Murder Mystery Suspense Thrillers: 21st Century Evolutionary Concept
With less than a quarter into the 21st Century, time has come appraise the ‘Murder Mystery Thriller’genre in a new light.
In his book Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted suspense is the fulcrum of all thrillers with a fusion of trepidation, thrill, expectancy, anxiety, collocated with a feel of pandering tensity, captivation, fright, fervour. The readers seize with teeth the plot as it converges to an aleatory, cryptic and stirring climax, leaving them to ruminate. Typically, a baddie-driven one, balked by red herrings, twists to a bewitching cliff-hanger. Pigeon-holed, the author destroys hope, elicits curiosity and springs surprise out of the blue. This is the form of the customary mystery, psychologic, political or romantic sub-genres. Gone are the days of ancient epics, Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer's Odyssey, The Mahabharata. With evolving era, the art of story-telling has undergone radical metamorphosis as we are now into 21st Century. The old, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle type of fictitious sleuths like Sherlock Holmes are a thing of the past. The prevalent construct of private detective is trompe-l’oeil.
Private detectives have been in our fictions for ages. They have been the pivotal characters of riveting thrillers, hypnotised billions over decades, been the rachis behind the name, fame, survival of many national and international authors. The whodunits have made their way to celluloids, giving the viewers a grip of fictional suspense. In addition to bewitching the readers and viewers to a world of fantasy, it had generated a livelihood to a horde and continue to do so, who would have been defunct, else. As we have moved into 21st century, time has come to re-evaluate their fictitious incredible role in criminal investigation.
In 1833, Eugène François Vidocq, a French soldier, criminal and crewman, founded the first known private detective agency ‘Le Bureau des Renseignements Universels pour le commerce et l'Industrie’ (The Office of Universal Information for Commerce and Industry) and hired ex-convicts. Official law enforcement tried many times to shut this agency. In 1842, the police arrested him on suspicion of unlawful imprisonment and extracting megabucks on false pretences, after he had solved a peculation issue. He was sentenced for 5 years with a Fr 3000 fine. In spite of falsified credentials, Vidocq is considered as having led to the concept of record-keeping, criminology, ballistics and anthropometrics.
The whole business of private investigation came into practice where police were reluctant to act, or the client desisted police involvement. They also assisted the companies in labour disputes, often provided armed guards, the role that is carried out by security agency today. Charles Frederick Field, of United Kingdom, set up an enquiry office in 1852, upon his retirement from the Metropolitan Police. Field became a friend of Charles Dickens. One of his employees, Hungarian Ignatius Paul Pollaky set up a rival agency. Through them both, private detectives secured a place in the fictional sagas.
In 1840, Edgar Alan Poe created a fictitious character C. Auguste Dupin. This character was the detective in three of Poe’s stories. Following Edgar Alan Poe’s gumshoe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set forth to create mystery stories based on the fictitious sleuth Sherlock Holmes, its time span ranging from the late Victorian era to the Edwardian era. The Victorian age spanned from 1837 to 1901. It manifested in the expansion of British power and wary loyalty to social custom. The Edwardian period, from 1901 to 1919, steered many social, economic and political changes. Holmes was featured in Doyle’s 4 novels and 56 short stories. He gained wide acceptance for his sly and wit, featuring in stories during this evolutionary period. Its period ranging from the late 1870s to late 1880s in ‘The Gloria Scott ’to the ‘The Last Bow’ in 1914. It followed the footing laid by Eugène François Vidocq on the concept of record-keeping, criminology, ballistics and anthropometrics. In today’s definition, he is an integration of various fact-finding equip working at the same time. All condensed to the fictitious genius Sherlock Holmes.
Through him, Doyle explored various social, ideological and technological changes taking place during Victorian and Edwardian periods. The changes during these historical times reflected in his fictions. The Victorian era heralded a population explosion leading to an upsurge of law-breaking, poverty and vagrancy. By setting the milieu in London during these periods, Doyle gave his prime character plenty of stuff to work, many crimes to solve. Holmes also served as a conduit between the two classes, often working for the wealthy, while probing the sordid underbelly of London. Along with the social changes, these eras were blatant for rejection of religious and social taboos. It embraced scientific models for greater class mobility. The astute detective Holmes used mental faculty to logically elucidate hitherto previously inexplicable events. Many took refuge to religious beliefs lacking logical rationale. Holmes restored the wayward social norm through his deductions and gestures to a logical pivot. The poor or lower middle class, like servants, were often portrayed as villains. He upheld the upper crust etiquette by unveiling the crimes of lower class with his refined demeanour. It beefed-up the readers with social values at the time of this socio-cultural change.These periods were marked with great high-tech strides, relevant to the era. Keeping at par with the techno progress of that time, Holmes was devising new analytical tools to solve crime. They reflected his embrace of natural events, in tune with the scientific progress than blind submission to religion or superstition. Doyle poured the juice of scientific discovery.
