Friday, April 9, 2021

Subversion in Detective Fiction

There’s a good deal of discussion these days about how much “wokeness” has permeated virtually every aspect of popular entertainment. Indeed, the political messaging in movies and television is often so crude and ham-fisted that even the most slow-witted and unaware consumer cannot fail but notice it. Fortunately, most of the people who write these stories are as inept as propagandists as they are as story tellers. But that’s not always the case.

When thinking about messaging in storytelling, it’s good to think about it in terms of layers: There is the direct, transparent messaging that lies on the surface of a story; it is there, in plain sight, for everyone to see. And then there is messaging that lies below the surface, messaging that is subtle and subliminal. Unless you’re specifically looking for it, you’re liable to miss the subliminal content altogether. Most people do.

My sense is that political messaging tends to lie on the top layer, in plain sight, but on the layer underneath is where you find moral messaging. And it is subversive moral messaging that I want to discuss here.

We expect to see subversive messaging in the usual places. We expect it in the films of Rian Johnson or Quentin Tarantino, or in the novels of Michael Moorcock. But subversion also crops up in the most unexpected places, like the detective story.

The traditional detective story is normally a straightforward moral tale of right and wrong. A murder has been committed and the killer is brought to justice. But every now and then, you may see a bit of subversion slip into this structure.

A good example of how this works is in an episode of the British/French TV series Death in Paradise. The episode, entitled “A Different Story,” is the 4th episode of Season 8.

In this episode, there are three subplots in addition to the main murder mystery. All three of which are tainted with police corruption or some other type of police misconduct. The rap sheet of bad behavior that occurs is as follows:

  • Witnessing illegal activity and doing nothing to stop it. (Florence, Mooney)
  • Lying to another police officer while conducting official business. (Mooney, Commissioner Patterson)
  • Facilitating the continuance of illegal activity by exploiting a loophole in the law. (Mooney)
  • Falsifying official documents. (Ruby, unidentified bureaucrats)
  • Pressuring a colleague to remain silent about misconduct. (Ruby)
  • Failure to recuse oneself from an ethics inquiry despite a flagrant conflict of interest. (Commissioner Patterson)
  • Soliciting or accepting bribes. (Mooney)
  • Destruction of official documents as part of a cover-up. (unidentified bureaucrats, possibly Commissioner Patterson)

The writer of this episode wants the viewer to regard all of this as normal behavior. While the transgressions themselves are important, I mainly want to highlight the techniques the writer uses to manipulate the viewer.

The episode opens with Detective Inspector Mooney at a bar, watching a crab race with the locals. Florence arrives and informs Mooney that a murder has been committed. Later on, after Mooney returns to the station, Mooney’s boss, Commissioner Patterson, arrives and announces that there’s a problem with illegal gambling at local bars involving crab racing. He pointedly asks Mooney if he knows anything about it (implying that he has heard through the grapevine that Mooney has participated in such events). Mooney lies, stating that he is unaware of such activity. Patterson then informs him that unidentified “superiors” want the gambling stamped out. Here, the writer plays the first of what will be numerous tricks. By slipping in that little aside about his superiors, Patterson implies that he himself has little interest in whether or not the law is enforced. The writer has planted the seed in the viewer’s mind that the law has little intrinsic value and is not worth enforcing. This will come full circle in the episode’s denouement.

After the commissioner leaves, Mooney complains to Florence that he didn’t know that gambling in bars is illegal. Another trick on the part of the writer. That Mooney would be too stupid to figure this out is implausible. Mooney is a senior-ranking officer with years of experience. Even if he is unfamiliar with the laws in his new home, surely he must realize that gambling in bars is illegal in most jurisdictions around the world. By making Mooney implausibly stupid, the writer is attempting to make him unaccountable for his actions. (Actually, Mooney's a really smart character, so smart, in fact, that he solves complex cases that baffle everyone else.)

The second subplot revolves around a new officer, Ruby Patterson, who has been recently assigned to the station. She is the niece of Commissioner Patterson, a nepotism hire. At the crime scene, she starts talking with her partner, J.P. Hooper. She tells J.P. a secret: Before she was hired as a police officer, she was once arrested. J.P. is shocked. He says, “You can’t be a police officer with a criminal record.” She replies, “No one will ever find out if you don’t tell anyone.” She then pressures him to agree to keep this a secret.

There are two things going on in this conversation, and the writer deploys an important trick in his repertoire, that of withholding key information from the viewer. The first issue regards the nature of Ruby’s arrest. What was she arrested for? A major offense or a minor one? Did the case go to trial? Was she convicted? We don’t know because the writer conveniently neglects to have J.P. ask her these obvious follow-up questions. By deliberately withholding this information, the writer makes it difficult for the viewer to pass judgement on Ruby’s actions. 

The second issue is the job application process. When Ruby applied for the job, did she know that people with criminal records are ineligible to become police officers? Her attitude implies that she did not, but again, this is implausible. Anyone who’s ever applied for a government job knows that there’s always a question on the application form along the lines of “Have you ever been arrested?” So, Ruby would have had to have lied about this on her application form. Also, the police department would have conducted routine records checks on her, checks which would have revealed her arrest. A confederate in the bureaucracy would have had to have covered for her, a scenario that is entirely plausible given that her uncle is a senior officer in the force. But in all their conversations regarding this incident, neither J.P., nor Ruby, nor her uncle raise this obvious issue. The writer has withheld this information from the viewer.

