On CSI

You Care Who Killed Roger Ackroyd

By Nick Mamatas

A house I owned was a crime scene once.

It took months for me to get rid of a tenant who was consistently late with the rent–mostly because she had kids and I couldn’t bear to throw them out into the cold of New Jersey’s winter, and partially because I had hopes that she could turn things around. I couldn’t have been more wrong; the ceiling in one room had collapsed thanks to a consistent leak, and she couldn’t be bothered to tell me, not even to threaten a suit or as a reason to withhold rent. She just didn’t pay and avoided my calls and visits and certified letters. And when she finally vacated the premises, owing me $3,600 and leaving no forwarding address or other information, she just left the doors wide open. That was a Tuesday.

By Friday, when I came to check out the place (and to be sure that she was gone), the house was ruined. The kitchen windows had been punched in and both back and front doors left ajar. The copper pipes of the baseboard heating registers had been removed, as had much of the boiler. Ironically enough, there was mail addressed to me–renewal for my homeowners insurance was coming up in two weeks. I called them, then the police, then waited in the broken building for ninety minutes–except for a side trip under the house, crawling in the dirt in the dark, to try to find the main water supply switch. I slithered out of the cellar door just in time to meet the cops, who weren’t sure that I wasn’t some criminal at first. The crime scene investigation was on.

The two cops looked around, tsk-tsked, and explained that drug addicts like to steal copper to sell as scrap for drug money. One of them might have had some sort of plumbing skills, given that the boiler had been taken apart too. They asked about the tenant, and when I said her surname, Owens,1 one of the cops said “Owens!” excitedly. I looked at him, then glanced down at his badge and nametag: Owens. “well, I don’t know her or anything,” he said.

Then the police left and a few days later I was able to retrieve my police report. The cops hadn’t even gotten the number of units in the house right, and there weren’t so many that it was difficult to count. That’s the last I even thought about the police until months later, after I’d moved to California and had been playing phone tag with my insurance company for months. The insurance adjuster called me and asked for a faxed copy of the report one afternoon, then called me back first thing the next morning. (his East Coast morning, that is; it was 4 a.m. for me). “have they caught the criminals yet, Nicholas?” he asked with all seriousness. I had to laugh.

And that’s why we like CSI, and by extension, mysteries in general. In mysteries, the awesome power of individual genius, the limitless resources of the state, and, most important of all, a just universe, align themselves to find justice for ordinary people like you and me. CSI is the ultimate in mystery–no Dupin, no holmes, no Nero wolfe, could solve the crimes that the characters in the various CSI shows handle in an hour. The forensic detail goes far beyond drawing room ruminations, a study of the many kinds of ash left by local cigarettes, or even thinking, “If I were a stolen letter, where would I be hiding?” In CSI, science, which bedeviled so many of us in high school, is finally on our side.

In his seminal takedown of the detective genre, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” which appeared in the January 20, 1945, edition of The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson explained some of the dubious pleasures of the genre of detective fiction. Reading The Nine Tailors by dorothy L. Sayers, he found that “[t]he first part of it is all about bell-ringing as it is practiced in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology” (59). And certainly, even one of the pleasures of today’s mysteries–and especially its cousins the police procedural and the techno-thriller–is that we as readers or viewers learn a few fun little facts to talk about at parties.

Wilson’s point, however, is that the crux of mysteries themselves are fairly ridiculous, involving as they do murders by bell-ringing, murders by pianos rigged with pistols, you name it. And they are, for the simple reason that complexity and obscurity allow for a plot. Most crime is like the crime I was a victim of: some guy wants drugs and grabs something that is convenient and unguarded to sell or trade for the stuff he wants. And sometimes, instead of unguarded money or merchandise, the poorly guarded will do, and that’s when we plain folks end up facing a knife, a gun, or a gang. The universe doesn’t feel very just under the lights of an AtM when a crook decides that your money is actually his after all.

It’s no surprise that Wilson would find the pleasures of mysteries both incredible and silly. The universe is always a more just for those members of the reading classes able to make their mad money by placing ruminative essays about books in The New Yorker. Nobody jacks them up on the stoop of their brownstones, and I doubt Wilson ever came home to find his plumbing missing. “If I were seventy-five feet of stolen copper pipe,” Wilson never ever thought, “where would I be?” For the rest of us, however, we’ve been in the grip of crime, or at least crime hysteria, since the Nixon administration.

