It’s doubtless a result of the generation I’m from that when I think about fictional murderers wearing distinctive costumes the first jump my mind makes is to the Ghostface killers of Wes Craven’s Scream films. If you’re a little older than me, you may go for Freddy Krueger’s striped jumper, and if you’re younger than me I have no idea what you might pick because I have lost track of whatever passes for popular culture these days, but for me it’s Ghostface.
Now, Freddy Krueger wasn’t the first villain to adopt distinctive dress. I have no idea who it might have been — depending on how you interpret that, you could go back to Dracula, I guess, and doubtless even further — but the point at which your villain is recognisable by their sartorial choices rather than their crimes per se is an interesting one, and has been used to various effects in classic detective fiction over the years.
I believe that the first piece of classic detective fiction I read which relies on this conceit was Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher (originally published under the nom de plume H.H. Holmes), in which the leader of a religious cult — distinctively clad in a flowing, bright yellow robe — is seen threatening the man who has set out to discredit him through the window of the man’s study, and by the time the witnesses force entry has disappeared through locked and watched doors and windows, having murdered his adversary before doing so. Norman Berrow’s The Bishop’s Sword (1948) echoes this with another impossible disappearance, and adds an impossible appearance in two locations at the same time, by the charismatic leader of a religious cult who is at all times distinctively clad in a flowing white robe.
Dual appearances are at the heart of Helen McCloy’s slightly overwrought Through a Glass, Darkly (1941), too, in which teacher Faustina Crayle is observed becoming listless and borderline unresponsive in one location while simultaneously appearing miles away in the same dress to commit nefarious deeds. Alas, the real world nature of these books will immediately suggest the solution to these Same Person in Two Places at Once puzzles — I’m still waiting for a really brilliant solution to this which doesn’t rely on the obvious — but the fact that they must be easily identified when seen is obviously a key part of the scheme’s success. Were Faustina Crayle seen becoming listless and then someone pops up several miles away and commits a murder without bearing close resemblance to her…well, that renders needless the entire Faustina Crayle is Listless part of the scheme and the police just start looking for someone who definitely isn’t the woman who was practically asleep on the other side of town.
There are other examples of bad guys going out of their way to look sick and span and easy to spot — the delightfully bonkers Owl of Darkness (1942) by Max Afford, for one, in which a jewel thief dresses up as an owl for reasons which, if I’m honest, are lost on me a little — and you’ll doubtless have others in mind. There’s one particular book, reviewed on this blog, in which the entire impossibility hinges on the nature of how one person dresses, and it’s and absolute doozy of a solution…but I’m reluctant to mention titles because it’s something you need to come to as pure as possible.
This villainous vestiary of course serves the purpose which most people would expect from such books — the costume itself becoming the focus and so the question of who is within the clothes, and whether that is always the same person, gets obfuscated. This doesn’t really count as spoilers, let’s be honest, but if you’ve read that and thought “Oh my god! I’d never have thought of that, and now he’s ruined these books for me!” well 1) my most sincere apologies, and 2) I’ve recently inherited a fortune from a deposed royal from some country you’ve likely never heard of and I need help getting the money out of the country so please send me your bank details and I’ll make it worth your time if you understand me nudge nudge wink wink.
To me there’s an additional aspect, too, which I probably draw from this because it harks back to my comic-reading days and, if you’ll allow me a little artistic license (by which I mean “veering into an area where I must overstate my confidence in order to give some credence to what I’m about to say”), has been in evidence in this sort of crime and detective fiction for years, namely the recognisability of heroes. Yes, heroes, bear with me.
Think of Batman, of how much that black-clad, glowering, terrifyingly violent presence actually represents a tremendous amount of security — when Batman turns up, you know everything’s going to be okay. And you know Batman has turned up because there’s a six-foot plus man standing there dressed like a bat. Batman, unquestionably, is about brand recognition and how that can be used in a heroic way to instill confidence in people . Superman once called him “the most dangerous man in the world”, and for good reason, but undeniably he’s one of the good guys and the bat symbol and bat-themed everything is there to remind you not to be afraid. Equally Superman, red cape, blue suit, gigantic S (okay, okay, it’s not an S, but then that iteration is barely Superman at all)…these heroes have always been designed to be memorable and distinctive so that associate with their appearance is a sense of release and relief following whatever perils preceded them.