Later on in the episode, J.P. is visibly upset that he has been pressured into keeping this secret, so Ruby announces that she will go and confess to her uncle. During her meeting with him, Commissioner Patterson is appalled, and grimly states that he will report the incident to the “Policing Standards Committee.” He then informs her that she may end up getting dismissed from the force. Of note, in this conversation, as well as all other conversations regarding this incident, Ruby acts as if she has done nothing wrong. She treats it as a trivial matter and shows no repentance.

Afterwards, Ruby informs J.P. of her conversation with her uncle. Upon hearing that she might get fired, J.P. says, “I’m really sorry, Ruby.” Why is J.P. apologizing? He has absolutely nothing to apologize for. Of all the characters in this episode, he is the one with the highest personal integrity, yet he is the only one showing contrition. Again, more manipulation on the writer’s part. The writer wants the viewer to regard J.P.’s attitude as the aberrant one, and to regard the other characters’ behavior as normal.

Meanwhile, the main plot goes on and the writer goes out of his way to portray Ruby as cheerful and friendly. He also shows her to be highly competent. She eagerly follows her boss’s instructions and takes the initiative. Her contributions turn out to be key in solving the murder case. The writer wants the viewer to take Ruby’s side, but he’s using emotional manipulation to do so. The writer is dodging the key issues of her situation.

J.P. visits Commissioner Patterson and mounts a spirited defense of Ruby. He argues that she is a highly competent police officer and has made valuable contributions. The commissioner then lets J.P. in on a little secret: The “Policing Standards Committee” is just himself. No other senior officials know about this. J.P. asks the commissioner why he lied to Ruby. The commissioner replies, “I want my niece to realize how much this job means to her.”

There is a lot of writerly manipulation going on in this scene. The first trick is to have another character (usually a character with high moral standing, such as J.P. in this case) validate or excuse the actions of the transgressor.

The second trick is that of deflection. Both J.P. and Commissioner Patterson are addressing exactly the wrong questions. J.P. should not be concerned whether or not Ruby is a competent police officer; rather, he should be concerned whether or not she is an ethical one. Will she accept bribes, or falsify evidence, or otherwise abuse her position of authority? If Ruby is indeed fired, it will be because there are concerns about her ethics and judgment, not her competence or cheerful personality.

And Patterson is focusing on the wrong thing as well. Rather than being concerned whether or not his niece realizes this job is important to her, he should be concerned whether or not she understands that what she did was wrong. So far, she has demonstrated that she does not.

I mentioned earlier that there is a third subplot in this episode, a subplot that would be irrelevant to this discussion were it not for a single sentence that comes out of Mooney’s mouth. It concerns Florence’s upcoming marriage to her fiancé, Patrice. She wants to hold the wedding ceremony in the building where her parents were married, a place she has not visited in years. When she, Patrice, and Mooney go and visit the site, they discover that the building has fallen into ruin. Florence is crestfallen. They will have to find another wedding venue.

In a later scene, Mooney and Patrice return to the site, and they discover the building has undergone extensive renovations and now looks practically brand new. Workmen are still moving about the place. It becomes clear that Mooney has organized the whole thing. “Call it my wedding present,” he says. Patrice says in shock, “It’s too much!”  The renovations are extensive and easily could have cost tens of thousands of dollars. Did all of this come out of Mooney’s pocket? Mooney mutters, “A couple of favors.” The scene’s purpose, other than bringing closure to this subplot, is to evoke strong, feel-good emotions in the viewer. Mooney comes across as warm, altruistic, and generous. Then he says something that completely blows everything out of the water: “You’d be surprised at how many people want to do the local police inspector a favor.” Now, why would people be so eager to do favors for the police inspector? Is it because they expect him to return the favor sometime in the future? In other words, bribery. Most viewers probably wouldn't pick up on this aspect of it since the scene is so heavily layered with positive emotions.

Fast forward to the denouement. They are having a party at Mooney’s beachside bungalow, celebrating the successful conclusion of the murder investigation. There is also crab racing. Commissioner Patterson remarks that Mooney has exploited a loophole in the law against gambling. There is no tone of disapproval in his voice.

Later, at the party, Ruby has a tête-à-tête with her uncle. She asks him about the inquiry. He replies that no one could find the records of her arrest and that the case is closed. “No doubt, an administrative oversight,” he says. She replies, “Well, I do love an administrative oversight.” She then kisses her uncle on the cheek. From his porch, Mooney observes this with a look of approval on his face. Again, a layer of emotion is used to obscure what is really going on.

But what actually happened? Were the records of her arrest really misplaced or did someone deliberately destroy them? The latter, most likely. And if so, who was involved? Was her uncle, the commissioner, complicit in all this, or was it done without his knowledge? The writer doesn’t want the viewer to think along these lines, so he withholds this information.

The episode ends and the viewer is expected to regard all this behavior as acceptable. The techniques of manipulation used here are not unique to this writer or to this TV series. I’ve seen these techniques in other TV series and in movies.

The televised detective genre is popular in North American and in Europe. Every year, there are likely dozens of screenwriters banging out hundreds of scripts. It would be a mistake to assume that all these writers share the value system implicit in the genre. Sometimes the mask slips and we see what these people really think. But it goes beyond just revealing the values these people actually have. They want you to hold these values as well, and are willing to manipulate you to get you there.

If you’re an author and would like to read my essays on narrative patterns and techniques, check out the book Pulp on Pulp, edited by Kit Sun Cheah and Misha Burnett. It’s available on Amazon for 99 cents and for free on other platforms.

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