When I think of my favorite types of stories, I would say my tastes lie somewhere between Haruki Murakami-esque existential mysteries that have no answers and watching Tyra Banks decide whether the girl with “all the fire” or the girl with “the intense bone structure” is going home this week. I don’t enjoy Law and Order or read mystery novels, so I don’t necessarily think of myself as a lover of crime drama.
But then this fall came along, and I became incredibly addicted to both Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder and the This American Life spin-off Serial, which is about a real-life murder case from 1999. I fell so in love with both of them that I have started thinking of Thursdays as “murder mystery” Thursdays and looking forward to them all week. (Maybe I should have suspected I had this weakness when I devoured Gone Girl, Pretty Little Liars and even True Detective.)
This has made me start to wonder: Are murder mysteries the most addictive story structure out there? And if so, why? Well, a couple obvious reasons. There’s the suspense. There’s the fact that the story is actually a problem that not only gets solved, but you get to feel as if you’re participating in solving it*. Most stories do not have this tidy structure, although you could say rom coms do, the problem being “how to get the girl.”
Is the most addictive type of story the one wherein we are trying to figure out who did it? And how many writers are picking up on this and working it into their narrative and style, just to bring in readers?
Better question: Should we feel bad about liking murder mysteries? They do make me uncomfortable, precisely because their star female protagonists are dead and silent. It brings up the same feeling all little girls got as kids when they watched Sleeping Beauty. Why is the story hinging on the girl being out of the picture completely? Human beings seem to have some kind of morbid fascination with dead women.
I have to say, when I see commercials for murder mysteries that show flashes of women being tortured or killed, I feel offended. It’s hard not to feel like, without context like that, they are meant solely to tantalize a certain part deep down in people. But I’m not sure what to do with that feeling. I could categorize it as “being overdramatic.”
I don’t know if I’ve had to think about this much before Serial came along. It’s different because it’s about real people. Hae Min Lee isn’t going to come back in a surprise twist at the end. She isn’t going to have much to say at all in this series. It’s not like Ali on Pretty Little Liars. There is something strange about our fascination with her murder, but because it’s real, maybe it’s strange in a better way. Our anger is real. Our desire to get justice for her is so real that Redditors are working their asses off trying to figure out what happened if Sarah Koenig doesn’t do it first.
After getting invested in Serial, How to Get Away with Murder seems kind of weak. What plot twist could possibly compete with the incredibly elusive reality behind Serial? The real story seems architected in a much more complex, organic way that is much more difficult to unravel.
Now that I admit I love murder mysteries, I have to tell creators of them some bad news: The bar has been raised. Now how can I get some tickets to the Gone Girl movie?
* (I’m not going to speculate about whether or not Serial is going to have a tidy ending, because I am a believer and I think the ending is going to be triumphant.)