31 August 2018

The Most Poetical Topic

by Janice Law

A recent spell of hot weather has sent me to air conditioning and the tube, particularly to an older series of DCI Banks and the first installments of this season’s Endeavour. The episodes are nicely done, but as the body count of attractive young women piled up, I couldn’t help thinking of our macabre poet and theorist, Edgar Alan Poe.

Poet, author, theorist,
Edgar Alan Poe
Poe presented his work as highly calculated, rational, and premeditated. All those psychopathic killers, ghastly diseases, mouldering castles, and subterranean vaults were not the inspiration of an all-too-accessible subconscious. Oh, no, according to the poet. They were selected rationally and carefully calibrated to produce the required effect on the reader.

Which brings us to his very much pre-Me Too Movement quote: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Stated so baldly, it’s an idea that should properly give us pause, but transferred to a big – or little - screen it appears to be money in the bank.

Even as more and more women appear on screen as detectives and police administrators, and female killers prove to be very nearly as deadly as the male, popular crime flicks are still littered with dead girls. Abandoned on the moors, shut up in basements, found dead in alleys, they are sometimes wild, indulging in drink, drugs, sex, and that perennial moralist obsession, unsuitable clothing. Other times they are innocents, popular, intelligent, genuine sweethearts, but all wind up on the mortuary table.

In the bad old days of pulp fiction, girls (they were always girls) were either good (virginal) or bad (experienced). Our enlightened generation congratulated ourselves when that dichotomy began to break down, when young women could have a sex life without depravity.

Young Inspector Morse & Constable Trewlove
But recently it has struck me that, at least on the crime shows, we have exchanged one set of boxes for women for another: the savvy, highly competent, emotionally complex investigator versus the pretty, possibly capable, but still inevitably doomed, victim.

Consider that a recent episode of  DCI Banks that featured not one, not two, but five nubile young things who came to terrible ends plus a much-abused female accomplice, also had two prominent women officers. Even Endeavour, realistic for the 1950’s and 60’s, with an almost entirely male police force, features the smart Constable Trewlove, who is pretty and pretty tough, too. But murder happens often in Oxford and attractive young – or youngish – women remain a prime target.

Many years ago, I went to a mystery writers program featuring Mary Higgins Clark, who remarked that the reading public loves “women in jeopardy,” a sub genre that became one of her specialities. It’s an old favorite, going back in modern times to the Perils of Pauline that my mom remembered in the silents and before that, to Richardson’s famous Clarissa, whose eponymous heroine would have had plenty to contribute at #MeToo.

DCI Banks & DS Annie Cabot
So was Poe right? Are females in danger and the deaths of especially pretty ones just the modern version of the ancients’ dramas provoking pity and terror?

I’m not so sure. Pity and terror, yes, but given the omnipresence of dead teenage beauties in our popular entertainment and the often graphic depictions of their demise, I cannot help thinking about another strain in our culture, a deep and seemingly irradicable dislike of feminine independence. The gaudy feminine body count suggests a more complex function: to provide at once the emotional kick start for the investigators and, on another level, perhaps to court the darkness that all too commonly underlies interaction between the sexes.

For every action, Newton said, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Detective fiction illustrates this on a psychological level very nicely. Modern female detectives, pathologists, even police superintendents are balanced by a plethora of sadistic crimes against women, and often to be young and pretty is to be one step from being a victim.


  1. I just finished DCI Banks, Janice. I didn't quite buy the on-screen Annie chemistry, but otherwise liked it. I couldn't tell if the last season's unexpected death influenced this article.

    Janice, I found myself playing devil's advocate in a lengthy rejoinder, so long that I think I'll turn it into an article!

    I'm not far into Endeavour, but thus far I like it better than the original Morse! I wasn't expecting that.

  2. I watched all of Endeavor and hadn't noticed that. I must be acclimatized. Thank you for the consciousness raising! The vulnerable young female is a deeply embedded archetype, I believe, and I still see women aspiring to it (and I did it too in my day). Teetering around on high heels makes it hard to run away or fight. Same too with tight dresses. One thing that fries me every day is to the news anchor and commentator uniforms: men dressed in their 20th century battle garb covered from their chins to their toes while the females are mostly wearing sheaths. Why must a woman bear her toned arms to be a credible commentator? Gwen Ifill didn't do it but she was rare. My two cents.

  3. Janice, I have a post on this abuse of women in crime fiction theme, coming soon. Although I'm Canadian (and so is the writer of Inspector Banks) I find his series difficult to watch, for the same reasons. I am so so tired of - okay, I'll say it - male writers obsessively writing about the abuse of young women in a way that seems almost creepy. Stig Larson was the first who gave me this feeling. I found I wasn't alone.

  4. Amen to that, 'Melodie, not to mention Jo Neabo!

  5. Amen, Janice, Melodie. I remember reading (for the Edgar nominations) a torture porn book by a female author and the victim, of course, was a young female (who survived, but the torture was in great lascivious detail... Ughhh.)
    My only comment on Endeavor is that I didn't like it.
    For that matter, "Death in Paradise" (which I like) the female Detective Sergeant is always dressed in tank-tops and shorts, or a skimpy sundress. Granted, it's the Caribbean, but I don't think that's regulation, do you?

  6. Eve, that grates on me too (the skimpy clothing worn by Florence *in every scene* in Death in Paradise.) I call it "Charlie's Angels" syndrome. I want to scream at those producers. I wonder: is it really just so ingrained that they don't even notice what they're doing? Or are they so desperate for male viewership and thus so unsure of their show's worth that they think this is the only way to stay alive?

  7. Yes, though Florence is in many ways a good character, that show makes me want to turn on Vera

  8. Melodie and Janice, since what, 99% of producers are male? And most of them are mega-rich? They can't imagine any other audience than themselves, and they want women in skimpy clothing, so why wouldn't we?
    I am also fed up with all the newswomen who are in sleeveless sheaths - in winter! - on everything from the Weather Channel to CBS news. Only PBS allows their newswomen to dress appropriately.

  9. I can only add three cheers for Judy Woodruff who dresses appropriately and is so elegant.


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