Saturday, April 12, 2008

Hedunits

I used to be a big fan of Wire in the Blood, that TV crime drama that regularly turns up on the ABC. Now I'm not so sure.

Yesterday, I got lucky when I was leafing through the old magazines in the waiting room of my personal head care specialist - there were three old New Yorkers in the stack. One of them was the November 12, 2007 edition, which included "Dangerous Minds - Criminal profiling made easy." by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell totally demolishes the "Hedunit" genre of crime fiction and the real-world profilers don't come out looking too flash either.

Wire in the Blood is a good example of the "Hedunit":

We are now so familiar with crime stories told through the eyes of the profiler that it is easy to lose sight of how audacious the genre is. The traditional detective story begins with the body and centers on the detective’s search for the culprit. Leads are pursued. A net is cast, widening to encompass a bewilderingly diverse pool of suspects: the butler, the spurned lover, the embittered nephew, the shadowy European. That’s a Whodunit. In the profiling genre, the net is narrowed. The crime scene doesn’t initiate our search for the killer. It defines the killer for us. The profiler sifts through the case materials, looks off into the distance, and knows ... Profiling stories aren’t Whodunits; they’re Hedunits.

In the Hedunit, the profiler does not catch the criminal. That’s for local law enforcement. He takes the meeting. Often, he doesn’t write down his predictions. It’s up to the visiting police officers to take notes. He does not feel the need to involve himself in the subsequent investigation, or even, it turns out, to justify his predictions... (my emphasis)
Hence in Wire in the Blood we get all those scenes where Tony Hill stands in front of a visual aid with high production value - in the last series that I saw, a large computer touch screen which allowed him to open up crime scene photographs and drag them around the screen with the touch of a finger - saying in an agitated voice: "it doesn't make sense: this is all carefully planned and organised, this is chaotic, impulsive."

Very quickly Tony realises that the crimes are being committed by not one, but two killers. Then the writers add a final plot twist - it's actually one killer with Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Of course Wire in the Blood is fiction. But it's a very persuasive form of fiction - a lot of work is put into the production to give it realism. The effect of the Hedunit genre on our understanding of crime and policing is similar to the CSI Effect. We see Tony Hill, brilliant clinical psychologist, reading a crime scene for insights into the personality of a killer and we are gulled into thinking that things actually work that way - after all, modern writers of crime fiction do a lot of research to make their stories plausible, don't they*?

The problem isn't restricted to fiction where background research is distorted for literary or dramatic effect. Hedunits are also presented as non-fiction, in the memoirs of profilers themselves. It's one such memoir that inspires Gladwell's coverage of the history of profiling and his assault on profiling's inflated reputation:
There is a deeper problem with F.B.I. profiling. Douglas and Ressler didn’t interview a representative sample of serial killers to come up with their typology. They talked to whoever happened to be in the neighborhood. Nor did they interview their subjects according to a standardized protocol. They just sat down and chatted, which isn’t a particularly firm foundation for a psychological system. So you might wonder whether serial killers can really be categorized by their level of organization.

Not long ago, a group of psychologists at the University of Liverpool decided to test the F.B.I.’s assumptions. First, they made a list of crime-scene characteristics generally considered to show organization: perhaps the victim was alive during the sex acts, or the body was posed in a certain way, or the murder weapon was missing, or the body was concealed, or torture and restraints were involved. Then they made a list of characteristics showing disorganization: perhaps the victim was beaten, the body was left in an isolated spot, the victim’s belongings were scattered, or the murder weapon was improvised.
For more on what those psychologists at the University of Liverpool found, you'll have to Gladwell's original article. Just be warned - if you're a fan of Hedunits, it's the biggest spoiler of all. You might even find yourself erupting into uncontrollable laughter next time you see Tony Hill do his shtick with the crime scene photos.

* - That is we assume that screen writers in the US and the UK do. Give Australian TV producers a million dollar budget for a series and they'll want every possible cent of that million up on screen, with Georgie Parker in the lead female role. The writers can produce any old tosh they like , as long as it's at least up to the standard of Neighbours and Home and Away.

2 comments:

tigtog said...

What a great catch, Gummo. I'll never look at Tony Hill the same way either.

Bwca said...

Robson Greene is pretty cute, but I cannot suspend disbelief sufficiently to enjoy WITB on TV, or any of the rest of them either.

On the other hand, reading
Raymond Chandler is a joy.

Applauding your final remark along with me, would be those brilliant Australian writers Geoffrey Atherden and Andrew Knight.