All Crime, All the Time

Posted by Chris

Lately almost all the media I’m consuming spins around the axis of crime, noir, or mystery. Most of the books, movies, television, and comics I’m immersed in, are invariably about solving murders or committing unsolvable murders. I’ve always loved crime fiction. As a grade schooler, I remember being obsessed with the ongoing adventures of The Three Investigators. In contrast to more popular kid-detectives like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, The Three Investigators were compelling because they weren’t just precocious do-gooders; the Three were defined as much by their individual shortcomings as much as by their talents. The fact that as adolescents, the Three struggled as much with the given mystery as they did with their own sense of self 1.

Conversely, Richard Stark’s (aka Donald Westlake) perfect criminal, Parker is a man without doubt and in complete calculated control of his every move. I’ve burned through six of Stark’s  Parker novels in the past two months, and am hooked. If all I had to read for the rest of my life were Westlake novels, I would be content (Westlake was also prolific enough for this to be a viable option). There’s a clarity to Westlake’s prose, plot, and characters that heightens the catastrophic plot twists, when disaster strikes and everything starts going pear-shaped. The Parker books are paradoxically about a master criminal and methodical workman who plans for every circumstance, who finds himself regularly dealing with intractable problems and impossible situations his planning and professionalism is meant to avoid. This is because Parker lives in a world that lacks his ruthless efficiency and logic, so despite himself, Parker continually finds himself running from a cascade of dominoes that propel him headlong into Clusterfuck City (pop. everyone).

On TV, I’ve been following Nathan Fillion’s new show Castle, about a caddish mystery author named Rick Castle (played by Fillion, natch), who assists the NYPD in solving homicides. He is paired with the attractive and flinty Detective Kate Beckett 2, in a Moonlighting-esque pairing that is self-aware and playful, without being too manipulative with the will-they/won’t-they hookup tension that can kill the momentum of similar shows. I’ve been enjoying this series a lot, because its aware of its own limits as a mystery procedural, and like all great stories in the crime genre, does its storytelling in an extremely efficient manner. The main cast is small, only about 6-7 regularly recurring characters with Castle/Beckett getting the lions share of onscreen banter time 3. There’s certainly a formula to it, and again, one that applies as much to the genre and type of show that is 4, as much as to its own particular character as a series– but the show itself is a lot of fun, and it seems like the cast and crew are having a good time making it, an intangible/unknowable quality that can actually add a lot to any performance-based show.

A regular topic of conversation on this blog (and many others for that matter) is the greatness of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip’s Criminal. Suffice it to say that along with titles like Jason Aaron’s Scalped, there’s a renaissance in comic book noir; a fact that’s especially notable for comics’ deep ties to the pulps and the crime genre as a whole. (And in terms of the noir films I’ve been watching, I’m hoping to look at them more in-depth individually in subsequent posts.)

What’s compelling to me about crime as a genre are the essential themes and conflicts built into its fabric and fundamentals. Characters marginalized by society at large. A cruel and indifferent world. Injustice is as ingrained as the government’s bureaucracy (and often the self-same thing). Cynical worlds where the hopeful have the most to lose. I love stories about flawed individuals stubbornly try to carve out their own bit of happiness, despite the brutality inflicted upon them by the world around them. Parker is a great example of how crime stories are about assigning logic and order to a chaotic world; as often as the stories are about resigning yourself to the unpredictable, unknowable and capricious nature of the world we all live in.

1 Former child star Jupiter Jones (Detective #1) is brilliant but vain and egotistical; Pete Crenshaw (Detective #2) is athletic but cowardly; Bob Andrews (Detective #3) was methodical and would rather stay at home than stakeout; all have faults which are mitigated by each others’ strengths and their teamwork. Their adventures were formulaic, but also perfectly pitched for adolescent audiences. Plus, they’re pals with Alfred Hitchcock and would debrief him on their adventures– a random but funny hook for a series aimed at kids.

2 Who has suffered from some unfortunate hair styles or stylists, playing awkwardly with the length and look of her hair. A lot of police shows seem to have a problem balancing the idea of tough female leads having shorter and butcher haircuts to show how “no nonsense” they are while keeping them marketable as attractive and feminine objects of desire. Since these two aesthetics are generally at cross-purposes (generally, I’m not trying to get into a deep 3rd wave feminism read of relative masculinity/femininity of hair-styles right now) it usually results in a style that is mostly unfortunate for the actress wearing it. I know this is a weird thing to bring up, but watch the show and try not to notice.

3 Sometimes I feel like one can estimate how much screentime the supporting cast will get, based upon how high-profile the guest star (or guest murderer, more often) is, and how those salaries and costs factor into the production budget. It’s a well produced show, but it’s clear the crew has an eye on the budget line and that they do a very good job of doing the most they can with the resources they have.

4 I also like the show Psych for similar reasons. On its face, its central storytelling conceit conceit could be limiting:  a pair of amateur detectives fake psychic abilities in order to help the Santa Barbara PD solve a variety of crimes. In execution, the show’s sharp casting, quick pace of its pop-culture references and the self-aware absurdity of its protagonists all add to its charm.

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