Disturbing trend in murder mysteries

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a fan of mysteries in books, films, and TV shows. I am a sucker for the genre, even though some of them leave me feeling dissatisfied at the end either because the plot is ridiculous and full of holes or because the characters behave too implausibly.

But recently I have noticed changes in the central premises of the shows. It used to be the case that the murders (and there is almost always at least one murder involved and often more) involved motives that were either financial or had some kind of love triangle in which an inconvenient spouse or lover needed to be got rid of or blackmail over a dark secret or something of that sort. The basic idea was that it almost always involved adults. But nowadays, many of the stories seem to involve minors and there is usually sexual abuse and pedophilia involved.

It is a disturbing trend. If we assume that TV and films mirror the zeitgeist of the contemporary period, the question is what aspect of our culture is being reflected? Is it the case that this form of sexual abuse is now more rampant than it used to be and that is why we are seeing more of it or our screens? Or is it that it was always there but was a taboo topic in the past and is no longer? Or is it the case that society has not changed that much but that the old tropes are seen by the writers and producers as no longer disturbing enough to grab the attention of audiences.

My suspicion is the last. Most people live ordinary lives where there is unlikely to be major financial or romantic conflicts that might cause them to fear being murdered or blackmailed. So the old plots could be viewed dispassionately because they were so far removed from anything that we could conceive can happen in our own lives. But children are another matter entirely. Many people’s lives intersect with that of children, their own or the children of others, and the thought of them being harmed by predators can create a sense of fear and apprehension because it seems so random and can strike anywhere. This is why we have had periodic panics of Satanic abuse of children or stories of children being abducted off the streets or poisoned by Halloween candy and the like. Almost all these stories have been shown to be overblown but that has not prevented people from worrying that it might happen to someone they know.

Whatever the reason, I cannot say that I like the trend. These stories leave me with a bad taste. I have mentioned before my liking of old shows like Columbo even though they are quite formulaic. That may be because the abuse of minors was never, as far as I can recall, part of the stories. The new shows often have very good acting and production values and dramatic tension. They are well done. It is the central plot that I find distasteful.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    But nowadays, many of the stories seem to involve minors and there is usually sexual abuse and pedophilia involved.

    Maybe I’m just inattentive, but I haven’t noticed this. Can you give some examples?

  2. sonofrojblake says

    I think you’re close, but it’s more to do with the advance of the internet. One way in which society has changed is the massively lowered barrier to entry for authors of such stuff (or any stuff for that matter). I present two items of evidence:

    (a) I’ve written and print-on-demand published three books about paragliding. Until relatively recently it would never have even occurred to me that such a thing was possible, yet here we are, with enough money made for me from sales of these extremely niche products to cover the cost of several brand new gliders. Technology offered two things to me: the ability to actually get the thing printed and distributed to customers with minimum fuss and zero upfront cost to myself, AND, crucially, through social media and other avenues a route to publicise it enough that thousands of people made a purchase.

    (b) Fifty Shades of Grey. Started as bad Twilight fan-fiction, and when copyright caused a problem turned into bad erotic fiction. Again, crucially, publication initially via the internet and word of mouth via the same medium created a publicity behemoth, a film trilogy with actual legit actors (if not much acting worth the name) and an ongoing media franchise.

    The latter had the notoriety factor you speak of at a time when BDSM was less mainstream (arguably it’s only as mainstream as it is because of FSOG, perhaps combined with MindGeek’s websites), and the crucial factor in its success was elbowing aside competing narratives in the competition for public eyeballs.

    Kids-as-victims is an easy route, and Chris Morris handily demonstrated 20 years ago that nothing, but nothing, sets the moronic media alight like talk of paedos. See also the latest furore around (currently) Prince Andrew, the (for now) Duke of York. If he’d just banged some models in their twenties, nobody would have cared -- that was practically his job. It was the sniff of paedo that really put the chum in the water. (even if he was only a paedo under US law -- the hypocritically prudish Yanks parroting “17 years old!” seem a bit funny to people in the UK, where the age of consent for sex (ALL sex, nowadays, including gay sex) is 16. I can’t help thinking that Andrew’s cloth-eared ignorance about how outrageous it all was is at least partly down to his thinking (for a given definition of that word) “but she was 17! She was legal!”).

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Personally I think a more disturbing trend is the woman-a-victim trope. Which is not to say all murder mystery victims should be men, not at all. But there really are too many murder mysteries, thrillers, action movies and general dramas where the inciting incident is the discovery of the body of a woman between 18 and 30, often naked or close to it, with evidence of sexual assault. But this trope has been called out many times.

  4. DrVanNostrand says

    I feel like that’s been happening for a while now. It was probably over 20 years ago now that Law and Order decided that plain vanilla murder wasn’t interesting enough, so they spun off a whole new series about disturbing sex crimes (often involving children).

  5. JM says

    It’s possible that more sexual crimes are being used not so much because culture is getting desensitized but because the sexual crimes are fast hooks into watching the show/reading the book/etc. One side effect of our facebook/twitter/tic tok 10 second attention span world is that something like a mystery story needs a strong hard hook to get people’s attention long enough to get them involved. Except you have 10 seconds or less to do it, even something as simple as a love triangle may take too long and a financial crime is right out. Just showing a naked young body and you already have terrible implications.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    The sex stuff & woman-as-victim is nothing new. As soon as the genre existed back in the thirties and forties, every issue of True Detective and every Rex Stout had a busty woman on the cover, either tied up or threatened by a menacing figure. This would be true even if the actual contents of the mystery involved the intricacies of how a dictaphone worked.

    But if Mano is right (and I don’t watch enough of these shows to know, but I’ll assume he is), then I agree this is a disturbing trend. Do we flip back and forth between children as threats (I remember there was a lot of this in the 60s-90s, from Bad Seed to Carrie) to children as victims? I guess there was Flowers in the Attic back then, too. But it isn’t a genre I’m very interested in, that’s for sure.

  7. Dago Red says

    Ive noticed a similar trend in stand-up comedy. Take Lenny Bruce from 60 years ago and contrast his performance with almost any contemporary comic. I find even Bruce (who was regularly banned, and even arrested for obscenity) tame, especially when it comes to taboo topics like pedophilia.

    I think this trend in all media is simply a sign of our culture becoming more honest with itself about what really goes on in the world.

  8. Deepak Shetty says

    I think there is a tendency to think that “Dark” ,”Gritty”,”Realistic” is somehow better than the other genres. That somehow acting with humor or some action is inherently inferior to portraying a tortured person who faces some horror or the other.

  9. says

    I think we’re more aware of it these days. And our entertainment reflects that.
    I’ve been watching SVU since the beginning, and the early seasons were usually straightforward cases of rape, DV, or assault, sometimes with obvious expies for real people and cases, and a handful of child-rape cases here and there. The last few seasons have been more focused on crimes against children, and a bit more explicit (but still suitable for network TV).

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