Somehow I’m not able to find a suitable film on Netflix these days. I’ve consumed plenty of crime films and reviewed them here. I’ve obsessed over series like The Wire and House of Cards. I can’t find a moment these days on Public television, when it is not playing “The Best of Pledge Week” after several pledge weeks. God Bless Suze Orman; but would she please shut up. Regarding network TV, summer brings an over dependence on people losing a hundred pounds or more and other forms of torture and deceitful behavior disguised as “reality.” I really can’t stand seeing people cry because they can’t sing or dance well enough. I’ve seen every “Law and Order’ in existence and in all of its configurations several times. I’ve even watched reruns of “Blue Bloods,” enduring yet another Sunday dinner with the aptly-named Reagan family. I’m afraid “The News Hour” and “Jeopardy” are not enough to get me through the summer doldrums.
So I’ve turned, hopefully for just a brief spell, to real crime, case by case by case. I sit in my half-darkened living room drifting off during the commercials for all sorts of miracle products only available through an 800 number. When I awake, the narrator reminds me of what has already happened and provides titillating information about what’s to come, a bribe for me to stay awake for a “shocking” or “startling” piece of evidence.
As a crime fiction writer, I’ve found some of the information useful. I don’t know all there is to know about forensics, even old forensics. Sometimes, the show provides insights into methods of investigation or how prosecutors determine who, when and if to prosecute. What seems common here is that the murder victim is almost always killed by a spouse or family member, and that it often — more often than not — takes years from the time of the crime to bring a defendant to court. And just when you think it’s over, it isn’t. There are a surprising number of mistrials or hung juries in capital cases. At least this is what my addiction has led me to believe.
I do learn a few things of value for my craft, but learning about clever murderers isn’t one of them. First, a deadly crime of passion is almost impossible to conceal. Blood splatter, DNA, forensics trip up the perp when he or she forgets the Boy Scout oath. No time to plan. Not enough time or skill to cover up what’s been done in a senseless rage. Eventually, the resources and bureaucratic stubbornness of the authorities yield sufficient data in these cases. Someone will be arrested. In crime fiction, this amounts to a police procedural kind of story. It can be interesting, especially if the solutions are new or are especially creative. In my mind-numbing marathon of true crime dramas, it has much more to do with “how” rather than “why.” And while that is less interesting to me as a writer, it I important and has spawned a whole sub-genre of popular writers and best-selling books.
However, even when perpetrators have all the time in the world to plan a murder, it rarely goes well. The only time murders are unsolved, it seems, is when they are random – that is, there seems to be a ratio that the more random the choice of the victim, the less likely the perpetrator can be found. But a good fictional mystery or crime story demands, except in serial killer or horror stories, a connection between the criminal and the victim. How else can the reader participate in the solving of it? Why else would a reader care? And if the criminal isn’t a whole lot smarter than who we see on these true crime shows, there’s very little challenge for the reader. What I’ve noticed may be obvious to others — and this is true of more recent crime stories on the far slicker “48 Hours,” “20/20” and “Dateline”— in real life, sometimes the cops are bone-headed, but the murderers are almost always astonishingly stupid. When, on occasion, that’s not the case, even after the trial ends, we’re not sure beyond a reasonable doubt that justice was done. (This happens more often when the defendant can afford a good attorney.) I can’t tell you how often I wasn’t convinced that the verdict was the right one. Of course there weren’t eleven other people in my living room pressuring me to agree with them or waking me up, for that matter. The blessing is that fiction writers can make the case airtight. Or not.
As far as the addiction is concerned, I know I should do something about it. I should read some Mark Twain, listen to Beethoven, or take a walk. However, when I do these things, I’m still spinning plots and creating characters. Can’t escape it.