Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The case against torture

I'm watching that new Sherlock Holmes fanfic show-- I mean, Sherlock in modern times. I spent way too long wondering why they chose a Sherlock who looked like a young Mick Jagger.

Anyway, Sherlock solves the mystery, of course, and then he's alone with the murderer who is dying of a gunshot wound (Sherlock didn't shoot him). As the man is dying, Sherlock demands the name of someone (the person who told the murderer about him?). The man refuses to talk. Sherlock then grinds out something like, "You may be dying, but you can still feel pain!" And then he steps on the man's wounded shoulder, and grinds his boot in. The man screams and tells him the name.

Now really. I know that torture has become not just allowable but cool, and that it's been used for years in 24 as a plotting short cut to get Jack Bauer whatever information he's too lazy to get any other way. Heck, Jack's a thug, really, and it's not actually out of character for him to resort to torture. In fact, he's just a big torture machine.

But Sherlock Holmes? Huh? The most brilliant detective in (fictional) history? What? The great detective who can look at another man and immediately deduce that he's recently returned from Afghanistan, that his limp is psychosomatic, and that his recently divorced brother is a closet alcoholic? He can't detect the name? He can't talk the guy about to die around to a deathbed confession?

No, it's easier just to resort to torture, because, you know, gosh, everyone's doing it.

"Everyone's doing it," however, should be a great big STOP sign for a writer. If everyone's doing it, it's not what your unique, individual, intriguing character should be doing. If you've created a hyper-rational, highly intellectualized detective, well, your readers want to see how THAT type of detective works out a problem. Anyone can resort to torture. Too easy, and whenever something's easy-- well, that's another signal that it's the wrong event for your story.

Think how much more interesting it will be to plot out an action that comes out of this character's unique set of skills and values, an action that reveals something about him as he acts in that way.

And torture-- well, really, would you want the torturer to come home and move in next to you and start dating your daughter?

Torture harms the torturer as well as the victim. But the easy resort to torture writers? They probably have no interest in exploring the consequences of such an act on the character.

Lazy plotting makes for inadequate writing.


Meredith McCardle said...

I agree with you 100%.

Joanna St. James said...

I agree on writers not taking the easy way out but in defence of Sherlock Holmes the man was dying, it was quick and smart thinking to use torture.

Edittorrent said...

Well, the writer is in charge. The man could have lived as long as the writer needs him to live.

There is no excuse, IMHO, for a writer -- who can arrange circumstances to suit-- for taking the easy way out. Fiction is about complication and conflict, and the point is NOT to make things easier for the characters-- but harder.

Torture is, in fiction as in real life, an easy way to solve what ought to be a hard problem.

Why do a show about Sherlock if he's just going to be as thuggish and stupid as Jack Bauer? It makes me think that the writers don't deserve an intelligent character.


green_knight said...

I am so glad I don't watch this show; I'd hate it. It's the betrayal of the character that annoys me most - the brilliant, clever Holmes who can read the dirt under a man's shoes or the state of his cuffs is reduced to a common thus.

Being a thug doesn't take intelligence - and what the writers are saying that the _only_ way Holmes could have found out was by making the villain tell him. Blech.

(Also, I can't sympathize with thugs, and I am not entertained by them.)

Julie Harrington said...

Yes, but "intelligent" and "smart" doesn't OooOooh and Awwwwwww a movie or TV audience. Or at least, that's the way the entertainment industry likes to think. The easier, the more blatant, the less you have to think, the more instant the gratification (and the more action, blood, and boobs) the higher the box office $$$$$. Shock value seems to be all that's really important. Controversy, sound bites, and Jersey Shores. Sigh.

I love Sherlock Holmes. Always have. I've been super curious about the new series and didn't even realize it'd started yet. I don't mind "gritty" but what's wrong with an intelligent character doing intelligent things? Reminds me of a show I heard about up in Canada called... Murdoch Mysteries. It's set in the 1890s. My friend though I'd love it because it's written "smart," but we don't get it here. :(

As for writing, ITA. Non-Lame, Non-Easy is always something to work for and keep in mind. Nothing like a great book having a "lazy" ending to tick a reader off.


Miss Sharp said...

It would be nice if writers could just hold themselves to a lofty standard and still be successful, wouldn't it?

But then reality sets in...and reality bites. Sex sells, violence sells and yes, torture sells.

I guess we could always plot these kinds of things in and then plot unhappy endings for the characters who engage in things that displease us.

Edittorrent said...

Well, "know your audience" is a good guide. And it's hard to believe that those who watch PBS and a Sherlock Holmes show on Masterpiece Theater prefer violence to ratiocination as a means to solve crimes.
I think the writers -- or the producers, I don't know-- really misread their audience.
And I'm with you, Miss Sharp! Only I want to plot bad endings for the creators who made these characters do out of character things. What fictional fate would be worthy, hmnm? Nothing violent. I think being snowbound with only re-runs of 24 would do it. :)

Leona said...

Oh, I like this.

I didn't see show, so don't know context. However, I love Sherlock Holmes. It seems in character for him to be ruthless if not in the manner shown. He knew martial arts and poisons. He was insanely smart and bored.

Instant torture devices were not likely to amuse him when he had other ways of discerning the message.

However, I think the ruthlessness of Sherlock Holmes' character is often missed and his avoidance of violence as a weakness. However, why should he resort to cheap tricks when there are so many better ways than out right violence to get to the information that are just as ruthless?

I think the fanfic writer might have seen the ruthlessness and not understood that that doesn't hold a direct line to violent behavior.

(Maybe they didn't have a mother. Most mom's are ruthless when it comes to their kids' needs!) There are ways around it that Sherlock Holmes in his infinite knowledge would surely have been able to get around?