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It’s that time again, time to talk about Cabot Cove Syndrome. If you’re not familiar with the term, Cabot Cove Syndrome refers the abnormally high body count in Jessica Fletcher’s small Maine town. It’s a topic that comes up every so often in the mystery community.
People often use the Cabot Cove phenomenon to take pot shots at Murder She Wrote as well as traditional mysteries. “That would never happen in real life,” is the excuse used to write off amateur sleuth mysteries.
It’s true. A civilian isn’t going to help the police solve a mystery, much less assist them over and over again. So I’ll give the Cabot Cove mockers that point.
I do feel compelled to point out that very little of what happens in mysteries, either in print or on film, is realistic. Doesn’t it require a stretch of imagination to believe a doctor is continually confronted with medical cases that stump him and his team? Would that happen in real life? Wouldn’t there occasionally be an easy-peasy case? Of course, it’s only after said doc orders a possibly life-threatening test or procedure, which sets his team and hospital administration against him, that he has an epiphany and solves the medical mystery, usually saving the patient.
And, what about crime scene investigators who become so involved in their cases that they question witnesses and often become targets of the killers themselves? Yep, that happens all the time in real life. Even private investigators and police detectives have more exciting fictional adventures than their real life counterparts. Most cops will tell you that their jobs do not involve frequent car chases and shoot-outs. As much as I enjoy reading the alphabet mysteries, I have to admit that Kinsey Milhone wouldn’t have such interesting clients and convoluted cases one after another in real life.
All mystery fiction pushes the bounds of believability. Some situations begin at a more plausible point. It’s true that a police detective is going to encounter more murder than, say, a housewife. But once you get past the initial set-up, all mystery fiction with recurring characters becomes bit improbable, especially the longer the series goes on.
So it comes down to this: who cares if bodies keep dropping? As long as the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief, then don’t knock it because your favorite sub-genre may be more vulnerable to Cabot Cove syndrome that it first appears.
“As long as the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief…”
This is what it’s all about, right? Getting the reader to willingly suspend disbelief? I mean it is fiction.
If the author can’t get the reader to enter into a fictional adventure with them, they aren’t doing their jobs.
In writing my thriller, I took a gamble by weaving in current events to make it more real. My goal was to have the reader asking themselves if this could all really happen. Therefore, I did a huge amount of research to get the facts right. Even still, I took some liberties (risks) to fit a compressed timeframe. You’ll have to read it to try to figure out what those are.
by Will Bereswill on April 23rd, 2008 at 7:20 am
You know, I’ve probably seen every episode of Murder, She Wrote, and the abnormally high body-count in Cabot Cove never occurred to me. *shrug* I was too interested in the show to care. It’s the same with House and CSI - they’re improbable, but I don’t watch the shows for the exactness of the details. If you want to talk improbable, look at SF/F - but again, the point of reading/watching those isn’t to be able to see the man behind the curtain, but to be entertained. And that’s what all of this is about, isn’t it? I guess my disbelief is just easier to suspend than some people’s.
by B.E. Sanderson on April 23rd, 2008 at 8:04 am
I have to admit that in some cases - mostly the amateur sleuth ones - it can become a little too much. Kinsey Millhone never bothered me (not in that way; the way she keeps making the same mistakes over and over bothers me, though), but Diane Mott-Davidson’s catering series, for instance, has become seriously annoying over the years. Kinsey has the excuse of being in the business of solving mysteries, even though in RL, the ‘normal’ PI would never tackle exciting case after exciting case the way she does. Still, it makes a certain kind of sense. But when someone with no connection at all to crime/murders/mysteries keeps falling over corpses, it can easily get to be too much. Off-hand I can think of very few long-running series where an amateur sleuth solves mysteries and it doesn’t become unlikely at some point how the dead bodies just keep piling up. Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series works well, I think.
by JennieB on April 23rd, 2008 at 8:22 am
It really is the writing skills - coming up with characters a reader will be interested in, a setting that has points of interest, and leaving clues and red herrings that are just obvious enough to have you wonder which is which (oh, and for the ’special-interest cozy, an extra character, such as an animal, or an occupation that the reader finds interesting, and is worked into the story without too much …work, so to speak). If those things are met, and they obviously cannot be met by every writer for every reader (thank goodness, we need more variety), then yeah, while I really, truly don’t believe that Broward’s Rock (the Death on Demand series, which I’m reading now) is that much of a haven for skullduggery and murder, I don’t care, ’cause I like to figure out the puzzle with the characters. Or I like to envision the places that Kate Shugack is going to in her dealings with the unusual aspects of her life in Alaska. Or I like to learn even more about dog training and the inner being of Rachel Alexander as written about by Carol Lea Benjamin. If the writer and or topic is interesting to me, I’ll try it - if the end result is good, I’ll eagerly look forward to more of the same. I mean, why do people keep watching James Bond movies - it’s not for the sensible plotline - it’s enertaining eye candy, and that two hours of freedom from everyday life.
by Kate Hathway on April 23rd, 2008 at 9:05 am
Yes, getting the reader to go along for the ride is the whole idea!
Writing about real places and contemporary events is a challenge. It’s a tricky balance trying to figure out how much things could change during the publishing process, which can last a year or more.
by Sara on April 23rd, 2008 at 3:39 pm
I’m with you B.E. If I’m watching Murder She Wrote and my other favorite mystery-type shows (insert cheer that Bones is back on!) then I’m happy to suspend my disbelief.
by Sara on April 23rd, 2008 at 3:41 pm
Hi JennieB. I know it’s unlikely that someone will keep finding bodies and even more unlikely that same someone would keep *solving* murders, but if I enjoy the characters and setting, I want to go back to that reading experience again and I can overlook the stretch I have to enjoy the story. It’s funny you should mention the Amelia Peabody books. I loved the first ones and thought the addition of Ramses and other viewpoints reenergized the series, but lately I haven’t been able to finish the newest books. Too much of a good thing? Can’t wait for the new Vicky Bliss, which is my favorite of Peters’ books.
by Sara on April 23rd, 2008 at 3:50 pm
Kate, you’ve touch on one of my favorite aspects of the amateur sleuth mystery—the different worlds/lifestyles that I get to experience vicariously.
And why do we watch Bond movies? Because it’s *Bond*.
by Sara on April 23rd, 2008 at 3:55 pm
On MURDER SHE WROTE they had a rule:only five Cabot Cove episodes in any one season; the rest of the time Jessica was on the road or in her second in NYC. So much for CC’c “abnormally high murder rate.” Just thought I’d mention it.
by Mike Doran on April 23rd, 2008 at 5:12 pm
Interesting point, Mike, but I think some people still find it hard to believe one woman would be involved in so many investigations no matter where Jessica was. Not a problem for me…
by Sara on April 23rd, 2008 at 7:49 pm
I personally think that the “Cabot Cove Syndrome” was just code for “Who Cares About An Old Lady Who Doesn’t Look Good Half Naked With Plots That Don’t Involve Lurid Sex Torture by Serial Killers and Therefore Cannot Possibly Be Pushing The Envelope or Have Any Cultural Relevance.”
Sorry for speaking in caps. It just annoys me how dismissive some critics were of the show.
by Carrie K on May 6th, 2008 at 8:33 pm
Hi Carrie K. I think you’re right that shows and mysteries with more low key themes are written off very quickly by some critics.
by Sara on May 7th, 2008 at 6:45 am
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