Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – New Narrative

So this is slightly off topic from books, however I believe that the exploration of fan bases, adaptations of crime books and the crime genre on screen is extremely important in understanding the literary genre in the context of the modern world, so here goes.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a murder mystery television show based on a series of novels written by Kerry Greenwood and is broadcasted primarily by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) but can be viewed around the world. It features a titled young woman from the 20s who packs a pistol, keeps a string of lovers and chooses to be unmarried an untied to men who just so happens to enjoy the thrill of uncovering the truth with the help of her loyal friend, DI Robinson, and her faithful household. She is in one word, radical. All the things she does are frowned upon or illegal and yet she keeps doing them. Such a modern female character has inevitably achieved a loyal following across the globe both from the novels she features in and the TV show.

I have carefully been following these fan bases over this holiday season and have been amazed. First of all, these fan bases are filled with teenagers to pensioners and this variety of audience enthralled me. I find it amazing how by making history more approachable by incorporating more modern values but also keeping impeccable historical detail not only are the young endeared to the past but the older citizens of the planet are connected to a newer age. I was overjoyed by seeing a common love of storytelling unite a global group of people in this way. Secondly, what struck me as different about these fan bases is that generally when a book(s) is adapted, it leaves many, many disgruntled people claiming that the spirit of the novel was lost. However, the only major complaint I could find was that the leading lady, Essie Davis, was about a decade older than the original heroine. Although, many of the books’ fans agreed she played the role very true to the way they saw the character in their mind. This may have been because Kerry Greenwood edited many of the episodes’ scripts herself and that the amount of resources available was massive as each episode averaged a budget of 1 million Australian Dollars. And yet, this reconciliation of the original novels and the screen was quite shocking to me. But it also opened my eyes that in a world that is growing back from an economic crisis, such energy can be spent on making sure that different styles of narrative are of the same high quality as each other. Lastly, I never knew Facebook could hold such a treasure chest of insightful comments. On the show’s official page, there are many episodal discussions and among the many comments of how great the show is, there are also very detailed and thoughtful analysis pieces. Some fans take such care to see every detail and every side of the story. I loved seeing such a modern and often superficial website used to make insightful comments and revelations over a global community that would otherwise have a lot more trouble communicating. This showed me that in the modern world, it is so much easier to communicate interesting ideas and that any service that allows for this exchanging of intellectual information should be used.

Overall, I loved that people are building a community around a relatively new way of exploring narrative. The Miss Fisher TV show and +books encompassed many of the same big themes that other books I’ve read in the genre encompassed, such as feminism, love, flashbacks, etc. And yet, in the case of the show, a single gesture which only a very keen eye could see, like a slight caress of the hand with a barely moving thumb, could reveal what would otherwise have taken a lot more explanation in novel form. Television is so knew compared to traditional oral or literary narrative so I was so interested to compare and contrast the two.

 

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries‘  facebook page can be found here

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Case Histories – Love

From the beginning, all three families have issues with love. From the start the lack of love in the families causes issues for all of them and then when family members are lost remaining members have to reconcile their pasts to get past the tragedies. However, there is also excessive love that breaches on fanatical. The first mother loves her youngest daughter to the point that she wants ‘to eat her’, in the second family, the father loves his youngest much more than his oldest and in the last family, the wife yearns for her lost freedom to extreme lengths. It could be argued that the lack of love which is compensated by excess is what caused the incidents to happen. In the first family, sexual abuse is practiced by the father, which causes a daughter to accidentally smother the family’s beloved baby in drastic attempts to protect her; in the second family, since the father does not love his eldest, all his love is directed at his younger daughter. This means that when he employs her to keep her near him she gets slaughtered by her stalker (who also loves her excessively) when he comes to threaten her father. Lastly, the remaining mother takes the hit for the murder committed by her sister because of her extreme need to take control, leave her unloved child and protect her beloved sister. It would seem Atkinson is arguing that love needs to be moderated and that misery will follow is it is too excessive or non existent.

Additionally, the bond of parent and child is explored. All the parents lose children because of their treatment of them. The first mother doesn’t protect her children enough, the second protects his child too much and the last doesn’t care (she loses her baby when she is sent to jail). It seems that Atkinson claims that all parents will lose their children, but for that to be a happy loss (e.g. the child grows up) parents must care and protect their children when they need it (like against abuse), but allow them to grow up and take care of themselves when it is appropriate as well.

