Showing posts with label endeavour. Show all posts
Showing posts with label endeavour. Show all posts

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.