This piece contains major spoilers for recent works: Rian Johnson’s 2022 film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and Grace Bruxner and Thomas Bowker’s 2022 game Frog Detective 3: Corruption at Cowboy Country.
Some of the pleasures of reading, watching, or playing murder mysteries include opening with a crime we agree isn’t good, being able to do something about the crime by following clues, experiencing twists that surprise, realising the truth has been staring us in the face the whole time, the tension around whether the culprit will get away with it, and (most of the time) the relief of justice at the end. There is something about this experience, these genre elements, though, that conceal the still unsolved bit of many murder mysteries. I’ll keep leaving clues.
Let’s go to the scene of a crime. In Rian Johnson’s film Glass Onion, there is a conversation being had where tech billionaire Miles (Edward Norton) bestows his wisdom about disruption. He says, “If you want to shake things up, you start with something small. You break a norm, or an idea, or a convention, some little business model.” Hey says, people get excited about this small disruption because it is something they are tired of anyway. They’re ready for that bit to be broken.
He puts his hand up and says that this is the infraction point.
It is here, “where you have to look within yourself and ask, ‘Am I the kind of person who will keep going?’” Because if you keep going, this is when people will turn on you. They’ll call you crazy. Why? They turn on you because there are apparently things you’re not supposed to break. “Because as it turns out, nobody wants you to break the system itself.” Miles concludes that this is what true disruption is.
Like Helen (Janelle Monáe), many of us rolled our eyes at these words. Not because they weren’t true. But because he and many other tech folk don’t engage in this true disruption. Their 140-character–mere-threads-version of disruption is about the drama of elbowing out their competition, for personal profit, at any social cost. They don’t want to break the system. The system allows them to exploit people and the planet. It’s actually, despite the claims, still the small version of disruption, and it’s what keeps things the same for the few. Whereas the big version, the true disruption, involves change for the 99%.
Linguist, historian and activist Noam Chomsky points his “J’Accuse!” finger at this kind of double-speak of perpetrators. In How The World Works, Chomsky explains how there are often two meanings in politics: “One is the dictionary meaning, and the other is a meaning that is useful for serving power — its doctrinal meaning.” Take, for instance, the double meaning of against aggression. This was said, Chomsky explains, when the US attacked South Vietnam in the early 1960s. The words evoke thoughts of not being aggressive, when in practice the words are about enacting aggression.
Another that comes to mind is reality TV. The genre promises real people in real life. But the practice is highly manipulated environments, with misrepresentative snapshots of the curated cast, a cast of people who often do not have authentic relationships with themselves and each other.
Like a green detective, we can easily overinvest in the promise of words and overlook the practice. I’ve done it plenty of times. I’ve been deceived by lovers, friends, and colleagues. While some folks aren’t as easily fooled as I have been in the past, most are taken for a ride by employers. We don’t all have that cool ability to detect the lies that Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) has in Johnson’s Poker Face. So, I’ve learnt to deal with it in my own way. I’ve learnt to be super attentive to double-speak, and I’m also a champion of what I call direct, dependable, or true-speak. When promise and practice comes together.
This is why I scribble in my black notebook when characters talk about solving crime and bringing justice. Do they really mean to solve the problem? Do they really mean justice? Do they mean small disruption or the true kind?
There were a few seemingly disruptive moments in Glass Onion. I was surprised when about just over half-way through, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) hung up his detective ascot. He said, “I’m sorry, Helen. I gave you the truth. This is where my jurisdiction ends.”
What was compelling to me was less that a character had reached the end of their skills (though it is rare to see characters with such a healthy sense of self), and that we got to the murderer so early, it’s that it felt like we were moving out of the jurisdiction of the detective genre. As John Truby explains in his writing manual The Anatomy of Genres, “the detective searches for the truth.” Benoit had done the reveal of the killer. His job was done. So what happens then?! Where does the genre go then?!
Benoit then said, “I have to answer to the police, the courts, the system. There’s nothing I can do.”
I thought, here is a true shift in the system.
Not just the storytelling system, but also the justice system.
Specifically, unlike just about every crime story where the perp is delivered to the law and then jail or death, Benoit seems to be championing, or at least acknowledging, what writer and social activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes as transformative justice. She defines it as a “way of creating safety, justice, and healing for survivors of violence that does not rely on the state.”
We were now moving past the jurisdiction of the state too!
Let’s check another source.
In a GQ interview, Johnson gives his testimony. Regarding the storytelling angle, he talks about how people think he is deconstructing (or breaking) the genre. But, he says, Christie was always, from the very beginning, about “deconstructing” the genre.
Breaking is what the storyteller is meant to do.
This breaking makes sense for a few reasons. One is to avoid predictability. In his interview with Johnson, The Atlantic’s David Sims says, “People get justifiably frustrated these days with the conclusion of ‘The sirens are going; he’s about to be taken away; great, problem solved.’” They’ve got to keep things interesting.
Another reason is that for the audience, solving the crime is often more about following the clues left by the writer, not the criminal. Which character do they want us to ignore? What detail are they distracting us with? This is why the writer needs to play with structure. They need to get the audience off the trail as much as the criminal does.
How far this disruption goes, though, is tempered. In their sincere efforts to assist storytellers, industry educators like Truby work against big disruption. For instance, he warns that in order to rise above the crowd and be successful, storytellers need to mix and bend genres, not break them. In other words, like those tech entreprenuers, small disruption is the only way to disrupt the market in your favour. This is how easily we learn from each other to not want true disruption — because apparently it’s not good storytelling (and not proper justice). These red herrings get the best of us.