Case Histories – Manipulating the Reader

Case Histories was written in a very effective style which I found very intriguing. By setting the crimes well before the protagonist enters the lives of the characters, when life seems to have set into a regular rhythm again, Kate Atkinson was able to write the plot in a way to manipulate the reader’s emotions most effectively. By placing the vignettes at the very start without any lead up, the reader was plunged into instant grieving, like the remaining characters. Then, this is calmly counteracted with the arrival of a protagonist; but still since a decade has passed, hope seems pretty lost for most the families, thus leaving the reader in a state of melancholy. This use of time to effect a reader’s emotions seems like a more advanced version of the flashback half of The Valley of Fear. She also wishes to accentuate the balance between right and wrong and how when it’s balanced it’s very hard to tell which is which, so she created a detective who’s only wish is to balance his conscience. However, she may have pushed it too far as the number of people harmed matches pretty perfectly with the number of people unaccounted for. A great accentuation of the theme, but it does make the crimes quite easy to piece together, which loses some of the fun of the complex three part weaved together plot. But after that she picks it back up with metaphors that allow you further glimpses into the character, e.g. a wishing well. However, the metaphors weren’t what impressed me but the way Atkinson used the plot line as a whole to echo themes in the text, so you really needed to look big picture. I’ve seen a similar occurrence in Life of Pi, for example when the plot flattens out and becomes slightly boring when Pi is losing hope so you lose hope as well before giving you and him a massive kick start on an exciting island. I find it amazing how some authors approach characters from a psychological perspective and attempt to manipulate the reader into the same mind set.

Case Histories – Weighing Ideals

At it’s beginning, Case Histories is anything but what you’d expect from the crime genre. It’s a collection of short stories detailing the emotions of characters before the crime is committed that end when the act is completed. Reading was like stepping into a character and just as you started to get comfortable boom it was onto the next one. As a reader you had to draw conclusions and invent scenarios from your perception of characters’ emotions because you weren’t sure if they’d be revisited in the book. But it wasn’t just the expectations formed about the book that were shattered; Kate Atkinson managed to morph my sense of what should be morally right or wrong. When I expected myself to be compassionate, I moved on, like when a toddler was abducted (or murdered?) perhaps because of a lack of information (do we need to have interesting details to stay interested?), and when I expected myself to exact judgement, I felt sympathy (for example when a wife chopped her husband’s skull open with an ax) because I knew the emotion behind these actions and I felt part of the character, almost like I committed the crime. I felt justified on behalf of the perpetrator and often that is what scared me, not the crimes. But questioning common moral ‘facts’ such as murder is wrong has been a major theme throughout many of the crime novels I’ve read throughout the creation of this blog. Antiheroes make you question the correctness of the law; homosexual messages and confrontation of gender equality make us as readers question our historical expectations and reform our beliefs about ourselves and the world. The crime genre eases the idea that our beliefs are wrong onto us by forcing us to make our own decisions and judgments over characters and plot lines. It calls upon emotion and compassion as forms of adequate judgment in replacement of cool headed law. The family tragedies were very personal, allowing the reader to grieve with or for others more effectively.

Throughout this selection of books I have noticed that as time went on authors have become more adventurous at questioning the reader’s ideals. Starting with The Valley of Fear, you question the law through the antihero status of Holmes but although you understand the purpose of the murder, it was self defense therefore legal. So even though there is a step towards sympathizing with the criminal it’s not a very dramatic change. As we move forwards to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the hero is again questioned and by seeing the events through the villain’s eyes you sympathize slightly but as you only realize his guilt after seeing the plight of others it is minimal. Moving on to Morality for Beautiful Girls and An Expert in Murder you see traditional beliefs challenged (gender equality and homosexual themes) as well as a sympathy with the perpetrator. In both these books the blurring of judgement is caused by love and fear which as a reader it is easy to feel compassion for. So we start to challenge our beliefs more as we are moving away from doubting the hero to actively feeling sympathetic to the criminal. Lastly, in Case Histories by eliminating the hero (from the beginning section) and just showing the emotions leading up to the crime the reader is forced into active love of the perpetrator (when the view point is from the side of the perpetrator, which it seemed at the time could have been 2/3rds of the time) as the reader is the perpetrator. All this leads to the idea that as time went on writers started dislodging common ideals more and more, which begs the question are we more open to new ideas now than ever before? Perhaps since we have the resources to be affected by so many perspectives (the internet) we need more drastic ideas to influence us drastically.

