The Case of the Beautiful Corpse: A Comparison of Today's TV Crime Dramas with Crime Novels of the Past Shows How Our Culture Has Changed

By Schroth, Raymond A. | National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Case of the Beautiful Corpse: A Comparison of Today's TV Crime Dramas with Crime Novels of the Past Shows How Our Culture Has Changed


Schroth, Raymond A., National Catholic Reporter


I had fallen asleep during a post-midnight "Nightline" in my big TV-watching chair and then suddenly I snapped out of it and Oprah Winfrey was in the room. Ted Koppel had lost me, but now, in a replay between 1 and 2 a.m., Oprah had snagged my attention with the corpse of a beautiful woman.

I had missed her opening, but the show seemed to be a celebration, from the woman's angle--with a real life woman investigator, the star who plays her role, the dead bodies of women in ditches and stretched out on the morgue table, and the mothers of the deceased smiling up from the studio audience--of the "hottest" show on television, CBS's "Crime Scene Investigation."

The focus on women's corpses struck me as macabre, yet it recalls Edgar Allan Poe's theory that the death of a beautiful woman is "the most poetical topic in the world." But does the woman's beauty make the death more tragic or, as on the TV screen, more entertaining?

In what seemed the coldest week in the history of the world, I sat home with death, disappearances, dismemberment and detection on several episodes each of "CSI," "Cold Case," "Cold Case Files" (a different show), "The Practice," "Without A Trace" and the feature film "A Perfect Murder."

Both Jacques Barzun and George Orwell have said that the quality of crime fiction reflects the values of its era. Orwell, writing toward the end of World War II, said the popularity of James Hudley Chase's 1939 No Orchids for Mrs. Blandish, with its torture, rape and suicide, manifested the rise in sadism, power-worship and totalitarianism that brought on the war.

A traditionalist like myself prefers the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-Agatha Christie murder mystery format where Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot is summoned to an old country mansion where Sir Bottomley has been found on the library floor with his head bashed in.

Usually the audience is not treated to the sight of the bashed-in head; the detective makes his inquiries and, on the basis of one's knowledge of human nature welded to a logical mind, brings the drama to a climax. For Holmes, the climax may be a chase across the moors; for Poirot, it's a gathering of all the suspects in the parlor as the camera scrutinizes every blink, tick and squirm while "the great detective"--not the "great Belgian detective," as he reminds his clients--runs down the list.

"CSI," on the other hand, is written for the cell-phone generation, for those whose overwhelming absorption in e-mail, TV, CDs, DVDs and pocket gizmos that enable them to read mail, call home, write letters and download music and films at the same time, constitute a technology church. As a lab attendant spells out the chemical analysis of an autopsy, the screen erupts in a phantasmagoria of cells, blood vessels and bones like those illustrations in high school science textbooks, accompanied by "vaarrooom" music to remind us that something scientifically awesome has taken place.

One episode shown Jan. 15 opens with a man placing the barrel of a gun in his mouth. A beautiful young woman, a photographer's model, is missing. Her corpse is found buried in the desert where her photographer had taken her for a shoot. The CSI staff analyzes his photographs--a nude model posed against the dashboard of an expensive car--only to realize they should have been examining his gun. There were abrasions on her cervix, but no semen. But her DNA was on his gun barrel. We get the picture. Case solved.

Another episode the same night opens with the corpse of a beautiful woman doubled up on her kitchen floor. She was a nurse who "liked to party" with the doctors at the hospital.

One likely MD suspect, however, has himself been killed, his corpse sliced into little pieces--including his sexual organs and his face--and put in plastic bags deposited in a line of dumpsters. …

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