Murder mysteries are everyone’s guilty pleasure. The human preoccupation with a life and death makes these stories perpetually fascinating. But the fascination with whodunit is really a fascination with wanting to understand why they did it.
Maybe because we often seek out things that confirm or echo our world view, different kinds of people like different genres of murder mysteries.
Those with sophisticated tastes (or, so I think) like Scandinavian mysteries, with their bleak atmospherics and art-y quality. Some people favour American crime shows, which always end the same way: the murderer is a psychopath or sociopath. Murder is an aberration, in an ordered, normal, have-a-nice-day world. This psychological error is attributed to bad parenting, hence firmly in the realm of the individual. Otherwise, it’s usually mafia-related.
I’m a fan of English murder mysteries and went through an extended Agatha Christie phase as a young teen. English murder mysteries are really a drama of manners so to speak, preoccupied with class and gender relations and how resentment, insecurity, shame — which eventually push people to murder — spring from these equations.
In a sense then, these are usually stories of insiders and outsiders. Insiders are those born to privilege — of wealth, beauty, virtue. Outsiders are those not born to it, but either hankering to be let in, or cruelly kept out by convention. These may be illegitimate children, born of youthful indiscretions where the wealthy consorted with the underclass; housewives burning with hate for their unfaithful husbands, having been put to pasture for younger women; jilted lovers, passed over in favour of their schoolday competitors; loyal domestic help either unfairly treated or somehow in the hold of their employers; and of course, upstart men seducing bookish daughters or gold-digging women seducing eldest sons. Sometimes, there are also those desperate to stay insiders — like aristocrats fallen on bad times struggling to maintain the illusion of wealth. If Manoj Night Shyamalan were making this movie, his character would surely say: I see rich people.
The striking quality of these stories is how the innocence of the privilege is strangely careless and uncaring. In a way it is not the murderers who are ugly, but that their desperate action shows up the ugliness coursing through the veins of the privileged life of beautiful people.
True Crime stories are all these things on steroids. They function as morality tales about gender and class and often function to endorse the status quo on these fronts. In these stories, greed is the emotion that causes downfall — and greed is what makes you exceed the limits of your class or gender. The outsider is greedy and conniving. The insider is never greedy, only ambitious and dynamic. If the outsider is a woman she is immediately cast as a femme fatale — overbearing, sexually wild.
The men she lures are always painted as unsuspecting and hapless. Floppy haired, fair skinned and dewy eyed, they apparently have no idea that she is getting her hands dirty in the service of their joint ambitions. Co-insiders rush to defend the goodness of insiders. While feeding quotes to the media, they sternly advise people not to circle like vultures on the misfortunes of the wealthy and good. All in all, a True Crime story is less about the actual criminal act and full of lessons for outsiders. Through a continuous exposure of designated villains, it camouflages the insider status of designated innocents.
Perhaps that’s where that well-known quote comes from: “Behind every guilty woman, is an innocent man.” Can’t remember who said it. It was someone famous. Shakespeare? Billy Joel? Or maybe it was Suhel Seth.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com