But that’s not what makes CSI popular on its own. Nearly a century past the golden age of detective fiction, we’re jaded. The butler did it! It was an ice dagger, which then melted, eliminating the murder weapon! But as the Great Fear–of terrorists, of child-murderers, of racial and ethnic minorities, of the Villainous Outsider–has grown, so too has our sophistication. In this fin de si¨cle, the stakes and the complexity of our detective cases have to be pumped up to get us a good scare and an appropriate catharsis. From an episode of CSI, “Pirates of the third Reich” (6-15), presented in summary form on the CBS web site:

Samples of both [the victims] eyes’ vitreous fluid are taken to get an accurate reading for a t.O.d. In the process, they discover the woman’s optic nerve has been severed on her right eye. The left one is still intact. Dr. Robbins has him clip both eyes and send them to the DNA lab where wendy Simms runs a tox screen along with her normal genetic tests. She reports to Sara that oxycodone and chlorpromazine were found in both eyes. One kills pain, the other quells panic. It gets weirder: the dried-up eyeball belonged to someone else–a male. By the time the woman’s autopsy is over, Dr. Robbins and Grissom are inclined to believe that Dr. Mengele may be working out in the desert. The victim has puncture wounds in all her glandular areas from large gauge needles. She also had a d&C, possibly for polyps, hyperplasia, or infection. Evidence also shows she suffered from necrotizing faciitis, a flesh-eating disease. However, it looks like the bacterium was directly introduced into her bloodstream to get at her internal organs, because her skin is fine.

Torn from today’s headlines, to be sure! And the poor woman’s bizarre death will not go unpunished. Warrants are issued, fifty CSI cadets pore over the desert to find more evidence, videotapes from sleep clinics are reviewed, etchings are stolen, spent condoms retrieved and sperm examined . . . You name it, it happens, up to and including a trap door that leads to a secret Nazi lair. And that’s one episode. Pretty lurid stuff, and far more lurid and involved than any actual murders. “Bitch mouthed off to me and I don’t play that shit,” or, “we were drunk and fucking around, then it just happened,” or, “he wouldn’t give me his wallet,” don’t make for very good mysteries.

And the goal of the mystery is not verisimilitude, no matter the gritty “realism” of the corpses put on display or the authenticity of the scientific apparatus used (or the CGI used to make the audience go “Oooh” or even “Ew!”), but to provide the reader with a challenge in trying to guess what happened. As Wilson noted sixty years ago:

The detective novel is a kind of game in which the reader of a given story, in order to play properly his hand, should be familiar with all the devices that have already been used in other stories. These devices, it seems, are now barred: the reader must challenge the writer to solve his problem in some novel way, the writer puts it to the reader to guess the new solution (60).

Here in the twenty-first century, the number of devices used and discarded has grown to such a point that the rules adhered to by the Golden Age detective story writers have been thrown out the window. The detection Club, founded in 1928 by dorothy Sayers and other leading mystery novelists as a social club-cum-secret society-cum-in-joke, had, as part of its oath, a promise that that author’s “detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance upon nor making use of divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mum-bo Jumbo, Jiggery Pokery, Coincidence, or any hitherto unknown Act of God” (Giles). S. S. Van dine, the once-famed but now nearly forgotten author who created the dandyish New york detective Philo Vance, was even stricter, denouncing love interests, teams of detectives, unmotivated confessions, secret societies or organized crime, or secret twins. Yes, well, forget all about that. This is television we’re talking about, after all.

Instead of the clean, rationalistic lines of a Golden Age puzzler, CSI offers up its hypermodern equivalent. Crimes have gotten too complex to be handled by one man or woman, or through the wits God (or the author) have granted anyone. The rationalist method has been replaced by a scientific bureaucracy that never falters or errs–the only true obstacle to the solution of a crime and the arrest and punishment of the guilty is not the intelligence of the criminal, but the endless legalistic technicalities that keep some evidence from being admissible, or one room thoroughly searched, or a single wayward eyelash from being placed under the proper microscope. If only we all just had DNA samples taken at birth, there would never be any worry about catching a criminal, unless we also all took to slipping into four-limbed zip lock baggies when we wanted to bump off our neighbor. (But good luck disposing of your hermetically sealed plastic suit afterward.) CSI allows us to surrender our own agency, and to let the state and science take care of us, completely and forever.

CSI and the inevitable knock-offs (Bones, Crossing Jordan, and to a lesser extent the medical mystery show House) are the ultimate in wish-fulfillment. For all of us good American taxpayers, there is a nanny police state that uses nothing but objective and infallible means to keep society from falling into chaos. With infinite resources at its command, but no special demands made upon anyone except for the guilty, the nanny police state (staffed not by evil storm troopers or soulless technocrats, but sexy, if flawed, individuals) keeps us safe. The detective novel was designed to not only let a reader match wits with the writer, but to give the reader an object on which to focus her hate: the murderer who, in Golden Age fashion, was never a petty criminal or some random boob, but an unexpected and often respected member of the community, much like the mystery reader herself was. In this new era, communities have relatively few respected members, but there is still no room for the petty crime in the public psyche. So instead we go for baroque.

