Saturday, August 26, 2023

[Link] All Hail the Long-Suffering Cadaver

by Amor Towles

Once at the center of the murder mystery, the cadaver has become increasingly incidental to the action and now figures as little more than a prop.

For over 100 years the cadaver, that unsung hero of murder mysteries, has been accommodating, gracious and generally on time. There is no other figure in crime who has proved more reliable. Since the murder mystery first gained popularity, there have been two world wars, multiple economic crises, dance crazes and moonshots, the advent of radio, cinema, television and the internet. Ideas of right and wrong have evolved, tastes have changed. But through it all, the cadaver has shown up without complaint to do its job. A clock-puncher of the highest order, if you will.

Meanwhile, many of our most revered detectives have proved rather difficult to work with. They have been variously arrogant, antisocial or persnickety. Witnesses have often been skittish or defensive. Many have intentionally sowed confusion through lies of omission or commission springing from their own sins and prejudices.

But decade in and decade out, the cadaver has remembered its lines and hit its mark. This despite the fact that it has borne the brunt of a thousand humiliations. Having been subjected to that most definitive form of violence, it has had to lie undiscovered, often in a cellar or back alley, overnight. Once the police arrive, our cadaver has been poked and prodded, its pockets emptied. After being shuttled to the morgue and laid out on a slab, it has been cut open, unceremoniously. Almost from the moment the corpse is discovered, it has been an object of slander. Family, friends and acquaintances who tended to be complimentary and discreet when our victim was alive are suddenly enumerating personal failings and sharing rumors of infidelity or financial malfeasance. And all of this — the loss of life, the autopsies, the recriminations — the cadaver has suffered in silence, on our behalf.

The cadaver’s unwavering professionalism is all the more admirable given the diminishment of its standing over time. If we look back to the so-called golden age of detective fiction, in the 1920s and ’30s, when the form was reaching its apotheosis in the works of Agatha Christie, the cadaver maintained an almost enviable status. After all, it was the cadaver who set the wheels of a mystery in motion.

The stories of the era tend to begin in a relatively benign and inviting manner. A small assembly of family members or friends might gather for the weekend in a rambling country manor. The setting and circumstances are not that different from what one might expect to find in a play by Chekhov or a novel by Henry James. That is, until, with the scream of a housemaid, the cadaver is discovered. Its sudden appearance sprawled on the study floor with a knife in its back is what transforms the book in our hand, taking us from the realm of domestic drama into that of the whodunit.

But in the golden age, the cadaver didn’t simply get things going. It maintained its position at the center of the story from the moment of its discovery until the denouement. As Hercule Poirot often pointed out, it was the psychology of the victim that was paramount. In life, was the cadaver lascivious? Unscrupulous? Greedy? To understand who had most likely monkeyed with the brakes of her car or poisoned her cup of tea, one first had to understand whom she had loved and whom she had spurned; whom she had enriched and whom she had cheated.

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