The same is true in crime and detective fiction. Any number of gentlemen detectives and generic pulp shamuses have been consigned to the dustbin of memory, but they would have all worn a sense of their own values — a physical toughness, a moral refusal to yield, a prodigious mental agility, a near-medical dependence on women or alcohol or sarcasm — as fully as any costume. The few we remember today — Sherlock Holmes, the Continental Op, Jane Marple, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer — can each be summed up in a few short characteristics which, no, don’t do the full gamut of each individual justice, but these markers are as clear as Superman’s S or the Lasso of Truth. And just as you trust that ass will be kicked when Wonder Woman shows up, you have confidence in Marlowe to do whatever it takes, and take whatever he does, to see the thing through. These characteristics are a shortcut to hope once again, and the reasons we have come back to these characters time and again, and reason so many of them have endured
So how does this apply to my villains, then? Well, if the villains are the opposite of the heroes, their own characteristics must be used to opposite ends. You take that aspect of recognisability, that facet of someone that gives you hope, and you use it to generate fear, a sense of dread, to draw the thunder clouds over the horizon and welcome in the storm. Except that villains don’t often stick around for long enough to develop recognisable traits; the one distinct advantage of the growth of television series is that they have provided much more scope for long-game character work to make the reappearance of a nemesis thought long-dispatched a tantalising prospect. Crime novels, alas, don’t work this way: villains are there to be vanquished, then the hero moves on in the next adventure and wipes the floor with another one, rinse and repeat.
And so a shorthand becomes necessary. If we’re not going to get to know them as people, get to know them as symbols: a yellow robe, a white robe, an owl costume. The security of the sight of familiar things is all the more powerful when something familiar is turned against you and made into an object of fear. If a plot sees one murder committed, and then another, and then another…well, a lot of leg-work may have to be done to connect them. If three murders are committed and a woman in a green coat is always seen leaving the scene, suddenly the mere presence of a green coat adds that frisson of terror. And if the detective’s love interest/partner/sibling/neighbour is found in possession of such a coat, or seen disposing of one, a small amount of shorthand has just provided a gigantic leap for your plot.
I read practically nothing by way of modern crime fiction, but it’s (probably) fair to say that such identity games have fallen by the wayside. There’s been an update of sorts with the growth of serial killer novels and films, with identities potentially skewed by the appearance of apprentices or copycats or — hey! — two killers having been working in tandem the whole time, but an increasing move to the psychological aspect, why the crime is being committed in this way, inevitably shifts the focus and intent even further away. I’m not going to lament this too greatly. Firstly, well, I could be wrong: for all I know, there were 128 crime novels published in the last six months which al relied on a killer in distinctive clothing committing a series of fairly banal murders that ended up being linked together by the tell-tale pink wig being found in the holiday cottage they had reserved using the false credit card in their dead twin’s name. That’s probably a book that someone wrote in the last decade. And if they didn’t, good on them, they shouldn’t, it sounds terrible.
But the second reason not to lament the loss of this — assuming, as ever, that it is lost — is that there is something so gloriously Golden Age about it. The possibilities it opens up for alibi problems or false identifications or even the sudden realisation that it could be absolutely anyone would only have been used to their full potential during that period of such creative overflow, and anything else would be a terrible waste. Which is not to say that it couldn’t ever be done well again, of course. Look at Wes Craven’s Scream films, for instance…
6 thoughts on “#146: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Invoking the Dreads Through Killer Threads”
One of the more amazing memes from visual Japanese mystery is ‘The Dark Figure’, popularized by series like Detective Conan (Case Closed). Where in (live-action) films, you only sometimes see the arm of legs of the culprit (with the rest off-screen so you can recognize them), animated shows do often show the culprit, but depicted as a completely dark, otherwise nondescript figure (can’t say whether the person is male/female). In a way, it’s a ‘disguise’ (the culprit is not really wearing a black bodysuit during the murder, naturally). But this device allows the director to show the murder scenes, and other scenes featuring the murderer to the audience, w/o giving away their identity. And as it’s animation, they can do pretty silly things with the concept: they always remain a shadowy figure, even if they’re standing in a completely lit room with the victim. So the ‘disguise’ is only meant for us viewers, who instantly recognize the character as the murderer, but can’t see who they are.
