Sturgeon’s Law famously defends science fiction being ninety percent composed of shit by arguing that ninety percent of everything is shit. I’ve argued that a corollary to this is that the genre you truly love is the one in which you appreciate the ninety percent despite and because of its flaws. Anyone can love the ten percent, since that just means you like good fiction.
Murder mysteries might have the largest ninety percent of any genre out there. I mean, science fiction and fantasy have their infinitely long doorstopper series, but just in terms of sheer quantity I don’t think they can hold a candle to the mystery genre. My grandma used to read all of them, dozens of authors each of whom had at least one twenty volume series, some with many more than that. It’s a genre where someone has actually just named every book in the series after a letter of the alphabet (“A is for Alibi”, etc.). Martin and Jordan have individually long books, but can hardly compare to the deluge of pages in the mystery genre.
In any case, that’s a long winded intro to briefly discussing Murder in the First, one of those TNT originals that has basically fallen through the cracks entirely in the midst of a hundred other procedurals and one obnoxiously last ship.
Is it in the ten percent, the shows that you will love regardless of whether you love the genre? Doubtful. It’s not transcendent by any stretch, but it’s definitely in the upper echelon of the ninety percent. It takes itself seriously and is telling a slow burn whodunnit with skill. It has a good cast, with Taye Diggs playing Taye Diggs, Kathleen Robertson of Boss fame as his partner investigating a single murder for the season. For suspects they’ve got Steven Weber in full douche mode, which is where he plays best, and Tom Felton playing who Draco Malfoy grew up to be: a narcissistic billionaire who just might be a sexual sadist. And they hit the jackpot for attorneys with James Cromwell and Richard Schiff.
The show complicates the forensic trail, moving it from the fake perfect science that most shows are content with and makes it flawed, nuanced. Let’s it be part of the texture, providing puzzle pieces and hints in the background, rather than making it either the star of the show or the easy provider of answers at the right times.
But more, the show focuses most on character, even with the small parts only on screen for a few minutes. The medical examiner who is willing to give them a more precise time of death using a new method that he won’t defend on the stand. The wife of a secondary suspect who just seems pushy and unhelpful. The ex-husband of a cop whose reaction to her involvement in a shooting is to berate her, and the way she visibly tenses in anticipation of it the instant he walks in the door. Every character seems fully inhabited, fully aware of themselves as a person in the universe instead of as mere fodder for the plot.
That doesn’t inherently mean it’s a great show, or is telling a great story that makes deep points about the world, but it’s the sort of detail work that I enjoy, that makes the prose worth reading even if the book itself isn’t a life changer.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.