Of Deerstalkers and Labcoats
The appeal of forensic thrillers like CSI is nearly as universal as it is inexplicable. The form has been morally neutered and sterilized—there is no larger order to re-establish, and evil doesn't even register.
About halfway through the first season of The Wire, as the detectives hunt and peck their way through a wiretap warrant, I found myself thinking: "This would never happen on CSI: Baltimore." The more I watched The Wire, the more I compared the stuttering, faltering progress of its all-too-human investigation to the sleekly scientific goings-on in the imaginary alternate universe of CSI: Baltimore. (As of this writing, there is no such show, but with CSI's proliferation of spin-offs, this could change at any moment.)
In CSI: Baltimore, cops don't have to bend the rules just to do their jobs. They work with scientific precision in state-of-the-art, mood-lit laboratories, connecting every trace back to its contact, putting the bad guys behind bars. Infinitely skilled, with bottomless funding, they're on top of the city's crime in a way that the sad sack heroes of The Wire never are.
And they look like catalogue models while they do it. Talk like them, too.
When real life law enforcement types complain of the "CSI effect," they mean the deference jurors show to forensics experts, whose evidence is often given more weight than it might deserve, thanks to the glamour of the profession. Imagine a late nineteenth century Lestrade complaining that juries trust the word of so-called consulting detectives due to the pernicious "Sherlock Holmes effect."
As bad as that is, an even worse "CSI effect" is the franchise's power to render good actors—Gary Sinise, Lawrence Fishburne—unwatchable. CSI isn't just sterile; it's sterilizing. Yet it manages somehow to reproduce.
If my attitude toward the modern forensic thriller reminds the reader of Raymond Chandler's dismissal of the golden age detective story, it should. The former is a reiteration of the latter, albeit along modern lines. Instead of emphasizing the intellectual puzzle and deductive reasoning, the spotlight shifts to the arcane minutiae of science, but in both cases, the mandarins triumph over the uniformed flatfoots through the application of secret knowledge. And people eat it up.
Like most fans of The Wire, I did my share of proselytizing during its five season run (at least toward the end, after arriving late to the party). One of my selling points, of course, was the quality of the writing.
"The best crime novelists in the country write for this show," I would say.
"Like who—James Patterson? Patricia Cornwell?"
Now, I like an eccentric sleuth or a poisoned vicar as much as the next man, and can't help admiring the resiliency of the cozy mystery, especially in its latest incarnation, coupling ratiocination with exotic locales. The success of Alexander McCall Smith's books doesn't sound a cultural death knell for me, and I was overjoyed recently to discover Martin Walker's Bruno, Chief of Police, in which a gastronomically-minded rural gendarme takes time out of his busy schedule obstructing the efforts of European Union inspectors to cleanse the local market of illegal cheeses to solve a murder. But the end of the golden age and the emergence of hard-boiled detectives and police procedurals was a good thing in my book. The added realism helped elevate the genre.
If you take the worst of the cozy and the worst of the police procedural, you get the forensic thriller. It's the pseudo-realism that chafes, the plausible implausibility, doing for forensics analysts what the uncritical Hollywood hagiographies of yesteryear did for Hoover's G-Men, inflating their value much higher than the marketplace of reality can bear. Meanwhile, as Brad Reagan's August 2009 Popular Mechanics cover story reveals, the actual science behind many forensic disciplines is questionable:
Bite marks, blood-splatter patterns, ballistics, and hair, fiber and handwriting analysis sound compelling in the courtroom, but much of the "science" behind forensic science rests on surprisingly shaky foundations. Many well-established forms of evidence are the product of highly subjective analysis by people with minimal credentials . . . And even the most experienced and respected professionals can come to inaccurate conclusions, because the body of research behind the majority of the forensic sciences is incomplete, and the established methodologies are often inexact.
These uncertainties were brought home to me when I decided to write a series of crime novels set in Houston. For years, the city's crime lab has been the subject of an embarrassing public inquiry, with its DNA section being closed, reopened and closed again. Under the circumstances, to write with a naive confidence in the power of forensic science would have been ridiculous—much more interesting to dramatize the awkward workarounds imposed on a lowly homicide detective trying to close an important case.
Still, the forensic thriller's appeal seems nearly universal. To figure out why, I can't help reflecting on what made its ancestor, the classic puzzle story, so popular. Critics tend to frame their explanations in moral, almost religious terms. In Take and Read, for example, Eugene Peterson sums up the quintessential argument, that what resonates with readers is the detective's restoration of a lost order:
I think one reason [for its popularity] may be that right and wrong, so often obscured in the ambiguities of everyday living, are cleanly delineated in the murder mystery. The story gives us moral and intellectual breathing room when we are about to be suffocated in the hot air and heavy panting of relativism and subjectivism.
Along the same lines, Erik Routley considers detective fiction "the most moral kind of literature there is," dubbing it "entertainment for puritans." The reader "is not a lover of violence but a lover of order." Julian Symons makes the religious argument explicit:
In the beginning there was guilt: the basic motive for reading crime fiction is the religious one of exorcising the guilt of the individual or the group through ritual and symbolic sacrifice. The attempt is never wholly successful, for the true addict is a sort of Manichee, and his spirits of light and darkness, the detective and the criminal, are fighting each other forever.
So the detective is a kind of priest, the investigative process a kind of liturgy. He goes so far as to connect the decline of the classic detective story with "a weakening in the sense of sin."
While science fiction these days offers one dystopian vision after another, forensic science fiction posits a world of certainty, where reasonable doubt is banished by means of Luminol and DNA swabs. Perhaps the appeal to the reader is the same as the appeal to the juror. It isn't a religious certainty he's after, not these days, but a scientific one. When the hidden blood patterns glow under black light or the tell-tale DNA markers match up, we are suffused by a frisson of objectivity. Thanks to science, here's one thing we can know.
If true, this might explain the sterility of the form—it's been morally neutered. Test results might bring closure to a victim's suffering loved ones, but there is no larger order to re-establish. Evil doesn't disrupt the scientific order. It doesn't even register.
Ironically, the classic detective story strikes me as morally neutered, too, perhaps because the victims are little more than human sudoku, and an order that can be restored by clever drawing room revelations hardly seems shattered enough to need fixing. Which is why I prefer Hammett, Chandler, and their heirs, why I prefer Georges Simenon's romans dur to his Maigret puzzlers. "For the hard-boiled detective," John G. Cawelti explains, "a case is not merely a problem; it can become a crusade to root out and destroy the evils that have corrupted the urban world."
Like the consulting detectives of old, the pseudo-scientists of CSI: Baltimore are busy working the crossword, leaving it to the detectives of The Wire (or James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux or Ian Rankin's John Rebus) to crusade against corruption, though they are far less adapted to the task, and are themselves a bit tainted by what they're fighting against.