Nowadays, the ‘Dark Figure’ is instantly recognized as ‘the murderer’ in visual mystery fiction, even if their identity is always someone different. There are even figures of them: http://natalie.mu/comic/news/197888
LikeLiked by 1 person
That’s actually a pretty nifty trick; I have a vague memory of a crime-solving show doing a similar thing…featuring a reenactment of the crime, but with the person responsible in a black bodysuit so as not to prejudice people with regards to their gender or appearance. Though the fact that a meme — and action figures! — cropped up out of this obviously gives it the upper hand…
Well, first of all I hate you because I’m posting about movies today and Batman next week, and now people will read you and the few that come a’calling at my door will think I’m being derivative! So, boo-boo!
But let’s talk for a minute about Ghostface. There’s a big difference between this character and, say, Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger or Jason of Camp Stabmeplease. These costumed figures are actual mythological characters within their respective film universes, while Ghostface is, literally, a costume that over the course of three (or is it four?) movies and two television seasons was worn by multiple persons as a cover-up for multiple dark deeds. In that sense, while Ghostface is meant to be an homage to the many masked figures of 80’s slashers, he/she/them is a distinct entity in that it is really no entity at all. Furthermore, the fact that so many people don the costume, for me, diminishes Ghostface’s importance, so that the Scream movies suffer from sequel to sequel as the writers begin to take their own mythology too seriously. Even worse for me, it makes the “whodunit” aspect of the proceedings eminently unfair. Not that this is ever a particularly well-thought out aspect of slasher films, but sometimes they manage to surprise you (Terror Train is a lousy film from the 80’s, but the killer’s identity is, well, killer. And the remake of My Funny Valentine had some fun with this aspect, although the movie itself was dull.)
I did enjoy the first Scream because the relationship between you-know-who and what’s-it’s-name was so crazy, but then the costume-switching and “gotcha” moments got old. I had to stop watching Scream Queens on TV because virtually EVERYBODY was running around in a monster suit (and because Ryan Murphy is merciless about showing off gore onscreen, and I hate gore) to the point that it stops mattering who the killer is after the fifteenth fake-out.
Okay, let me go rewrite everything I’ve written for TNB so that I come off as halfway original!!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Well, the more you return to any conceit, the more you inevitably reduce its potency: even Krueger became something of a parody as the NoES films wore on, and look at how reduced a figure Hannibal Lecter became as we spent more and more time with him…you’d never believe that on the. back of Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs!
But I take your point, and see the repeated fake-out of idntity being simply the logical extension of this (even though that itself is a callback to the ‘false solution’ of oh-so-many classic detective novels). Hmmm, does everything end up back at GA detective fiction? Sure seems that way…
LikeLiked by 1 person
I recognize that the false solution tends to become a standard trope of some writers, but I’ve always liked it. Yes, I think we pros at GA recognize that any solution proposed in the third to last chapter is a stinker, and rare is the early solution that actually sticks. I think Christie, Carr and Queen (your favorite) had some fun with false solutions, although the old “we think he did it oops he didn’t so now let’s move forward oh it turns out he did it anyway” trick could get tired. Queen had a ball with false solutions in The Greek Coffin Mystery, and it worked because the ultimate truth actually topped all that came before. He does a similar cool trick in The Siamese Twin Mystery. (Since you are now officially allergic to Queen, let me know if you want me to tell you . . . 🙂 ) Christie’s Toward Zero works not so much because the trick is new but because ultimately the motive is so interesting. I think Carr excels at the “is she or isn’t she?” aspect brilliantly, and I use the female pronoun because it so often stems around a woman’s goodness. But he’s played wonderful tricks with the false solution!
This, incidentally, is one of the things I don’t love about Halter. I think he spends so much time trying to get you to NOT suspect somebody that I always seem to guess the killer correctly. Always!!!!
Pingback: Tuesday Night Bloggers: Crime in Costume – Week 2 | crossexaminingcrime