Monday, 3 November 2014

Police Procedurals: The Body, Unplugged

I read with interest a recent essay by Eric Thurm in the LA Review of Books entitled Homicide: Death on the Screen. In it, he analyzes the attitude toward the corpse, as he sees it, in three different kinds of crime drama on television. While I disagree with much of what he says, I found his ideas interesting enough to want to compare them to my own approach to the dead human body in my crime fiction.

Thurm begins with the police procedural drama typified by Law & Order. He finds that, in its formulaic discovery of the body and subsequent investigation, the corpse is reduced to a "plot engine," a clinical object marginalized "as much as possible, hiding the fact that it used to be a person." As a result, he writes, while "murder cases are exciting ... these sorts of series do their best to abstract the fun parts of crime solving from the act and people who make them necessary."

At the opposite extreme, he notes, are series like CSI and Bones in which the body is "placed front and center ... this tendency to transform the body into a scavenger hunt combines with a sort of morbid fascination, making the entertainment value of the human body horrifyingly explicit."

A third tendency, he continues, is found in series such as Hannibal, in which the "treatment of the corpse [is] even more striking, refreshing, and necessary.... The body is a canvas, and the serial killers, the artists." Hannibal acts as a "corrective," as he sees it, to the tendency of traditional procedurals to gloss over death by whisking the body away too soon or to turn it into an intellectual puzzle.

I suggest you read Thurm's essay for yourself and come back to tell me what you think. But consider first the approach I've taken to the dead body in my crime fiction.

To begin with, because procedurals attempt to present a reasonably realistic representation of homicide investigations, it must be said that murder cases are not actually "exciting" and "fun." Not for anyone, but particularly not for the investigators. As I discuss in The Fregoli Delusion, homicide investigators often fall into something called "isolation of affect" in which they compartmentalize their emotional reactions to what they experience on the job, often damaging their personal lives in the process (pp. 174-177). As a result, the body of the victim often loses its humanity and does, indeed, become an object to the detective (and the narrator, as well). And once the instinctual revulsion has been put aside, of course, the investigation mostly falls into the dull, boring routine of interviews, surveillance, and combing through endless records for pertinent scraps of information.

However, good investigators often use the techniques of victimology to reconstruct a picture of the victim as they were in life in order to assess who or what might have put them in harm's way. This is the approach taken by Hank Donaghue in my second crime novel, Marcie's Murder. Hank had only a brief glimpse of an unknown woman before she was murdered, and his desperate, unvoiced desire throughout the novel is to be able to come to know who she was while she was alive. Similarly, he and Karen Stainer retrace the final days of the victims of The Rainy Day Killer in order to replace the harsh reality of their mutilated, tortured bodies, kept mostly off-stage or under cover, with a strong sense of who they were as vibrant, hopeful, innocent young women.

While Thurm is correct that procedurals tend to whisk the body off-stage quickly, it's inaccurate to say that this narrative approach sucks all the marrow out of the story as a result. The intention is not to make "it easier for us to ignore the dead and the dying," or to "allow the no longer living to disappear before our eyes, to merely become parts of the ritual, like so many communion wafers," as Thurm puts it. Rather, the investigative technique of victimology as I use it in my novels forces the reader to come at it from the other direction, as it were. To begin at death and work backward to appreciate who the victims were in life, and to experience the feelings of frustration, revulsion, and pathos at their loss that the detectives often will not permit themselves to acknowledge.

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