Miss Fisher and the Paradoxical Task of Writing a Thriller

I discovered Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries at the beginning of July, and before I knew it, I’d watched all three seasons back to back. I was shocked by how quickly the show had sucked me in, with its colorful costumes and wonderful characters. It had the language of old noir, Miss Fisher had all the wit and charm of a hard-boiled detective without succumbing to a cynical stereotype. Not to mention its fantastic titular character is a rarity in thriller canon: a female private eye.

I realize now that Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries has accomplished the task that few books, movies, and TV shows can: a good noir. I discount modern cop shows from this genre, because I believe shows like Castle, CSI, and NCIS are a different type of mystery, bound by different constraints. To me, a noir mystery stars a private eye, a jaded character with vices galore and a personal moral code that occasionally conflicts with the law. The hard-boiled detective story is perhaps a niche genre, and especially hard to nail. It seems as though every possible story has been done to death (pun intended), and dated nature aside, at the very heart of the genre lie two paradoxes it seems impossible to solve.

The first paradox is one I’ve discussed before: the private detective. A private eye is a powerful character because they represent both cynical, blunt reality and the rugged, romanticized ideal, in which a lonesome anti-hero can swoop onto the scene and fix problems the system cannot. I won’t discuss this problem in detail, since I’ve already devoted a post to it that you can find here. But it’s hard to write a good story when your protagonist constantly contradicts herself. The private eye is a fine line to walk.

The other paradox of a good detective story is that of making murder fun. Most modern detective shows—The Fall, for example—are incredibly dark. They’re well-written, well-acted, and well-directed but we don’t turn off the television feeling comfortable and content. Even less serious shows like Castle and Rizzoli and Isles take on extremely dark subject matter. They can be hilarious in one moment and somber in the next. Lead characters regularly die violent deaths, and bloody serial killers are recurring staples of a season. This is where cop shows diverge from the good-old-fashioned private eye story. A private eye story is able to make murder fun—a supposed oxymoron. We’re not invested in The Maltese Falcon because Sam Spade’s bumbling ex-partner is dead (unlike in a cop show, where we spend a great deal of time learning post-murder about the victim’s life). In fact, we learn so few personal details about the murder victims that we’re really not invested in the murder. We’re invested in how the private eye goes about it.

When I watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, it’s fun just to witness the investigation process. Certainly it’s more invested in the victims than a Dashiell Hammett novel, and it has its dark moments, but investigation is a game, and the tone of the show is designed to make us enjoy the mystery itself.

Perhaps it’s grim, even immoral to write a murder mystery where the murder victim is insignificant, where unraveling the details is more fun than investing in any sort of outcome and we don’t always care who the killer is. But that’s the paradox of the good hard-boiled detective story, and I would hardly call it realistic. When a murder mystery gets real, it stops being fun.

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