The Wonder of Come-Uppance

My writing habits have been a little off-kilter of late, in part because of spring break and midterms, in part because I’ve been doing a little more work with hypnosis, and in part because Elden Ring was released at the best and worst of all possible times. Perhaps someday down the line I’ll write a bit about the narrative art of the Soulsbourne games, but first I’m going to hop in that open coffin behind the Valiant Gargoyles and see what happens.

In terms of storytelling, however, what I’ve been thinking about most often lately are olde-skool narrative ethics, the ethics of telling. It’s a subject that filters into common conversation from time to time when we look at an era and can detect trends and movements (when we look at the horror flicks of the Eighties, for instance, and quite reasonably perceive the connection between sex, drugs, and death), but an ethical imperative is always swimming just underneath the surface every time we tell a story. When we can see the moral of the story too clearly we often judge the work clumsy, but there are plenty of ways ethical telling can go awry from both the writerly and readerly side of things.

I’ve groused on here before about my resistance to nihilistic horror, horror in which it’s clear that nothing the characters do is driven by good motives or ultimately meaningful. There’s a whole genre devoted to those sorts of exercises. Some of them simply punish any character that espouses their principles or attempts to act selflessly, but some of them are more programmatically self-aware, having their villains spout philosophy as they indulge in their wickedness. I like to interpret those gestures generously when they occur in horror movies, working with the assumption that the writers and directors view that cynical indifference as extra-scary, but for the most part I just avoid them, even if the work is considered Very Important. I know that sort of content is not for me–I simply won’t enjoy it.

But here at the Abbey we watch more than our fair share of Acorn TV, and as a result my mind is normally flooded with murder mysteries of the quasi-cozy sort. I think the genre is especially revealing in terms of laying bare ethical attitudes. Lately we’ve been watching the shortish episodes of the Sister Boniface Mysteries as a shot and the longer episodes of Midsomer Murders as a chaser. They make a sense of narrative contrast fairly plain to me. The former are almost uniform in their essential attitudes: the series, which feels as though it’s steered by a single authorial hand, is generally good-natured and optimistic. It’s had a vengeful human monster or two in the mix, but it takes for granted that most folks are driven by a variety of motives but would probably be mostly decent if fed, homed, cared for, and left unattended. Sister Boniface also often takes an extra step or two to punish the boorish and cruel people who are not actually guilty of the murder of the week, and it’s not at all shy about making its murderers somewhat sympathetic. I think that’s at the heart of The Cozy Ethos, in which genuine wickedness is exposed and contrasted with the virtues and milder vices of most characters.

Midsomer Murders is more interesting to me, however, because it’s often easier to feel the influence of many authorial and directorial hands. Since Neil Dudgeon has become the lead the series has centered on something like common-law psychology, with DCI Barnaby unriddling mysteries by dint of his superior understanding of human nature. But in some episodes we’re treated to fairly grim visions of village life: people despise each other, harbor deep, petty resentments, and will gladly wrong one another so long as they believe they can get away with it. Getting at the central crime usually involves wading through a handful of more minor crimes, most of them motivated by envy or jealousy. Where Midsomer is most jarring, however, is in its effort to mix a bit of comedy into every episode. When the murder is genuinely cozy–when a normal human has been murdered and a motivated culprit identified–we get a mingling of guilt, confession, and rueful humor, which comes as a balm. In “The Miniature Murders,” for example, we get manslaughter and a duo of women who’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to protect one another, driven by feelings of fondness and indebtedness. On those occasions when the village vision is particularly grim, however, the laughter at the end often feels forced. We get to see an ugly Before picture matched with an equally unhappy After, with a series of casual and vindictive wrongs piling up in between. The tensions and conflicts have all been laid bare, and in the final assessment there’s not much to laugh at.

I know there can be such a thing as too much goodness, when the characters feel stiff and artificial in their enactment of some principle. I think our most vivid expression of this tendency is for villains to accidentally bring about their own deaths, so that the protagonists can keep their hands clean. But I tend to wonder and worry about writers, readers, and viewers who can indulge in cynicism and bitterness for long, unrelenting stretches without relief. That feels too much like life to me, at odds with some of the most imperative needs art can meet.

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