So, there’s a blog post about writing and plotting that I keep not finishing in no small part because I keep going on digressions that quickly turn into fractal rabbit holes and the next thing I know I’m writing about something so unrelated to the original subject that even when I stop and re-read the string of digressions I have a hard time understanding how I got there.
I decided that this particular digression was worth it’s own post. And maybe if I get the rant out of my system I’ll have one less digression to avoid in the other post.
I have mentioned many times how my mom, who is a both a science fiction and murder mystery fan, would read aloud to me from whatever book she had checked out of the library for herself and picked up at the used bookstore when I was a small child. From a very early age, therefore, I heard a lot of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and a lot of Andre Norton sci fi and fantasy, and so forth.
Because of the Christies, I have always had a great fondness for murder mysteries, police procedurals, and the like. Which means that I usually watch at least the first episode of any new series in that vein, to see if it might become my new obsession.
But I also have a few pet peeves, and one of them is the serial killer. Some series seem to decide to throw in a serial killer when other plotlines in the series are fizzling out. Some series can’t seem to go a month without throwing in a serial killer plot.
Why do I almost always dislike serial killers in these shows? First of all, fictional serial killers are almost always portrayed as super geniuses who have been getting away with it because no one can keep up with the blazing brilliance. That doesn’t match reality, at all. Most serial killers range from borderline intellectual functioning /(well below average intelligence/) to just a bit above average intelligence.
The reasons that most serial killers manage to rack up sometimes mind-boggling numbers of murders before they get caught are much more mundane. According to FBI statistics, on average only 58% of murder investigations result in an identification of a perpetrator. In a number of cities, that percentage is lower, less that 50%. So the odds are already pretty good that a serial killer will get away with it for a while.
Another big reason is that a lot of serial killers target strangers. There is no social connection between the killer and their victims. Police investigations always focus at the beginning on people who knew the victim. One reason they do this is because it’s easy, once you know who the victim is, to compile a list of neighbors, relatives, and co-workers. Then you got investigate all of them.
The second reason that police investigations always focus on people who knew the victim well first is a kind of confirmation bias. To explain in, I’m going to go on a planned digression.
Several years ago the place I was employed at at the time experienced a number of workplace thefts. Thousands of dollars in hard drives alone was walking out the door somehow. They brought in a consultant to give us all pointers in how to secure our work areas and so forth. This consultant turned out to be one of these guys who is really good at sounding like an expert but not really that bright. And he had apparently never given his presentation to a room full of computer engineers and other kinds of math nerds before. Early in the presentation he had a slide that included a statistic that at most 5% of the perpetrators of workplace theft are ever caught. Sometime later in the presentation he said, "Nine times out of ten the workplace thief turns out to be an employee."
A zillion hands shot up. "But you just said that only 5% are caught, that means the 95 times out of 100 we don’t know who the thief is. At best, you can only so that 4 times out of 100 the perpetrator turns out to be an employee."
It became really painful to watch, because the guy didn’t understand the flaw in the statistics. At all.
That example applies to the cliches that a number of police believe about murders. "It’s also the boyfriend!" or "It’s almost always someone who knew the victim well." Those beliefs are the a result at looking at that 58% or less of the murders that are "solved." I put solved in quotes because the FBI statistics don’t require an actual conviction to designate a murder case as having been cleared, and they don’t take into account the growing number of wrongful convictions that are being discovered through testing of DNA evidence that wasn’t tested at the time.
The important thing is that if we accept the 58% number as a rough estimate of how many murders get solved, that means we have absolutely no idea how many of the unsolved murders were committed by someone the victim knew. At best, it seems that a little over half time someone is charged, it’s usually someone the victim knew. That that’s 51% of the 58% solved, which is less than 30% of all the murders.
Meanwhile the serial killer has gone back to their normal life and never gets looked at by the cops.
A third reason that a lot of serial killers get away with it a lot is not just that thereis no prior known social connection between the killer and the victim, is that a significant number of serial killers target people in various marginalized communities. It’s not just that a number of police don’t think the victims are worth the time and effort (though that is a factor), but that other prejudices and facts of systemic bigotry makes a lot of potential evidence essentially invisible.
The most famous example of this is one of Jeffery Dahmer’s victim. The young man was clearly injured, had escaped the clutches of the cannibal Dahmer, and was begging for help. Except he spoke almost no english. The police who found him handed him back over to the cannibal, because Dahmer was a white guy who spoke well, and he convinced the cops that the young asian man was simply his boyfriend and they had had a lovers spat.
Another example are some of the known victims of Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur. They were closeted gay men, several of them either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. They led double-lives which meant that for those that were reported missing, the families simply didn’t know a lot about their lives. At least one victim was never reported missing because his family feared deportation.
There are a lot of other myths about serial killers that almost always are used in these shows, but this evil genius myth is particularly irritating to me. Now, I get it. If the writers’ wrote a serial killer case truthfully, the cops wouldn’t arrest anyone and not get to be shown as heroes. That’s not as fun a story to write.
One easy solution to that problem, in my opinion, is not to write about serial killers at all. Find other ways to put your characters into difficult situations. There are millions of other possibilities. Give them a try.
I’ve got several topics I’ve been trying to finish a blog post about, but I keep finding myself running around in circles… when I’m not getting lost down fractal rabbit holes.