Once this artistic blend of selling fictitious detectives hit the market, several authors towed the line, to create amaranthine fictitious characters like Hercules Poirot, Miss Marple etc. Agatha Christie’s novels had that extra oomph of psychoanalysis, which I think is the sea-puss of all popular murder mystery thrillers. In spite of her deep insight, Miss Marple couldn’t shred the mantle of that fictional sleuth created by Edgar Alan Poe. India under grasp of colonial rule, the creative thoughts of its authors were confined to the cloak of their colonial masters. Keeping with their colonial servitude mind-set, they spun an array fictitious fables, centralising around the concept of the established fictional gumshoes, singing to their master’s voice. Bymokesh Bakshi, Kiriti Roy, Dipak Chatterjee, Feluda etc. were thus born to cater to the Bengali tastes, spelling the wonders that could be done by a private detective. These taradiddles became popular best-sellers, especially to the sections, not well-conversant with English literature or who wanted a fresh taste in their local milieu.
Moving into this century, certain questions would force one to look ex post facto, in today’s light.
1. Whenever a death occurs, who probes the case – the police or the private investigator (no matter how intelligent and modern he may be) in fictitious sagas?
2. After a murder, who would walk to a private detective, when police are there to carry out the prelim probe?
3. Do private investigators (mind you, they are normal citizens with same rights and restrictions as others) have same access to police records, forensic report etc.?
4. Can they tap telephone conversations and access internet exchanges, i.e. social media and internet calls?
5. Have they access to bank accounts, insurance details or any other confidential details?
The answer is an obvious ‘NO’. If so, how could a private detective become the central theme of a novel, when his identity is obscure and apocryphal?
If that be the logic, in this era, no author could get away with some an absurd fiction. It has to be realistic, believable, pertaining to the present. Time has come to flout the fictive idea to a realistic one. Among the legion deaths, deputed buffs could carry the probe. Many quotidian folks could astutely scrutinise the conundrum, until one hits the final bonanza.
With this concept, I thought of bringing a change in the crime fiction form. The enquiry is done by recognised bodies at different corners of the country. There might be a blend of persons trying to solve the murder-mystery. Each would have a positive input and finally one could imbibe, logically deduce, crack the final jackpot. The Sherlock Holmes of this century! Even if not a part of the investigative machinery. Out of lot, as much as the reader is on the lookout for the murderer with the motive, he could be on the lookout for the final emergent. I also felt the customary murder weapons like a pistol, knife etc. could be sacrificed to modern scientific ways of murder based on my medical knowledge.
With this scalage, I capsized the age-old detective myths, initiated by Edgar Ala Poe to a realistic podium. Though probe was by apposite folks, solution came from the victor. In my first mystery novel, CHAKRA (Bengali 2010) later as FULCRUM (English 2013), amongst heretical ways of several murders, the booklover is in pursuit of the killer-boffo duo. In crime fiction, the motive is prime – be it archetypal greed for money and/or power, the eternal lust for sex, the ever-present revenge for some real or imaginary crime. Here I took a plunge into psychology to scale to lofty ideals, taking Agatha Christie’s psychoanalysis to exalted heights. I tried to intermingle it with Plato’s tripartite theory of soul. Its highlighted in his treatise the Republic, also with the chariot allegory in Phaedrus. In Republic, he asserted the psyche is composed of three parts – logical, spirited and appetitive, corresponding to the three classes of a society. Justice is declared to be the state of the whole, in which each part fulfils function without attempting to interfere in the functions of others. The appetitive produces and seeks pleasure, the logical gently rules through the love of learning, the spirited obeys the directions of the logical, protecting the whole from outside attack and inside disarray. Injustice is the opposite state, often guising in specific form, where instead the spirited listens to the appetitive, while they together either ignore the logic entirely or employ it in their pursuits of pleasure.This was the prelim foundation of my new concept of murder suspense fiction. Together with Erik Erikson’s eight-stage psychoanalysis, ignoring the age specification, to evaluate the rival, analysing from psychosexual point of view. The character is taken through stages of trust and mistrust, autonomy and shame/doubt, initiative and guilt, industry and inferiority, identity and role confusion, intimacy and isolation, generativity and stagnation, integrity and despair,to arrive at the final conviction.
Having reached that state of integrity, through my character, I spell the dilemma over the term ‘integrity’. Vital belief in conviction, if for good of humanity, why have the people been sacrificed for it, through ages? Why Socrates was put to death, the Parsi religion’s Zarathustra murdered, Jesus Christ crucified for treason (as per The Bible), Galileo hung in the gallows for calling the world round, Joan of Arc burnt on a stake, Guru Ranjit Singh of the Sikh religion killed, the Church of England ostracised Charles Darwin for propounding the Theory of Evolution? They were great people who thought beyond their years for the good of humanity and in that process, paid dearly. Could anyone deny Adolf Hitler resurrected a crushed Germany after World War I? As much as one cross-section would evaluate them on their perception relevant to era, with passage of time, many could think otherwise. Where even streamlined murder could be termed saintly, given the reason, in the long run. I left the readers to draw their own non sequitur.
