I recently watched the Icelandic police procedural series, The Valhalla Murders (2019, 2020).
It is loosely based on a national scandal from the 1940s about a state institution for troubled boys who, after being put in state care, suffered abuse at the hands of staff, according to this MEAWW article. The Nordic Noir series re-imagines that abusive situation taking place in the early 1980s at a remote boys’ home called Valhalla.
The series itself is set in present-day Reykjavik where police believe they have a serial killer on their hands after two similar brutal murders are discovered in short succession. The present-day murders seem to be connected to the boys home. The investigation is led by Kata (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), senior detective and divorced mother of a teenage boy, and Arnar (Björn Thors), an investigator brought in from Norway to help with the case who is originally from Iceland and has ties to the police Commissioner, Magnus.
I did not have high expectations for the series, as I assumed it would be riddled with cliches, but I thought it might be satisfying because of its Icelandic setting. It does satisfy that Nordic Noir feel in tone: icy and blue; stark contrasts between unlivable snowy oblivion and hyper-modern city architecture. The overlay of the apparatus of the “police procedural” itself on top of the harsh landscape offers an important thematic contrast between nature and modernity.
But it also offers satisfaction by delivering some complex characters who, while beginning as cliches, still find ways to surprise you. Yes, Arnar has personal demons from his past, and he is the “silent brooding type,” but his guarded behavior may have to do with trauma experienced in his youth — trauma that might help him understand some of the vulnerabilities of the victims that emerge in the case. Kata’s personal battles also seem to take a parallel path with the case, offering her additional perspective on what it means to navigate the lines between protecting someone and hurting someone, and between “right” and “wrong” when it comes to the law and police procedures.
While watching this series, I noticed how caught up I was getting in the personal stories of the detectives, and that I even lost some interest in the criminal investigation itself. This struck me as one of the key differences between TV Crime Fiction and True Crime TV.
When I’m watching Crime Fiction, often the murder itself — the dead body — is the least interesting thing about the narrative experience. Rather, the interest is in how the investigators (whether official or amateur sleuths) work through the remains of the living.
It’s puzzle solving, yes, but it’s also the character development of those surrounding the body. So, it’s not just solving the puzzle of a crime, it’s seeing how the puzzle pieces of the living fit together, separate from the crime. That puzzle makes up a picture of society as we might, or might not, know it.
But in True Crime documentaries, there is a lot of focus on the crime itself — through crime scene photos, reenactments, sifting through evidence. Interviews with detectives, sometimes family members or close friends. The puzzle pieces are made of dead things, mostly: dead body, signs left behind by a dead person, conversations about the dead.
In a sense, both forms move through the same objects: dead body, crime scene, investigators, close associates, suspects. But the orientation is very different.
True Crime seems to reanimate the victim, over and over, drawing us, the audience, into imagining the crime itself, over and over. Becoming scared, again. Becoming dead, again.
Crime Fiction, on the other hand, seems to construct an “after” or “future” in which we, the audience, are invited to participate in rebuilding a life — if not for the victim, then for ourselves, even if only vicariously through the mental and emotional labor of the investigators.
This strikes me, suddenly, like a paranoid/reparative split in orientation, which is something Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick took from the realm of psychology and its study of emotions and affect, but then Sedgwick considered these frameworks in terms of the ways we read things — culturally. Sedgwick was interested especially in academic and critical reading: the ways “experts” approach texts.
“Paranoid reading” means coming to a text with some expectation of harm, of danger, of something “problematic” and “wrong” there that must be identified and conveyed to an audience. (Like My Favorite Murder podcast hosts Georgia and Karen’s theory that knowing all the things beforehand will save them.)
“Reparative reading” means coming to a text (and we could say that a crime, and a crime scene, is a kind of text) with openness to something new, to being surprised. (Though any true crime fanatic would say this “anything goes” approach is a recipe for getting yourself m-u-r-d-e-r-e-d!)
Applying that dichotomy to my True Crime/Crime Fiction question about different orientations — for the reader, the audience, us — we might see that it lines up well.
In my description above of True Crime orientation through dead objects — an obsession with dead things — we could say that the appeal of True Crime is a paranoid reading experience: we know someone is dead; we know bad things happened; let’s focus on all the details of this danger to comfort ourselves in the knowledge of that danger.
On the flip side, we might say that the appeal of Crime Fiction is a reparative reading experience: someone has died, bad things have happened, but it’s the surprising things we’ll learn about who we are, or who we could be (in relationship to the dead, to the investigators, to the culture depicted in the narrative) that produces satisfaction.
This possibility of different reading practices for True Crime and Crime Fiction is important to keep in mind, I think. And perhaps paying attention to how we engage differently with different genres is really important to remember (talking to myself here, in terms of future exploration of crime discourse and engagement).
But I think we can re-think that binary framing, as well. It doesn’t always line up so smoothly, and it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.
The popularity of true crime media — like the My Favorite Murder podcast, for example — isn’t always just about fixating on a dead body and all the dangers that led to it. It’s also about friendship — between Karen and Georgia. Between us, the audience, and them. And it’s also about the surprising feelings — like humor — that can be produced in relation to our shared engagement with the dead body. This humor isn’t just a paranoid humor about our shared anxieties, it’s also, sometimes, something new. It’s sometimes a reparative humor about what we learn about ourselves and our relations with the living and the dead.
