The Mystery of “Crime Porn”

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Getting through it, catholic school felt alternately like suffocating in quicksand, routing the lurking ambush of a terror squad , or  expanding with sudden joy as when a hurricane approaching is preceded by brief but glorious sunlight and tranquility.

Experiencing life, I often credited that education for the rewards gained from the love of literature  acquired despite the cautious offerings but likely because of the scholarly approach and the appreciation of excellence:  pleasure in the written word, even more in the spoken; solace in time of sorrow; refreshment in time of leisure.  Taking my children to the now almost quaint institution of a bookshop in their adolescence, I could command attention, almost impress, with my deep knowledge of literature and experience of the classics.  What had been forbidden during school days, Lawrence, Woolf, Joyce,  Lessing, later  transformed into the emotional and intellectual affluence and security of  a well-read life.

Alas, one with its quirky rules….

“If one starts something, one must certainly finish…”   And I struggled to finish every book I read until  past my mid-century mark!  Imagine discovering new freedom after 50!

“Read at least one ‘classic’ every summer……”  Feeling, forever young!

And “some books are less worthy than others!”  Yes, the shame of reading trash!  Whole genres…. Like the Mystery novel!

Until about five years ago, the mystery novel, like  its film, dramatic or television adaptation was, for me, a lesser thing, not even a guilty pleasure!    Dorothy Sayres?  Patricia Highsmith? Serious fiction?  Surely, not.

Ill informed, cheap pretension! –  my view that the mystery novel, or film, play or drama, is a lesser art.  Hawthorne, Green, Poe, Sayers, Tey, DuMaurier, Eco, Black. Surely, these are great writers, indeed.  Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, Maigret, Montalbano, Comissario Brunetti, Wallander, Miss Marple, Miss Fischer:  investigators who delight,indeed.  Alfred Hitchcock, David Finchner, Carrol Reed, Francis Ford Coppolla, mystery genre directors who perfected an art form.

The good mystery engages the intellect in a complex puzzle, commanding attention to the most subtle detail.  Through this conceit, the skilled author lays bare and probes layers of the culture and society surrounding the characters: the physical landscapes, the interiors of the homes, offices and public spaces, the art, music, poetry of the day or of the past which supports the characters; the landscapes of the mind.  The mystery exposes the organization of the society, how it adheres, where it fragments, what it values and what, or whom, it discards.  Through the portrayal of crime, and the consequences of crime, concepts of justice are examined; issues of class, race, religion and gender  probed.  We  observe  equality and inequality, generosity and self-interest.  The mystery scrutinizes human motivation, often exposing the role of history in contemporary identity: the effects of emotional loss and the loss of power; the consequences of addiction, greed and mental illness.  The mystery can introduce the foreign and make it ordinary, whether it be the distant place or the idiosyncratic hobby or passion, such as collecting a rare bird or a stamp with a particular ink.  The mystery feeds the human hunger for an understandable world – where  chaos is tamed, action and consequences are predictable, if  only we go back and see the clues.  The mystery genre answers the quest for restored order, the search for social justice, a belief in connection and control.

Alas, in television, in particular, the mystery has been mutilated.    As one idea  so well presented in Gina Gionfriddo’s play Raptrue, Blister, Burn, television and film mysteries are toxic with sexplotation plots which are, in essence, modern “crime porn” masticated for the masses.  Not just a murder, we confront a plot of serial killers sexually abusing young women or boys, formalistically, securing trophies, eating , burning or mutilating them, or engaging in  some other perversely imagined amalgamation of male-commanding, female-submissive  scenario of  violence, gore and ritual, all available in prime time and cable for download and on the internet, 24 hours a day.  Fine actors, like Kevin Bacon or Viola Davis pollute the images of FBI agents or Law  Professors, indeed of human beings,  as they become these new tv “crime porn” stars (The Following, How to Get Away With Murder)  in dramas which do much more than merely coarsen public discourse: they pollute the national psyche.

The flood of “crime porn” in our theaters and on our screens fulfills none of these basic needs and aims at none of these aspirations.  Nor is the issue whether or not there is evidence to suggest that the violent degradation of women and children and the occasional man on the screen increases real life violence.  For even if this is not true, it is clear that ours is a society that is far too violent, far too toxic, and, certainly,  far too intolerant.  I recall my incredulity upon learning  that the crowds had hungrily  gathered to watch beheadings during the French Revolution.  Could this be the  impulse  which stimulates the greedy  creation and consumption of “crime porn” today?

The devolution of  “crime porn” provides us with no surrounding layers of culture,  (art, literature, music, landscapes) to cushion or surround the crime, to give a meaning, a context for the violence or a significance for the act or the actor.  Typically, in crime porn plots, the darkness of deranged criminal is only slightly less dark than some corrosive thing in the life or past of the detectives; the question of how society coalesces, what it values, how it is generous, is not often asked, much less answered.  Were it to be, the answer  would be as dark and ugly as the depiction of the crime itself.  Crime porn does not make chaos understandable, the unthinkable comprehensible; it does not provide a sense of justice and restored order.  Rather, crime porn seems to reflect our own anxiety that our world is intolerably out of control, craven, degraded, senseless and adrift.

The riddle is that we call this entertainment.  The puzzle is, we permit new, more lavish, star-studded performances every year.  Nationwide, we decry the many dangers of the media – cyber bullying, cyber crime, government surveillance – all while this “entertainment” violence propagates unimpeded.  The perplexity is our passivity.

As at other times in my life, I am grateful for the solidity gained from my classic, if confining and imperfect, education.  A screen can be switched  from images to words or a book picked up, and these, detective fiction included, can still transport to reaches where humanity and justice are examined, explored, considered.

The mystery, it seems, is how our culture, as a whole, can be moved to some place safe from this pandemic of “crime porn”.

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