However, as the protagonist is revealed and the three seemingly un-linked tragedies are pieced together, another level is added to this. The protagonist is forced into unraveling these old cases because of his conscience, because of what he feels the world should be like ,not because he really wants to. This forces us to ask, do we always act the way we’d want the world to be? and if not why not? However, I did find the first 3 vignettes the most empowering and thought provoking.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Xenophobia

This novel was written published in 1926, less than a decade after the ending of WWI, when most the Western World came together to fight off the Germans. Belgium played a key role in the beginning of the war, by keeping the German Army at relative bay for a month despite having an army a tenth of the size of the Germans which allowed time for the British and French troops to organize themselves. After the Germans took control, the Rape of Belgium began, seeing the genocide of between 5,500-6,500 Belgians. To me that seems like just reason for Europe to feel thankful and highly sympathetic to the Belgians. And yet, in this novel, Poirot is viewed with increased distrust for being Belgian. He is described as “that foreigner” or “the little Belgian” and it is said that “foreigners just never understand” although unless he was interrogating people for information, he was often more civil than the native characters. The hatred has no basis and seems innate. This puzzled me even more. Are people so bent upon distrust of others that aren’t like them, that their views can’t even be altered by genocide which was endured for them? In those days, everyone in that little village would have had been directly impacted by the war, so why wasn’t that expressed in the text? Perhaps people were still so traumatized that if reference had been in literature they would have just broken down. People of the time wanted to go back to normal, but why does xenophobia have to be part of normality?

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Molding to the Era

Agatha Christie wrote during a time when what is stereotypical now was ‘in’. The locked door murder was the height of fashion, and so we see it figuring in the plot. Also, the topic of hidden love was quite hot so we see hidden marriage and love between two couples. Lastly, plot twists were regarded as the creme de la creme of the novels (especially as crime fiction was originally viewed as trashy, so it was written to invoke as much entertainment as possible from the working class. What I found really interesting was how Christie called her own genre trashy.) so of course a massive plot twist had to arrive at the end of the novel. The good Dr. Sheppard, Poirot’s sidekick, was actually a blackmailer and killer! For me, this ruined the whole novel, and really did make it trashy, but judging by the original reception of the book the plot twist was just what everyone wanted during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Nowadays, changing for society is viewed as the height of uncool and we hope it doesn’t happen, yet it still happens every day, to all of us. But that’s not what interested me about the book, but that the 1920-30s may be seen as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but perhaps the large following was actually detrimental to the genre’s quality.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Sherlock Holmes

From start to end, this book echoed the Sherlock Holmes novels; the characters and voice of the narrator were both reminiscent of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works; Hercule Poirot was an exaggerated version of Holmes. He was an even larger outsider than Holmes, distrusted for being foreign, mocked for his self-importance and a new comer to the village. So, like Holmes he used the leverage of his knowledge to force everyone else into the outside by not telling them his thinking until he made his dramatic reveals. Also, like Holmes he often commented on his superior powers of observation and the inferiority of other character’s “little grey cells”. Additionally, Poirot was an antihero, he took his own path, even if not entirely professional. He smoked out Mrs. Paton to announce her identity by giving the press a fake statement and let the killer commit suicide as a way out, instead of going to prison because of the emotional connection he had to the village and the perpetrator’s sister.

But it’s not just Poirot’s actions that reminded me of the Holmes novels. His sidekicks, not only the one he works with (Dr. Sheppard) but also his previous colleague of whom he reminisces (Captain Hastings), also act so much like Dr. Watson. Dr. Sheppard even commented on the fact, saying “so I will play Watson to his Sherlock.” Both Captain Hastings and Dr. Sheppard kept written accounts of Poirot’s cases and aided him in all the ways he asked them to, even when they didn’t understand why, again echoing Dr. Watson. Additionally, the novel itself was written from the perspective of Dr. Sheppard, like all of the Holmes novels. The last quite obvious similarity between the characters was that both Holmes and Poirot were amateurs while both Watson and Sheppard were doctors.

Agatha Christie is considered the Queen of Crime, and yet her characters are quite unoriginal. Was it her way of refreshing a classic? Like modern writers do so often to Shakespeare  or Jane Austen today? And most arguably importantly are all genres destined for a revisiting of old motifs after a certain period of time, like the circle of life?

 

Fan Fiction on Hercule Poirot can be found Here.