Hannah McGill: True crime reveals our dark side

THIN times could be coming for Scotland's famed ranks of fictional detectives. No, it's not the Scandinavian competition this time. The new problem for Rebus, Alex Morrow and Jackson Brodie is that they don't exist, and these days, murder's only hot if it really happened.

Making A Murderers Steven Avery was jailed for killing Teresa Halbach. Picture: NYT
Making A Murderers Steven Avery was jailed for killing Teresa Halbach. Picture: NYT

The massive success of the podcast Serial and the Netflix documentary series Making A Murderer has established that the way to a modern audience’s heart is to involve them in the grim twists and turns of a case drawn from real life. We could see a lot more of this kind of content on our airwaves in coming years, particularly since it’s cheap to produce compared with drama. It must be a common fantasy in prison cells at present that a TV crew somewhere is getting set to exonerate the occupant – at least in the eyes of the public.

The fact that Making A Murderer encourages enraged certainty that a miscarriage of justice has occurred is the source of its popularity, but also of a current backlash, with some critics arguing that it bends the facts in pursuit of its own agenda. “It swaps one certainty for another,” argued a New York Times article last week, “and, in doing so, comes to resemble the system it seeks to correct.” And however selectively these particular facts are presented, there’s a further dark side to the current sexiness of unsolved or wrongly-solved true crime. The risk is the promotion of a sense that due process is invariably corrupt, experts are phoneys and the real decision-making should be left to people who’ve had a rousing chat about it all in the pub. It plays to the same excitably self-righteous mindset that favours vigilantism, or reduces complicated political issues to online petitions.

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This moral discomfort has been compounded by a gleeful cartoonifying of Making A Murderer’s “characters”, which blithely ignores the fact that they’re not characters, but real people, many of whom are in the sort of phenomenally unenviable life circumstances that makes jesting about their hickish self-presentation more than a little distasteful.

Being heartlessly flip about grim lives isn’t new, of course. Lurid tabloid journalism has always done it; and it’s the same impulse that drives people to share pictures of ravaged crystal meth addicts or watch documentaries about hoarders. A feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I” can easily mutate into unfeeling mockery. Of course, fan projects such as the much-admired tumblr site mocking the hairstyles seen in Making A Murderer could be said to be drawing attention to the prurience and schadenfreude that drives our interest in true crime… but I can’t be sure. One does wonder where the actual raped and murdered woman at the centre of the case factors into such jokey responses. It’s a pretty horrible thought, one’s untimely death becoming a pop culture craze – or, come to that, one’s friends and family having to endure their social circles becoming absorbed in it as an unfolding drama.

True crime will always have its guilty-pleasure thrills; but the great thing about fiction is that it can explore moral problems without making a gossip-baiting cliffhanger out of anyone’s real-life ordeal.

A felony not to be poo-pooed

A MORE everyday crime has been preoccupying me lately. It’s such an old-school thing to be concerned about, but it’s getting harder to ignore. Do you have a dog? And do you, after your dog has squeezed something awful out on to a residential pavement, scamper off and leave the steaming consequences to be stepped in by another human? The sheer amounts of the stuff around where I live are driving me to suppose that the unacceptability – so powerfully enforced in previous decades – of doing this to one’s environment has simply worn off, and people have got blasé about it again. I have a dog, so I’m sympathetic to the few seconds’ worth of unpleasantness that has to be endured to pick it up. But what I don’t understand is that presumably those who do it are just as appalled as anyone else by finding the stuff on their doorsteps or shoes. Why would they want to see it all the time? A new system of DNA testing all dogs and matching any extant poo to its originator is being trialled in (someone has a sense of humour) Barking. Seems like a whole lot of work and expense, however, when a simpler solution would be for people to give over a few seconds of their day to not being awful selfish gits.

An easier route to stardom

AFTER the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, the point was made that both men benefited from publicly funded higher education. Certainly the current lack of investment in poorer students reveals a depressing commitment to the unequal status quo. Suggesting that governments can kill off nascent genius, however, could be crediting them with too much power. Talent emerges in all social strata. Bowie and Rickman were lucky in some respects, but the current generation has other advantages: the means of artistic production and distribution are cheaper and less subject to control than ever.