Showing posts with label Val McDermid. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Val McDermid. Show all posts

12 June 2019

Wire in the Blood

David Edgerley Gates



Wire in the Blood is a Brit TV show based on Val McDermid's series of books featuring forensic psychologist Tony Hill. The character's played by Robson Green, who might be familiar to some of you from Grantchester, and who was also in seasons 4 and 5 of Strike Back, which is where he first caught my attention. He's had a solid career going back to the late 1980's, light comedy and heavy drama, but I wouldn't wonder if doing Tony Hill isn't one of the highlights.

Criminal profiling, in the formal sense, goes back at least to the Whitechapel terror - Jack the Ripper is said to be the first object of analysis. David Morrell would give you an argument, and suggest Thomas de Quincey's essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," which examines the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, predating the Ripper by some 75 years. The 'science,' disputed by some scholars, has gotten a lot of traction over the last forty years or so. The FBI commissioned their Behavioral Science Unit in 1972. Thomas Harris published Red Dragon in 1981. Popular imagination does the rest.


Wire in the Blood falls very much in hagiographic terrain. Tony Hill has an unsettling ability to put himself in a killer's shoes, but his insights aren't always appreciated by the more evidence-driven homicide dicks he works with. He'll make an intuitive leap; they'll be looking for a DNA match. In practice, it usually works out, and the bad guys meet their just desserts. In terms of narrative structure, it can be a little predictable, since Tony's so often proved right. This isn't, in the scheme of things, actually a weakness. It provides a two-track storyline, and even though you know Tony has his finger on the killer's internal mechanics, it's gonna be the cops who run the villain to earth.

There's a very definite something else going on with Tony Hill, though, and certainly in the way that Robson Green inhabits the character. Tony isn't socially adept. If he's not quite as bone-headed as, say, Doc Martin, he's obviously somewhere on the spectrum. This plays out as an interesting contradiction. Tony will walk his way through a crime scene, and try to experience it from the POV of both victim and killer. This kind of sympathetic vibration doesn't work for him, however, with what most of us think of as generic social interaction. He'll stop a conversation cold because he's had a sudden epiphany, he'll forget what he was saying, he'll walk out of a room. He doesn't realize his behavior is often careless or even hurtful. He doesn't mean it to be, of course, and he's embarrassed when he's caught out, but he's obsessive-compulsive. He's got tunnel vision. 


This is a curiously common characteristic in our ratiocinatory detectives - is that a word? Sherlock Holmes, for one. Emotion clouds the reasoning process. On the other hand, empathy is a necessary part of it. Tony Hill is deeply affected by what he does, but he has to keep his distance. It's a puzzle in and of itself, and Robson Green makes the guy fascinating to watch. Not endearing, mind, but isolated, apart. Too much in his own head.

I should add a cautionary note. Wire in the Blood isn't a cozy. The theme is damage, the pathologies are unsettling, the prey are children, or the weak, or the damned. It's not terribly reassuring. It makes for one hell of a compelling narrative, though.

10 September 2016

A Question of Empathy: The Social Scientists, The Poet, and the Mystery Reader

by B.K. Stevens

Two scholars at the New School for Social Research published an article about literature and empathy last month, full of bad news for mystery readers. If you belong to Sisters in Crime and saw the most recent SinC Links, you may have noticed the references to "Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity with Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing." The authors, David Kidd and Emanuelle Castano, say people who read novels by authors such as Alice Walker and Vladimir Nabakov excel on a test of "theory of mind," indicating they have superior abilities "to infer and understand others' thoughts and feelings." Such readers are likely to be characterized by "empathy, pro-social behavior, and coordination in groups." Readers of mysteries and other genre fiction don't do as well on the test. So apparently we're an obtuse, hardhearted, selfish bunch, and we don't play well with others.

This is grim stuff. And maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. I made myself read the whole study--and let me tell you, the experience didn't do wonders for my levels of empathy. Kidd and Castano don't actually say genre readers suffer from all those problems. In fact, they speculate that reading any kind of fiction may do some good. But they definitely think reading literary fiction does more good than reading genre fiction does. Literary fiction, they say, has complex, round characters, and that "prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters' mental states." Genre fiction relies on flat, stock characters and therefore doesn't encourage readers to develop comparable levels of mental agility and emotional insight. The authors discuss other differences, too--for example, they say literary fiction features "multiple plot lines" and challenges "routine or rigid ways of thinking," while genre fiction is characterized by "formulaic plots" and encourages "conventional thinking." I won't try to summarize all their arguments. It would take too long, and it would get too depressing.