It’s also risky, what Karen and Georgia do. It’s risky to put themselves out there, in front of an audience, to reveal their anxieties. To reveal their desires. Embracing that kind of openness, that kind of risk, is not a paranoid move. That could be described as a reparative act (even if, granted, it’s a monetized performance).
Sedgwick, in the end, suggests that even though “paranoid reading” has been the general methodology of cultural critics since the end of the 20th century, this isn’t always helpful — at least not when it is an exclusive method. She writes about the neglect of reparative approaches, and why that might do a disservice to cultural studies and the people who work at it:
“The prohibitive problem, however, has been in the limitations of present theoretical vocabularies rather than in the reparative motive itself. No less acute than a paranoid position, no less realistic, no less attached to a project of survival, and neither less nor more delusional or fantasmatic, the reparative reading position undertakes a different range of affects, ambitions, and risks. What we can best learn from such practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.” (Touching Feeling 150-1)
One important thing I’ve tried to take from Sedgwick’s writing about paranoid reading and criticism is that, instead of limiting ourselves to one approach or the other, we should aim for a combination of paranoid and reparative orientations towards culture, towards texts. And that this approach can both protect us and renew us.
Importantly, Sedgwick, in her essay, points out that reparative practices are already there in the practices of paranoid people: “it is sometimes the most paranoid-tending people who are able to, and need to, develop and disseminate the richest reparative practices” (150).
A combined approach means extending a kind of paranoid respect for the lives (in history, in culture, in crime) who have been hurt by acknowledging that hurt, and in doing so that might bring some justice — especially if part of acknowledging something is taking a step towards ensuring that similar harm isn’t recreated for others. A combined approach also makes reparative room for the unexpected: the answer to a mystery may not be what you think, and it may not be found in the usual places. And it may not even look like an “answer.”
This is where the True Crime genre might often fail us, however. Most true crime media, including MFM, is driven by set narrative frames that encourage paranoid, rather than reparative, reading practices. So even though I’ve made the case here that Karen and Georgia’s podcast can do reparative work, the form itself might force them and audiences to return to paranoid orientations. As I observed in their first episode, some of this forced paranoid orientation manifests in verbal asides that remind their audience and themselves that they are always in danger, and this functions as a reason to keep going with their narrative.
One thing that I’m realizing as I write this is that what might distinguish the orientations to True Crime/Crime Fiction is the function of the detective role. With True Crime, often the goal is for the audience to embody the detective role. But with Crime Fiction, the goal is often to observe a (good) detective at work. These are fundamentally different perspectives on crime which would of course produce distinct intellectual and emotional relationships to not only the crime itself but also to everything that relates to it.
The latter role — the observer — may already allow for more openness, may free up the audience to embrace whatever comes. The former, unfortunately, may bring out the “bad cop” in us — someone who fixes on a culprit right away and organizes the narrative to incriminate that person (anyone else thinking of Adnan Syed’s case right now?).
When it comes to orientations towards “the detective role” in True Crime versus Crime Fiction, the “observer” role afforded to Crime Fiction readers comes through a kind of distance, a privilege — or a lack of responsibility in the outcome. While the True Crime orientation — the embodied detective role — requires/presumes investment.
Again, however, this divvying up doesn’t always map perfectly to paranoid/reparative reading orientations, and keeping that in mind is important. For example: what do responsibility and investment have to do with paranoid and reparative reading practices?
I’m not an expert in psychology and affect studies, but I don’t think it’s correct to suggest that a reparative orientation would require one to let go of responsibility. In fact, one of the most striking things Sedgwick has to say about the reparative reader is how they might be more attuned to other responsibilities, other contingencies, because they are more open to an experience beyond a fixed narrative:
“Because the [reparative] reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.” (Touching Feeling 146)
And, on the other hand, a paranoid orientation is characterized by anticipation, as well as by narrative arrangement. For example, what the paranoid reader-critic does is arrange (narrativize) information in a way that satisfies their anticipation/fore-judgement of a threat. When it comes to a “bad cop” practice, this ability to anticipate and arrange also comes with a kind of privilege — of social status and power dynamics. So the dichotomy of privilege and detachment versus embodiment and responsibility for Crime Fiction/True Crime engagement does not really hold true.
This line of consideration seems to raise the possibility of another kind of binary for exploration, though: how might the “good detective”/”bad cop” binary map to the different ways we engage with True Crime and Crime Fiction? That’s probably worthy of its own post (or several).
So, I guess: stay tuned, [insert nickname here that is equivalent to, but different from, “murderinos”].
(I realize that bringing Sedgwick’s reparative/paranoid reading framework might cause some strong feelings — you, paranoid readers, you — and it might be that you have a different interpretation of either Sedgwick’s argument and/or how it might explain the relationship between crime discourse producers and crime, or between crime discourse consumers and crime narratives. I’d love to hear those takes. Let’s build something out of our different takes!)