Master and Commander

Where does a ‘crime thriller’ veer off and become ‘horror’?


I watched a programme the other night with Andrew Marr, talking about fiction and in particular, crime fiction. He dwelt on the history behind this genre – in the days of Agatha Christie and the Country House murder – a ghastly crime (usually a murder) takes place, and so the detective and side kick enter the story. They interview everyone at the scene, red herrings are thrown around and finally the crime is solved with a little bit of back story on the perpetrator, the method – the great denouement and the happy ever after for other story participants. There is not much, if anything on the back story of the detective – perhaps a little on his/her home life, likes and dislikes. Move on in time and the detective takes a more central role, often before the crime has actually taken place. With the advances in forensic science, we can get much more specific detail on how the act took place – the detail. Often now we get much more of an insight into the character of the crime solver and they may not be a standard, regulation detective: the girl with the dragon tattoo, for example. As this has happened in crime fiction, more and more, the TV or film crime stories have become more complex, detailed and even longer running – a series rather than one-off story episodes. This provides the opportunity to draw out the story of the perpetrator, explain why they are the way they are, and of course for them to commit more horrific crimes.

There has in the past been gory, even horrific detail focusing on the actual crime but recently on TV I have been alarmed about the way this is now going. I cite The Fall (and I say now that I have only watched the first episode of series 1 (think the 3rd series is currently on?) and Paranoid – I have not watched any of this, having read the preamble in the TV listing magazine and thought – here we go again. So, forgive me if the actual stories have gone off in a completely different direction.

So,The Fall. In the very first episode, we are introduced to the killer – not a random nutter, not a poor inadequate human being, but to everyone apart from his victims, portrayed as a pleasant, personable young man, maybe even strikingly good-looking to some, doing a worthwhile job and with a loving family at home to sustain him. He attacks, rapes and murders his victims (women) in their own homes. So, all you women out there watching, you are not even safe in your own home now; he will break in while you’re not there (out gallivanting, maybe?) – And how dare you be living independently, on your own.

In the scenes showing murder no. 1, there was distinctly blatant sexual content (so that the viewer was made to feel like a voyeur) and the viewer could watch in detail as the various stages of the crime took place. This went beyond soft porn and I am not saying this as some sort of Mary Whitehouse figure, but as a woman thinking from a feminist perspective. This was a man assuming power in the most final sense over a woman, who he uses and then discards. The details also focus on a woman’s biggest, most basic fear – the violation of her sexuality. In effect, he tortures her and finally removes his mask so she can see him, and realise that she is about to die. It doesn’t matter that she now sees his face.

I didn’t watch any more but from current press accounts, he is now badly injured and in hospital but still able to exert his ‘magical’ male powers over women and identifying his next victims.

Now to Paranoid, also currently showing on TV. The press preamble before this series started, set the scene for the opening shots of episode one. A young woman goes to a busy play park with her child and then, with child on a swing, mum pushing child and surrounded by other adults and children, a man approaches and brutally stabs her. No idea what happens next, but now the message seems to be – you women out there, now you’re not even safe in broad daylight in busy places.

I am now a woman of ‘advancing years’ but in the 1970s I spent time in West Yorkshire when a certain male serial murderer was terrorizing women and in the 1980s I took part in Reclaim the Night marches in protests when two separate serial rapists were selecting victims in the city in south-west England where I lived at the time. On these occasions, the official advice to women was: don’t go out at night and don’t go out alone. The subtext was – stay at home and you’ll be safe. Current media seems to have taken it upon itself to send the message to women – don’t go out anywhere, day or night, don’t live on your own and presumably watch these crime programmes on TV which have quietly become horror stories and reinforce just how vulnerable you are.

I haven’t really got the words to be able to wrap up a neat conclusion in this final paragraph. I am not an ‘academic writer’ so let me just say I think it’s wrong and I won’t watch these programmes. End of…..


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