I will say a little--only a little--about their research methods. To distinguish between literary readers and genre readers, Kidd and Castano put together a long list of names--some literary authors, some genre authors, some non-authors--and asked participants to check off the names with which they were familiar. People who checked off more names of literary authors were classified as readers of literary fiction, and--well, you get the idea. To determine levels of empathy and other good things, Kidd and Castano had participants take the "reading the mind in the eyes" test: Participants looked at pictures that showed only people's eyes, looked at four adjectives (for example, "scared," "anxious," "encouraging," and "skeptical"), and chose the adjective that best described the expression in the pictured eyes. Participants identified as readers of literary fiction did a better job of matching eyes with adjectives. Therefore, they're more empathetic and perceptive than readers of genre fiction.

It's not hard to spot problems with these research methods. Scottish crime writer Val McDermid does a shrewd, funny job of that in a piece also mentioned in SinC Links. (Among other things, Val says she took the "reading the eyes in the mind" test and got thirty-three out of thirty-six right, beating the average score of twenty-four. Just for fun, I took the test, too, and scored thirty-four. That may prove I'm one point more empathetic than Val. Or it may prove the test is silly.) And of course decisions about which authors are "literary" and which are "genre" can be subjective. Kidd and Castano talk about how they wavered about the right category for Herman Wouk. The Caine Mutiny won a Pulitzer Prize, so maybe Wouk's a literary author. On the other hand, some critics accuse Mutiny of "upholding conventional ideas and values," so maybe he's merely genre. (Kidd and Castano never consider the question of whether a knee-jerk rejection of all ideas and values currently judged "conventional" might sometimes reflect a lack of insight and empathy. Is sympathy for people who devote their lives to military service automatically shallow and nasty? Is portraying an intellectual as a fraud never justified?)


As for their method of classifying participants as either "literary readers" or "genre readers," I recognized the names of almost all the authors on both lists. I've heard of James Patterson--most people have--but I've never read a book of his; I don't think I've sampled a single page. With many other authors (both "literary" and "genre"), I've read a few pages, a few chapters, or a single story, and then I've put the book  aside and never picked it up again. Recognizing an author's name isn't evidence of a preference for a certain kind of fiction. For heaven's sake, how many people make it through middle school without reading To Kill a Mockingbird? So how does checking off Harper Lee's name on a list indicate a preference for literary fiction? (For that matter, some might argue To Kill a Mockingbird is crime fiction, and Lee therefore belongs on the genre list. It could be that Kidd and Castano consider crime fiction that's well written literary. If so, that's sort of stacking the deck against genre--if a work of genre fiction is really good, it no longer counts as genre.)

It may be--and I'm certainly not the first person to suggest this--that social science's methods aren't ideally suited to analyzing literature, or to determining its effects on our minds and souls. Social science, by its nature, seeks to quantify things in exact terms. Maybe literature and its effects can't be quantified. Maybe attempts to measure some things exactly are more likely to lead us astray than to enlighten us. As Aristotle says in Book I of the Ethics, "it is the mark of an educated [person] to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."

If social scientists can't help us understand the connection between literature and empathy, who can? Perhaps a poet. In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "A Defense of Poetry" in response to a friend's largely playful charge that poetry is useless and fails to promote morality. I think we can apply what Shelley says about poetry to fiction, including genre fiction. After all, Shelley declares that "the distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error," and he considers Plato, Francis Bacon, and "all the authors of revolutions in opinion" poets. So why not Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammet?

I'm going to quote several sentences from "A Defense of Poetry," and I'm not going to make Shelley's choice of nouns and pronouns politically correct. I tinkered with Aristotle's words a bit--it's a translation, so tinkering felt more permissible. But I'll give you Shelley's words (and his punctuation) without amendment:
The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. . . . The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. . . . Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
As far as I know, Shelley compiled no lists, administered no tests, and analyzed no statistics. Even so, there may be more wisdom in these few sentences than in any number of studies churned out by the New School for Social Research, at least when it comes to wisdom about literature.

For Shelley, literature's crucial moral task is to take us out of ourselves. Most of us spend much of our time focusing on our own problems and feelings. When we read, we get caught up in a character's problems and feelings for a while, seeing things through that character's eyes and sharing his or her emotions. This vicarious experience is temporary, but Shelley says it does us lasting good. I like his comparison of reading and physical exercise. Working out at a gym makes our muscles stronger, and that means we're better able to handle any physical tasks and challenges we may encounter. Reading gives our imaginations a workout and makes them stronger. If we feel the humanity in the characters we read about, we're more likely to recognize the humanity in the people we meet. Will we therefore be kinder to them and try harder to make sure they're treated justly? Shelley thinks so.

