

It turns out Orson Scott Card is kind of an asshole. Over the years, Card has made numerous proclamations about homosexuality that run along the lines: keep anti-gay laws on the books and don’t legalize gay marriage. Because otherwise the church won’t be able to impose its puritanical values on everyone.  When outspoken bigotry is taken alongside this hetero-male-hero myth, it’s easy to see where Card is coming from. And it’s not somewhere I want to go.