Imagine my experience with crime in a CSI world. I make a call and fog machines start up. Flashlights slice through the dark, beams cutting the confusion of mystery to ribbons. A stray fingernail, maybe even some dandruff is found . . . and a genetic test suggests that the individual may have a genetic propensity to Cooley’s anemia. But wait, that’s me! Cut to commercial.

After my genetic material is separated from that of everyone else who might have been crawling around the house, cops instantly and easily track down Ms. Owens and her three kids. The oldest, at fourteen, is the unfortunate “man of the house”; his eyes are wide with terror, but he still stands between the men in their nice suits and his poor, half-drunk mother. Finally, an attractive blonde pushes her way past her somewhat oafish male co-workers and charms her way past the boy and to the mother. The interview is inconclusive, and there are lots of close-ups of wrinkled Kleenex and murmuring in the background.

Later, three blocks away, a tiny sliver of solder is found by one of the forty cadets swarming over the greater neighborhood. It glows like life itself in the gaze of yet another flashlight. “I think we got something.” Commercial. Buy a car, why don’t you? Or a frozen dinner.

Yes, it is solder, but an obscure kind, mostly used in Latin America. The handyman is tracked down, thanks to the fact that only one hardware store sells the product, and careful receipts are kept. Did you see anything suspicious? the handyman is asked, while he is sweating, glistening, working on another job. Hear of anyone or anything? No, no, nothing at all . . . except that he knows he sometimes buys lengths of used copper piping from this scrap dealer downtown.

Barbed wire. A barking dog, froth on its lips. The owner–fat, disheveled, unshaven–isn’t talking. But a bit of copper particulate, picked up from the paw of the dog–it was the dog’s fault, for jumping on the cop, no warrant needed–does all the talking necessary. But is it admissible as evidence? Can we get a warrant?

After another commercial, the warrant may not matter, because another house has been hit! And it was the same place that the handyman had been working on before. But he has an alibi, namely the dried semen found in the cab of his pickup truck. He couldn’t have been getting a ten-dollar blowjob from a local whore at the very same moment that he was uncoupling a furnace from a home heating system–not unless he’s some kind of sexual superman. Haw haw haw.

There’s a B-plot, too. Sexual tension. Someone has cancer, maybe. A cop almost wins the lottery. Anyway, as it turns out my tenant’s oldest son had been following the handyman around, because he’s looking for a father figure, and one of his friends is a crack addict who knows a plumber with a secret sexual fetish–he likes to wear ladies’ shoes and stomp on the testicles of other men, and the crack addict had been the willing stompee for money, until one day when he managed to sneak a camera into the plumber’s workshop/dungeon. Then the tables were turned, and it was blackmail. They work together to follow the handyman around and rip off any copper they can get their hands on, all to keep up with their drug-taking and ball-crushing habits. They sell the footage on the Internet too, as an extra thrill, and have made all sorts of money from their side gig. Money that, in a nice black briefcase, is presented to me so that I can make repairs on my house and rent it out again to some other, far more deserving, family.

And the poor woman with the kids . . . eh, who cares what happened to her? Nobody stole her furnace.

CSI is a scientific morality play. Though crime has been on the decline for nearly a decade, fear of crime has rarely been higher. In a world where an intelligence briefing entitled “Bin Laden determined to attack inside the US,” issued on August 6, 2001, does nothing to thwart the attacks of September 11, we need to believe that somewhere out there, people are using science and reason to protect us. Few of us will ever fall victim to a neo-Nazi’s attempt to develop a superhuman race by kidnapping us and performing illicit eye surgery, but given the generalized terror people feel over curly haired men with funny accents, myspace. com child molesters, and their own neighbors, you might be surprised at who worries about just such a thing.

And of course, CSI also offers, in spades, the secondary pleasure of a Golden Age detective novel. Wilson got to learn about bells and pia-no-tuning. In my notional CSI episode, you got to learn that people of Greek descent are especially prone to developing Cooley’s anemia, and that crack addicts salvage and steal scrap to sell for drug money, and that there is yet another Internet perversion out there. It’s cocktail party talk for the sort of people with whom I generally wouldn’t want to have cocktails.

One thing I never learned, though: who the hell took off with my furnace?

  1. Names changed to protect, well, me, mostly.

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