But won't literary fiction, with all its round, complex characters, give our imaginations a more vigorous workout than genre fiction will? To agree to that, we'd have to agree to Kidd and Castano's generalizations about literary and genre fiction, and I think many of us would hesitate to do so. Yes, the characters in many mysteries are pretty flat, but couldn't the same be said of the characters in many works of literary fiction? Val McDermid challenges some of Kidd and Castano's central assumptions about literary and genre fiction, and I think she makes some persuasive arguments. I won't repeat those here, or get into the question of to what extent current distinctions between "literary" and "genre" have lasting validity, and to what extent they reflect merely contemporary and perhaps somewhat elitist preferences. (Would Fielding, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, and other still-admired authors be considered "literary" if they hadn't been lucky enough to die before the current classifications slammed into place? Would they be consigned to the junk heap of genre if they were writing today? But I said I wouldn't get into that. I'll stop.)

I'll raise just one question. Shelley says that to be "greatly good," we must imagine not only "intensely" but also "comprehensively," identifying with "many others." If he's right, fiction that introduces us to a wide variety of characters and encourages us to identify with them may exercise our imaginations more effectively than fiction that limits its sympathies to a narrower range of characters.

Generalizations are dangerous, and I'm neither bold enough nor well read enough to propose even tentative generalizations about literary and genre fiction. (And when I say "genre," I really mean "mystery," because I know almost nothing about other types of fiction currently classified as "genre"--though I've read and admired some impressive urban fantasy lately.) All I'll say is that I'm not sure all contemporary literary fiction encourages readers to empathize with many different sorts of characters. Most of the recent literary fiction I've read seems to limit sympathy to intellectual characters with the right tastes and the right opinions. Even if the central character is a concierge from a lower-class background (probably, many of you will recognize the novel I'm talking about), she has to be an autodidact who's managed to develop tastes for classical music, Russian literature, and Eastern art, who turns her television on only to trick her bourgeois employers into thinking she fits their stereotypes. Two other characters who are portrayed in a positive way, a troubled adolescent girl and a wealthy Japanese gentleman, are in many respects variations on the concierge, with similar tastes and opinions; most of the other characters in the novel invite our disdain rather than our sympathy. How often does contemporary literary fiction encourage us to empathize with characters such as a concierge who actually enjoys television, reads romances, and adores Garth Brooks and Thomas Kinkade? George Eliot could have portrayed that sort of character in a genuinely empathetic way. I don't know if many authors of recent literary fiction would have much interest in doingso.

I think some--not all, certainly, but some--genre fiction encourages us to extend our sympathies further. I think many mysteries, for example, introduce us to a variety of characters, including characters who aren't necessarily intellectuals, flawed characters we might be tempted to shun in our day-to-day lives. Mysteries can help us identify with people who have made bad choices and taken wrong turns, with victims, with people caught in the middle, with people determined to set things right, with people who feel overwhelmed by circumstances. I can't cite any studies to support my suggestions, but I think the best mysteries, by portraying a wide range of characters and nudging us to participate in their lives, might give our imaginations a robust workout and help us become more empathetic.

Mysteries can even help us empathize with criminals. That's ironic, in a way, because some social science studies argue criminals are marked by an inability to empathize. Then again, other social science studies challenge those studies, and still other studies--but maybe we shouldn't get into all that. Maybe we should just pick up a favorite mystery and start reading. I bet it'll do us good.


Next week at this time, many of us will be at Bouchercon. Just briefly, I'll mention some SleuthSayers nominated for Anthony awards. Art Taylor's On the Road with Del and Louise, a remarkable example of a mystery that encourages us to empathize with a wide variety of characters, is a finalist for Best First Novel. Art also edited Murder under the Oaks, a finalist for Best Anthology or Collection; both Rob Lopresti and I are lucky enough to have stories in that one. And my Fighting Chance is a finalist for Best Young Adult Novel. If you're so inclined, you can read the first chapter here. Hope to see you in New Orleans!


21 June 2016

Sweet Dreams and Armpits

by Melissa Yi, M.D.

A is for…


I'll start off with the second part of the title first.
When I get a trauma case, my priorities are ABC, or C-ABC

C-spine (some experts put this first, so we don't forget to immobilize the cervical spine)

Airway: is the patient talking? Bleeding? Suffering from a burn that will close off the airway?

Breathing: now check the lungs and chest. Look at the respiratory rate and oxygenation.

Circulation: is s/he bleeding anywhere? How are the blood pressure and heart rate?

D is for disability, which means a neurological exam. Pupils, reflexes, and strength if the patient will cooperate.

Dr. Scott Weingart, an emergency physician intensivist based in New York, emphasizes E for Exposure in penetrating trauma. You need to find the entry and exit points so the patient doesn’t bleed out from a bullet wound in the back while you’re messing around with a chest tube in the front.

