Why do we like TV murder mysteries so much?
In England we have banned fox hunting on the grounds that it is death-based entertainment (in relation to the fox – nobody minds about the occasional hunter parting company with his or her horse). Yet every day millions of TV viewers derive pleasure from seeing, sometimes in gruesome detail, dozens of violent deaths. Urban hypocrisy apart, why is that?
A strong clue is to be found in the strict conventions that murder mysteries generally observe.
Murder, as presented to us on TV it entirely different to murder in the real world. More than any other crime, murder is truly dismal. The age group most at risk of being murdered, well ahead of any other, is babies under the age of 12 months. A large proportion of murderers and of their victims is under the influence of drink or drugs when the crime is committed. No wonder this side of real life is not reflected in TV drama. Battered babies and drunken brawls – where is the fun there?
So, the first rule of murder mysteries is that we are in some kind of fantasy land. (An affectation of gritty realism can be part of the fantasy – the technical term for this is ‘noir’, as in ‘Scandi noir’).
In the real world, who would ever have Miss Marple, the remorseless harbinger of multiple death, to stay? Detective Chief Inspector Morse’s Oxford would be the murder capital of the world. Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby’s suspects would be queuing up to make false confessions – jail being the only safe place for potential second and subsequent victims in Corston.
The second self-evident rule of murder mysteries is that the murder is a mystery that can, and will, by the end, be solved. Three things follow from this. One is that the murder has happened for rational reasons and by rational means that can be accommodated in a logical solution. Another is that the murderer is identified. Finally it follows that besides a murderer, there must be a detective.
The third rule is that the murderer does not get away with it. Traditionally, in Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, we are given to understand that the murderer will be hanged. Typically a modern murderer will be driven off in a police car for an unspecified but appropriately lengthy period in jail. Other unpleasant consequences are permissible, so long as the murderer gets their just desserts. It follows from this that once the murderer has been identified and disposed of appropriately, the lives of other characters can move on – for which the technical term is ‘closure’. It also follows that the murderer, as a character, has a limited shelf life. The detective can go on catching murderers indefinitely, but the murderer must sooner or later get caught.
Conventions enable rather than undermine good drama. The plays of Racine and the westerns of John Wayne are equally formulaic. What limits murder mysteries as a convention for TV drama is brand rather than formula. This is mostly about the detective – Morse, Lewis, Endeavour, Vera, Frost, Miss Marple, Poirot and so on. Brand values must often be a creative limitation. Alas, Poirot cannot go down to the local for a few pints of mild and a few songs round the piano.
However, we must to return to the question. The reason we like murder mysteries as a dramatic format is that they validate our desire for a world that is fundamentally rational (the second rule) and just (the third rule). We do not mind that we are in fantasy land (the first rule) because that allows us to remove all the messiness of real life so as to bring ‘closure’ at the end.
Is there any harm in this? Is there something unwholesome in violent death as family entertainment? There may well be. Much of life is sadly less than wholesome.
For myself I will go on watching murder mysteries. But then I would be quite happy for people to go on fox hunting. (I have never tried it myself but I can see it might be fun if you have the knack of maintaining the right horse/rider vertical relationship).