Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Setting The Tone Of Impossible Crime Stories

I've been watching HBO's new series True Detective and came across Episode 3 - The Locked Room. Not that it has anything to do with locked room mysteries, but it got me thinking about the tone of impossible crime stories. What would a True Detective locked room mystery look like? In truth I'm not sure they would blend.

True Detective is solemn and gritty. And windy.

True Detective follows two investigators in Louisiana as they hunt for the ritualistic killer of a young woman. The show does have a number of similarities with the impossible mystery genre - it revolves around a crime (good start...), has two primary characters investigating, one detached nihilist detective and one, well, less so.

The main distinction between True Detective and the locked room genre is the tone. Mystery stories as a whole cover a wide range of styles, from humorous to sombre. Impossible crimes as a sub-set tend to veer on the lighter side of the scale, with all but a few playing down the emotional fallout of the crime.

The reader is the detective

One of the primary attributes of a great locked room mystery is the possibility of the reader solving the crime before the detective. The audience go through the case with the detective, see the same clues and are privy to the same information. The best stories have a simple solution that manages to elude the reader through ingenuity alone.

The impact of the job has drastic
repercussions for the characters.
With this in mind, it makes sense for writers to keep the tone of these stories fairly neutral. The detective is usually distant and calculating - focusing on the joy of the puzzle rather than the harsh realities of murder - because that's how we want the reader to feel. If the plot focuses too much on negative emotions the impact and euphoria of the reveal is diminished. Locked room mysteries generally wrap up with a "...and that's how it was done" conclusion that's intended to provide a satisfying close. A darker themed story may not be as effective - the victim is still (generally) dead, the killer may or may not have seen justice, and the other characters are still in mourning.

Using a detached detective is one of the most common ways to shift the focus onto the method of the crime and away from its repercussions. As a genre it may not be as emotionally draining as an intense drama, but does challenge the reader's intellect instead.

Keeping a tight narrative

True Detective explores Marty's
family life and Rust's lack of one.
Impossible crime stories are also about closing the loop - starting with a few disjointed pieces of a puzzle, taking the audience on a whistle-stop tour of the context and clues, then coming back to the original pieces and explaining how they fit together. Maintaining this momentum may mean that character building tangents - the lives of the detectives outside of their work, their relationship with friends/family, their backstory etc - often take a back seat.

Great drama requires that the audience is invested in the characters and attach themselves emotionally. Once that connection is made the story can twist and turn so that the empathetic audience feels the highs and lows alongside those involved. Exploration of the characters is therefore a valued part of the experience, even if it does not directly progress the narrative. The audience of locked room mysteries, on the other hand, are often driven through the experience by curiosity for the plot, and sections that do not move towards that goal can be seen as a distraction.

There's no reason why a locked room story cannot be both an intriguing plot and an engaging drama, but given the focus of the genre the former seems to take priority.

Inherent absurdity

It's also worth pointing out that locked room mysteries are generally quite contrived. While the puzzles themselves are often intriguing, shrewd and expertly crafted, they do require an audience willing to separate their imagination from the mundane. We have to believe that the killer went to a lot of trouble to hide the method of their crime (often without bothering to create a solid alibi), then remained in plain view of the investigators while they picked apart the case. This mechanic lends itself to stories that are a little tongue-in-cheek, and not the gritty brooding of True Detective.

While it may not be the case for all impossible crime stories, the puzzle usually trumps the drama. I doubt we'll be seeing an impossible crime on True Detective any time soon, but would love for HBO to prove me wrong.

Agree/disagree? I'd love to hear some other perspectives in the comments.

Until next time,


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