So even before establishing airway, if the patient is maintaining an airway and has no blunt injuries, Dr. Weingart inspects “every square centimetre” of the patient’s skin, including the axillae, the back, the gluteal folds and the perineum, including lifting up the scrotum in a male patient. A much catchier mnemonic, proposed by Dr. Robert Orman, an emergency physician in Portland, Oregon, is: “armpits, back, butt cheeks and sack.”

With thanks to Leigh Lundin for pointing out that I had forgotten to post, and to the Medical Post for originally printing this clinical pearl.

Sweet Dreams

And now for a happy dance: one of my writing dreams has come true. When I looked at Rob Lopresti's column, I recognized the Forensics book cover by Val McDermid.

Why? Because it was chosen as one of CBC's best crime books of the season--along with my own Stockholm Syndrome.

Kris Rusch has said that you should make sure you set writing goals, which are within your control, as well as dreams, which are pies in the sky.

Well, I've been wanting to get on CBC's The Next Chapter for years. So I updated my list of writing dreams and goals here.

Goal: unlocked!

Of course, I have approximately 2 million other unrealized goals, but it's a start. How about you? What are your writing goals and dreams?

Signing out so I can get some sleep before my ER shift tomorrow. I hope I won't need to use my C-ABCDE mnemonic, but you never know what'll happen.

Peace.

15 June 2016

The Scientist and the Man in Black

by Robert Lopresti

Call this the third in my extremely occasional series of reviews of non-fiction books.  As before I am including two at no extra cost.

Forensics by Val McDermid, is a terrific guide to the science of crime-solving.  McDermid was a reporter before she became a best-selling crime writer and it shows. She gives you just enough of the technology, while focusing on the people, and often on the history.

For example, the chapter on entomology begins with the earliest recorded case of insects being used in the investigation of a crime.  In China in 1247 a man was found murdered with, it was determined, a sickle.  The coroner ordered all 70 men in the area to stand together with their sickles.  Flies immediately detected what the eyes couldn't, identifying the guilty man by landing on his weapon to feast on traces of blood.

There are chapters on fire scene investigation, pathology, toxicology, digital forensics, and much more.  McDermid tells of heroic scientists, and others who botched their work, usually out of over-confidence.  Sometimes their mistakes ruin, or even end, the lives of suspects.

One horror story is that of Colin Stagg, an Englishman who seemed a perfect match for a forensic profiler's description of the man who killed a woman in a London park in 1992.  The cops tried hard to prove he was the man, even introducing him to a policewoman who claimed to be attracted to him and into rough sex.  Astonishingly, this guy who had apparently never had a successful relationship with a woman, offered to give her what she said she wanted.  Clearly proof of guilt!


The judge politely called the prosecution's theory of the case "highly disingenuous" and dismissed it.  The policewoman took early retirement for PTSD, and Stagg was awarded a ton of money because his name was so ruined he couldn't find work.  In 2008 another man was convicted of the murder, based on DNA evidence.

The last chapter is about giving courtroom evidence, which most of the scientists appear to hate.  I suppose if an attorney was going to try to make me seem incompetent and dishonest I wouldn't like it either.

But I do like Forensics, and highly recommend it.

Unlike all the other books I have reviewed in this series, As You Wish by Cary Elwes has nothing to do with crime.  But it certainly has something to do with writing, specifically one of the best-written movies of all time. If you aren't a fan of The Princess Bride you may stop reading right now (and never darken my towels again, as Groucho Marx said).

Cary Elwes, of course, played Westley in that movie and, to celebrate its 25th anniversary he has published his memoir of the filming of the show.  If you love this flick you will relish his stories.  For example:

*William Goldman, who wrote the novel and the script (which for many years was considered by Hollywood one of the best unfilmable scripts around) was terrified that director Rob Reiner would butcher his darling work.  On the first day of filming the sound man picked up a strange noise.  It was Goldman, at the other end of the set, praying.



*Remember the sword fight between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black?  Except for the swing on the horizontal bar, there were no stunt doubles (well, I have my doubts about Patinkin's flying somersault).  You are seeing four months of daily training with Olympic fencers and a solid week of filming.

*Wallace Shawn, who  played Vizzini, was terrified that Reiner was going to replace him.  Making things worse, the vagaries of film scheduling meant that his first scene was his most complicated: the Battle of Wits.

* Remember the scene where the six-fingered man strikes Westley with the butt of his sword and he falls down unconscious?  That wasn't acting.  He woke up in the hospital.

*When Andre the Giant (who played Fezzik, of course) was a child in rural France he outgrew the school bus, so every day he was driven to school by the only man in town who owned a convertible: the playwright Samuel Beckett.

So, if you love this movie, read this book.  To do otherwise would be... (say it with me) inconceivable.