Giving the speed to a murder novel, it morphs to a thriller. Thrillers have more focus on action, sudden events and how the protagonist is going to make it through to the next chapter or scene. It’s all about pace, tension and scope. Whilst the mystery is about the brain power, a thriller is a mystery that destresses cerebration accenting more on action and suspense. To be specific mystery is generic, whilst thriller is specific. Suspense bears no relationship to fear. Instead, it’s the state of waiting for something to happen. As Alfred Hitchcock would define ‘If you have a scene where two characters are conversing in a cafe, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table, the audience experiences surprise. On the other hand, if the audience sees the saboteur place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o’clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between two cafe patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion. Fifteen minutes of suspense, as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. The audience must be pre-informed’.
Taking Hitchcock’s account, a suspense thriller often loosely defined as a story where the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. The protagonist’s job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences an indirect thrill by associating with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a partaker in the chase. Contrary, a mystery is a novel of revelation, with sequence more mental than physical. If an important event, like a murder happens, the protagonist’s job is to discover who committed the crime and why. The dilemma in traditional mysteries is the fact that the villain and the details of the crime must remain unidentified, breaking Hitchcock’s rule of keeping the audience informed.
A mystery author knows it’s harder to generate suspense when the chronicle revolves around something already happened, as opposed to a life-threatening event that is going to happen in the future. For this reason, most mysteries contain elements of suspense, where the protagonist or another character’s life is in danger as long as the villain remains at large. The crucial conflict between protagonist and rival is reserved till the end. Threat from an anon source is never as fierce as the danger of a known puissant villain. The old-style mystery may lack shock value and vicarious thrill, it had other merits.
Successful mystery is persuasive drama exploring the alien mind. Few whodunits today rely solely on a puzzle. The modern ‘whodunit’ has become a ‘whydunit’. Readers want to find out why a sane person would be pushed to commit the ultimate crime, or how an insane murderer could skilfully cover his tracks. That’s the right moment to delve into the psychological aspect.
In Chakra/Fulcrum or CONUNDRUM (2018), I play this medical psychology. Readers get involved because the mystery is a perfect chronicle for revealing the character. I usually reserve the climax till the end, playing with readers wits diverting them on all possible false trails with logical clarity. As if to say, ‘Keep on guessing until I spill the surprise’. The tension created in a traditional mystery is by the unsolved conflicts between the characters. Conflict is created by taking identifiable characters to an odd strange sequence. The sudden death and following homicide investigation of a close relative or colleague is an emotional cauldron, plausible and clear to the reader. He is hooked not by mediated thrill seeking, but by an intense need to know what would happen to these characters that have become like friends. It mingles with their known folks in an unknown manner. It satiates our understanding human psychology.
Adding the speed action in future suspense novels, I was able to spring the surprise of a thriller, keeping the mystery as a sea-poose, altering the out-dated difference between a mystery and thriller, merging them both into 21stcentury form. It was through PURSUIT (2013), an international murder-mystery-suspense-thriller on international geo-economics. Amid bizarre murders by innovative means, the reader awaits with trepidation for something to happen. Besides advanced homicidal methods, I ciphered a subtly furtive profound insight into extropy of global dynamics. The traditional ‘protagonist’ waffled between effector and the seer. My outlook of future geo-economics manifested through its characters. I fused the elided outlook of tralatitious thrillers with a philosophy for humanity. This added the extra oomph to the reader with a ‘take home’ message.
After Pursuit, I delved into science, instead of economics, to come-up with a new genre of murder-mystery-thriller, which would keep the readers gript till climaxbased on cornerstone of scientific insight into genetic cloning, admixing with genetic evidences on historical theories, to carve a new scientific sub-genre ‘scientific thriller’relevant to this era, ETERNAL MAYHEM (2017), being the first. Here the science is mixed with the older ingredients to produce a heady concoction. Scientific thrillers involve a 6th sense into the core of science, history, evolution with a far-flung eagle view of progress. Amid the scientific essence of genetic cloning research, this was a scarper from the familiar concepts, to the roots of civilisation, scientifically analysed with its resultant diversities. It revealed shocking truths, so far clandestine. The apogee sealed in a startling eye-opening truth of humanity, offering a thought-provoking riveting thriller. The murder weapons underwent radical mutation from traditional ones like age-old knives, pistols and ropes to virulent viruses, novel chemicals and biological weapons thrown in between.
The latest addition to that new sub-genre list is my fiction CONUNDRUM (2018). As bright play brainy games with similar folks, I play mind-games with the reader, based on mathematical principles, in this scientific thriller.
Most authors have penned murder-mystery-thriller relevant to the time period of their authoring. I have discussed in detail, the contribution by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. With due respects to them, time has come to shred the 19th and 20th Century mantle to one of 21st Century, with a realistic outlook. Reality demands, down-to-earth fiction, not esoteric fictitious tale-tales. We can’t be swayed by unreal approach to a scientific and logical investigative apparatus.
So, time has come to evolve effectively in a true-to-life way, relevant to this era, adding the meat to known whodunit with economics, science, history or any notable subject in backdrop, packaged as a thriller combined with suspense and a touch of philosophy. This would exalt the knowledge of the readers, who seem to be averse to reading non-fictions. Icing with philosophical truths would leave the readers, something to ponder. Also ensure sustenance beyond the current epoch.