19 April 2012

Reality in Mysteries

by Deborah Elliott-Upton


I have a gut feeling that more crimes have been solved based on a hunch than not. The intuitive feeling that nags at a detective or even an amateur sleuth has probably laid out many a trail to find the criminal responsible for a crime and certainly spurred the hunt.

Isn't this one of the reasons we choose to read mysteries? To read along ravenously and put together the clues the author doles out to us like breadcrumbs to starving ducks along a pond, we beg for more in order to follow them and deduce the true villain before the author makes his Big Reveal. Nothing induces a page turner like clues sprinkled along the way to whet our appetite.

Reading a good mystery is like winding our way through a maze. With a starting point and the supposition we will find our way through to the end quickly, we struggle past the red herrings leading to a blocked wall, barring our path. We retreat a few steps and as the GPS is always saying, we "recalculate," probably with more fervor than before. The journey is almost always the true joy and not the destination. I find myself dreading to find only a few more pages left of a really great read. I want to keep the momentum going of the exhilaration I feel as I get closer and closer to being sure of who the culprit is in the mystery. I admit: I am quite the greedy reader.

In real life, the offender is either someone everyone thought would turn out to be prison material or so unsuspecting the neighbors can't believe the stories they hear on the six o'clock news about the nice man down the block.

In mystery stories, this isn't always the case and makes the bad guy more fun to hunt down. Finding who the antagonist is and why he does the things he does is part of the mystery that most excites me as a reader. It's also safer being an armchair detective than one out on the streets actually dealing with people capable of committing such crimes as to be facing arrest, a trial and possible jail time.

I was one who never missed an episode of either "The Shield" or "Homicide" when they were on prime time television. I know some police officers who told me those portrayals were "on the money" as to how it was "on the streets." I know probably just as many who objected that it was completely unreliable. I remember one deputy who said, "In the first episode of 'The Shield' when that one cop killed another point blank, we dismissed the whole series as unbelievable." Another told me, "I can see how that could easily happen."

There is probably a bit of truth in both opinions. Both "The Shield" and "Homicide" showed a dirtier side of law enforcement than most Americans expected to show up on their television screens, but it is probably closer to the truth than not. If we've learned anything from reality TV programs, it's that people aren't always as nice as they were in Mayberry and their language isn't either.

Why would we expect someone being handcuffed and hauled into the back seat of a patrol car to be "nice" anyway? Even on "Cops," where the officers seem to never raise their voices, lose their tempers or let loose a swear word or two, it seems a bit forced. Maybe it's easier to watch your language when you know you're wearing a microphone and television cameras are nearby.

Many people objected to the blue language choices and the darkness of those involved both in law enforcement and on the other side of the law in "The Shield" and "Homicide." I don't condone bad language, but it seems appropriate in some instances in fiction, and certainly in true crime stories.

If every bad guy in a novel talked like a bad guy, the reader would easily guess he's the villain by the end of the first chapter. No need to keep reading that book. The good writer lets part of the maze surrounding the bad guy shield him from our view at least for a while. When we can't see or hear his true self, the character hides in plain sight and makes it more of a delicious undertaking to discover him later.

I have a hunch we will be finding another character hiding in that maze of mystery ready to confuse us with his designs of disguise. In mystery, that's reality.

7 comments:

Travis Erwin said...

Great post.

alisa said...

I agree with Travis, great post.

I loved The Shield. I don't care for the stereotypical good guy bad guy.

That's why I love Justified now.

Heat was a great portrayal of two mean who were opposite sides of the law but so much alike they squeaked.

Great words, Deborah!

R.T. Lawton said...

Deb, well thought out and well written. Good mysteries are good reads, and interesting clues keep me turning pages.When I get down to the last few pages of a good mystery, I can only hope it is part of a series and there is another book coming out soon.
As prior law enforcement, I tend not to watch TV shows like Law and Order or any of the CSI series, but I really enjoy Justified.

Kate Irving said...

As always, great post. I love it when I read a mystery and find out who done it and realized I missed the clues. It gives me great incentive to reread the story and re-investigate the evidence. It's seeing things in a whole new light.

Kerry said...

I guess different depictions can show us how our perception of reality leads us to make assumptions and leaps that the facts do not always support.

Have you watched any of The Killing? It has a new twist every episode and red herrings abound.

Great Post!

F.T. Bradley said...

Great thoughts.

I always imagine that you join law enforcement because you feel passionate about what you do. You're right--that over-composed Cops policeman doesn't ring very true...

Bernice Simpson said...

You've turned on my curiosity. I enjoy a good suspense novel, and have spent too much of my time with my nonfiction lately. So, what's your recommendation?