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.
A long-stuck story came unstuck last week, and I was able to read a complete draft to my writers’ group on Saturday. One of my friends present asked how I got the story unstuck. The more I think about it, the more I realize just how incomplete an answer I gave.
I’m not sure how much a complete answer will help, but here goes:
When I was in my teens, Agathe Christie’s Curtain, Poirot’s final case, was published. A friend read it before I did, and told me there was no way I’d figure out the ending. We had had discussions before about mysteries. I had been a big mystery fan as long as I could remember—not surprising, since my mother had read Heinlein and Christie novels aloud to me as a baby and toddler.
We ended up in a bet about whether I would figure it out. He bought a second copy of the paperback and rigged it up with a seal covering the last fifty or so pages. I would read it to that point, stop, and then not read further until I had told him my guess.
I did it. He was carefully examining his seal when I told him who the killers were and what had happened. He stared at me, open mouthed. “You swore you wouldn’t read another copy or ask anyone how it ended!”
I insisted that I had done neither, and asked him if I was correct.
He threw the book at me and stomped out.
I tore the seal off and finished the book. I had gotten it right, not quite down to every detail, but I had definitely solved it.
For at least a year afterward he would occasionally accuse me of cheating. Other times he would bring it up, say he believed me that I hadn’t cheated, but still couldn’t understand how I did it. He would tease me that I should become a cop instead of pursuing my writing dreams.
I want to be clear here that I did not cheat. I didn’t peek. I didn’t overhear anyone talking about it. I didn’t find another copy. I didn’t ask anyone about it in any way.
But, it could be argued that I had a some possibly unfair advantages:
1. I literally had been listening to and reading mystery stories for longer than I could remember.
2. I had been intentionally studying the art of crafting mystery stories: reading countless articles in magazines like The Writer and Writer’s Digest, getting books on writing fiction in general and mystery in particular through interlibrary loan, writing mystery stories of my own. I was exceptionally well-versed in the tricks of the trade.
3. I was familiar with Christie’s writing in particular.
Those probably weren’t unfair, really, however:
4. I knew that Agathe Christie had written this book 30 years earlier intending it to be the fitting end to Poirot and Hastings’s careers. She’d originally stuck it in a vault to be published after her death. She agreed to the publication in ’75 because she knew she was dying and would never write again. That narrowed the possibilities of how the story would end.
5. I knew that the ending was something which this friend, who was no dummy, had thought was completely unforeseeable. Again, that made it easier to pick from the possibilities that occured to me as I contemplated the clues. Another way to look at it: that prompted me to at least contemplate possibilities which might otherwise seem too outlandish to consider.
This friend once asked me how could I enjoy mysteries at all if I often figured them out before the end. He is hardly the only person to ask that.
For me, part of the fun of a good mystery is finding the puzzle pieces in the storyline and admiring how well they are constructed, or how good a job the author does of putting them in plain sight while not making them obvious.
Sometimes I am completely blindsided, and if that happens without the author cheating, that is just as much fun as figuring it out before the reveal.
Bad mysteries aren’t bad simply because they are predictable. They’re bad when they are too predictable. When the author (or author and director, in the case of a movie or show) clumsily gives things away or relies on cliches, there is no delight in the reveal. If the author cheats by simply withholding information, or otherwise pulling something bizarre and shocking out of nowhere, that also spoils the fun.
And, as in all stories, if the author makes us care about the characters, even if the puzzle isn’t terribly difficult, we can still enjoy the battle of wits between the detective and the same puzzle.