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  • Writer's pictureDale M. Nelson


I was revisiting the excellent A&E series A Nero Wolfe Mystery recently and it struck me how casually they treat murder. In the episode, “Champagne for One”, a young lady is mysteriously poisoned in a room full of people at a party. What follows is a lighthearted, often humorous and high-handed crusade to uncover the real killer. Similarly, in “Prisoner’s Base”, two rather gruesome murders occur within the first act, these are described rather than shown and are treated lightheartedly, as befitting the style of the show. But watching that, I was surprised at how lightly and whimsically the subject of death is handled. The grim demise is a simply a plot device, almost always off camera, and truly just the thing to spur the characters into action. Still, it surprised me how casually they portrayed them in both episodes.

The series in question, which aired 2000 - 2002 (and if you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this and go watch), was based on Rex Stout’s whodunit books is a classic, if not archetypal, example of the genre. In a whodunit, we care less about the crime itself and more about the solving it. Crimes are solved with dexterity and skill, and often with a touch of panache. In a whodunit, the crime is secondary to watching the protagonist unravel the mystery. A whodunit is a puzzle, and the reader delights in watching the detective skillfully (or, in some cases, entirely by accident) unravel the threads in order to bring the culprits to justice. The crime, in and of itself, is almost a mcguffin.

But, the treatment of crime (in this case murder) as a narrative device is where the differences between a whodunnit and a hardboiled or a noir story really come to the fore. First, a whodunnit, by definition is about solving a crime. In hardboiled and noir (just “noir” hereafter for brevity), often times the focus is on the act of crime rather than the solving of one. Here, murder (or the threat of it) is the ultimate consequence.

I cut my teeth on the hardboiled stories of Hammett and Chandler. Later, I graduated to noir with the likes of Westlake and Elroy. The Maltese Falcon opens with the murder of Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer. This sets Spade on his quest to uncover the killer before he takes the fall for it himself. Despite disliking his partner (and, having had an affair with Miles’s wife), Spade tells us, “when a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.” Miles’s death hangs over the rest of the book. We never forget the terrible act and, in the end, we learn that he died in order to frame someone else. Murder may be treated casually, but never lightly. In noir, death has gravity. The act, either as aftermath or the threat of it, sets stakes of consequence for our characters.

The subject of “serious murder” is perhaps best addressed in Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch series. Bosch, an LAPD homicide detective through most of the books, begins nearly every story investigating a murder. Bosch’s mission in life is to not just solve the crime, but bring a certain nobility to the dead. Bosch lives by the creed, “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” His job, his entire reason for being, is to bring both justice and dignity to the dead.

I think its an interesting juxtaposition, contrasting how crime’s different sub-genres tackle the subject of murder. Crime fiction is about stakes and consequence. In a whodunit, we need a crime worth solving but not the moral aftermath that we would typically have in noir. The casual treatment of death disarms the reader and lowers the tension so that they can focus on the solving of the crime. Whereas in noir, murder (or the threat of it) does the opposite—it ratchets up the tension and the stakes for the characters. Even if its’s not the central point of the story, as a narrative device, murder represents the ultimate consequence and an unavoidable challenge that the protagonist must navigate.

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