So tonight I want to just post here this list that I’ve calling:
Gene’s Postulates of Bad Faith Argumentation
The shortest distance between two blowhards is a common enemy.
An argument can be extended into an infinite line of malarky with just the occasional application of a sea lion.
All circular reasoning can be defined by a single point and an iterative diversion.
Every false equivalence is congruent to every line of B.S.
If two persons are having a sincere misapprehension a single troll can cause an infinite number of irrelevant squabbles.
There may eventually be some Axioms and Definition of Elements to go along with this eventually.
A group of friends and I have been having a weekly movie night during quarantine. Each of us have nominated some movies, we put them into a rotation in a shared spreadsheet, and each Sunday night we all cue up the movie to stream or otherwise watch together and we text each other comments while we watch, then talk about it afterward. This last Sunday the movie was The Thomas Crown Affair /(the 1999 remake/).
There were at least two of us in the group old enough that we remember watching the 1968 version starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. So while we were contrasting the newer version versus our recollection of the original, a young friend in the group mentioned that the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven was awful compared to the newer version. I started to get affronted, but fortunately before I typed anything my second thoughts pointed out that I haven’t watched the old version since I was about fourteen years old.
And I honestly couldn’t say whether I would agree with 14-year-old me about the merits of the movie.
So, since it was available to stream for free on one of the services I subscribe to, I watch the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven that night.
Short review: I still really enjoyed it. However, I completely understood why younger viewers would not enjoy it at all. It was a great reminder that no creative work stands in isolation.
More detailed review: One of the film’s greatest weaknesses is that there is virtually no character development. As more than one contemporary review pointed out, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop — also known as the Rat Pack — aren’t playing fictional characters unique to this movie, but rather just playing the personas that each had become associated with over the course of several movies and other performances over the years before the release of this film.
Cesar Romero–who was never considered part of the Rat Pack–is essentially playing the same character he played in a large number of movies before this. And much less famous members of the cast (Richard Benedict, Norman Fell, Hank Henry, Robert Foul,, Richard Conte, and Henry Silva to name a few) were all playing a type of character that they were frequently cast as. So for a vast portion of the 1960 audience of the film, the script didn’t have to do any work to establish the characters—the audience knew what to expect when they saw the actor walk into frame.
A further example of this is the recurring gag during the first half of the movie. For no apparent reason, Sinatra’s Danny Ocean keeps doing or prompting others to do things that greatly upset the mastermind of the operation, Mr. Acebos /(played by Akim Tamiroff/). Nothing about this sub-plot ever contributes to the end of the film, let alone moving forward any part of the plot. Tamiroff was an exceedingly well regarded actor who had been nominated for an Oscar a few times in his early career, but by the late fifties he was often cast in roles like this one of a easily excitably, overly worried character. His main role in those sorts of files was the be the easily wound up character who was unnecessarily worried about the ability of the main character to do whatever he was supposed to do for the plot.
Slight digression at this point, Tamiroff was an Armenian-American who was never able to shed his accent, and thus enjoyed a 60-some year career in Ho0llywood being cast as virtually every ethnicity except Armenian. The character he played in 1940′ The Great McGinty is often cited as the inspiration of the character of Boris Badenoff in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.
Another big shortcoming of the movie for modern audiences is the heist itself. The way that Danny Ocean’s eleven comrades go about stealing millions in cash from five casinos simultaneously is not even slightly as intricate or clever as the plots of later caper films such as The Hot Rock or either version of The Thomas Crown Affair or even any single episode of the television series Leverage.
But, to defend the movie (which made a tidy profit for the studios at the time), one doesn’t have to ignore all of those deficits. Rather, one should ask what sort of story was it trying to tell?
First, even though it usually presented as a stand-alone movie, that wasn’t at all how the movie executives (nor most of the audience) perceived it. If you were a studio making movies at that time, you didn’t cast Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford, et al, to portray a new and unique character. You cast them to play a particular type of character they had become famous for. Similarly, if you were an audience member going to the theatre to see this film, you were expecting those actors to deliver a certain kind of entertainment.
Second–and possibly most important–this film is not part of the modern genre of caper film. The title itself foreshadows the ending. Early in the film Sammy Davis, Jr. sings a song called "Ee Oh Eleven." The song is about a person who is trying to claw their way out of a less than advantaged background, and almost reaches financial success, but life is a crap-shoot, and the character rolls an eleven, losing everything he had amassed. And that is the clue that was meant to tell audiences what was coming. The title appears to refer to Danny Ocean and his ten army buddies who, as a gang of eleven, are going to do the impossible. But the eleven in the title actually refers to that moment in a game of Craps where the person rolling the dice rolls an eleven and loses everything.
While I was looking things up about the film to make sure I remembered all the details of its release and so forth correctly, I happened upon a quote from a contemporary review of the movie: "In the end, it is just an amoral tale told for laughs."
I think the reviewer who wrote the line thought that it was a scathing rebuke of the film. But when I read the line, my thought was, "Yeah? So?" Because an amoral tale simply told for laughs sounds like a quite wonderful way to spend an evening. We don’t usually come to stories and other works of art hoping for a deeply profound life-changing exploration of a erudite philosophical question.
We just want something that makes us laugh and feel entertained. And there is nothing wrong with that.