In Glass Onion, when Benoit passed the torch to Helen she set the building ablaze. IBenoit had to work within the system, and in some ways maintain it. But Helen, Helen could act on what needs to be right. She picks up the glass sculptures and smashes them. She keeps going, smashing more and more, setting spilled alcohol ablaze, adding cushions and clothes. Miles yells, Enough. She throws his Klear fuel into the flames. It sets off a reaction across the island. Helen gives a double middle finger to Miles, and runs to the override button so the Mona Lisa painting burns. Over in the “Smokeless Garden,” Benoit lights a cigar, smiles, and says, “Disruption.”
Helen did what was exciting in the moment: she took back power and took him down. Editor Rachelle Ramirez explains on the StoryGrid website how in the crime genre, “tyranny reigns when the perpetrator outwits the investigator by rigging or outwitting the system.” We feared this might happen when Benoit reached the end of his jurisdiction, when those colleagues chose to keep being complicit, and when Miles destroyed the evidence. It did feel like Helen turned things around. But Miles didn’t realise the gravity of what he had done and those around him continued the cycle of harm. The system that keeps tech billionaires exploiting others was still in play, as well as the mindset that keeps many of us thinking violence is the solution, violence is the satisfying story end.
Indeed, here, justice is the promise and punishment is the practice. It’s retributive justice. It’s punitive justice. Not restorative justice.
Does punitive justice truly disrupt as it promises to? There are plenty of studies, practices, and lived experiences that say it doesn’t. Indeed, as to the deterrent argument, multiple studies — including those of prison psychiatrist James Gilligan in his series of books starting with Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes — have shown punishment stimulates and even causes crime and violence. And regarding the desire to punish in the harshest way possible, this has been found to be more what third parties, jurors, and bystanders want, not the victim of the crime.
I’ve been the victim/survivor of plenty of crimes (and perpetrator as well). On a personal level, it took me years to realise my partners weren’t just selfish and mean, they actually were calculated and cruel. Then, because I didn’t think they were redeemable, I kept my distance, and even fantasised about them dying. Not a terrible death, just not being able to do harm to others anymore. And frankly I needed that space while I repaired my relationship with myself and the world. I also refocused my energy in how they got that way in the first place. And, over time, I came to realise that punishment was part of it.
This is the unsolved bit.
Even though there is an unfathomable amount of murders in all those cities and cosy villages (yo, Hot Fuzz), most characters do not think about how the cycle of violence can stop. They, like many writers, focus on solving whodunnit and then punishing them. They don’t think twice about why the murders keep happening, and why the tech billionaires keep sprouting.
Maybe it is the case, as many have said, that solving societal violence is not in the interests of the wealthy, the ruling elite, the 1%. In Preventing Violence, Gilligan explains that the ruling elite are invested in upholding violence and crime because it keeps the focus on the middle class and poor and away from the wealthy few. To do this, the ruling elite enact practices that stimulate and cause crime while promising they’re being “tough on crime.” Indeed, people use language such as “soft on crime” to frame actions that decrease crime.
That double-speak again. It’s like finding the same lead pipe in the kitchen, dining room, and the study. There is a pattern. And this pattern might reveal howdunnit keep happening: how many of us don’t solve the important bit of the murder mystery. Because it’s not just the 1%, it’s a large percentage of us thinking we’re fulfilling the promise of justice when our practice is doing something else. You could say, it is both people who intentionally use double-speak, as well as those who don’t realise it is double-speak, who prevent true disruption.
Operations researcher Stafford Beer shared an important skill related to this. In Diagnosing the System for Organisations, he said you need to see how“the purpose of a system is what it does,” not what it claims to do or says it is. I’ll add, the purpose of the system is the practice, not the promise. We need to ask, are the stories and societal actions really about justice? Are they really about truth? Are they really about disruption? Am I?
At the end of the film adaptation (screenplay by Michael Green) of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) does not send the murderers to the police. “There are no killers here,” Poirot says, “Only people who deserve a chance to heal.” Now, considering the characters and setting involved, we could read this as being less a decision of justice and more one of privilege. And at the same time, I think Christie is also delving deeper into what the detective-seeking-truth is about…and with this the story leans into a kind of transformative justice.
Writer, educator, and organiser Mia Mingus describes this kind of transformative justice as about responding “to violence within our communities in ways that 1) don’t create more harm and violence and 2) actively work to cultivate the very things that we know will prevent violence, such as accountability, healing, trust, connection, [and] safety.” Poirot decides that sending those people off to the police will result in more harm. He attempts to stop the cycle.
This is what the protagonist in Walidah Imarisha’s short story, ‘Black Angel’ (in the 2015 anthology Octavia’s Brood), realises too. After being beaten up by a neo-Nazi, she does not follow her impulse to punish him. Why? Because she says, “She had lived in Harlem long enough to know that sending people into the criminal justice system did nothing but make them more damaged and desperate.”
In Teen Vogue, Kim Tran talks about how community does the work of justice, not the carceral system. We see a glimpse of this in the tender repairing of family relationships at the end of Ivan Sen’s Limbo. I’m adding creative communities as well. Because if many storytellers don’t think they can disrupt made up stuff, what chance does society have? Or, to put it another way, society has a chance if more storytellers (and their audiences) think they can play a role in truly disrupting any system. Story systems, justice systems, semantic systems.
Indeed, as detectives of double-speak, we can also check if ‘disruption’ is really what we’re talking about? Are we looking to disrupt, upset, cause harm? Are we trying to just disrupt them back? Maybe our communities aren’t disrupting, maybe there is more than that binary of big or small, small or true? Mia Mingus talks about the emergence of pods in transformative justice work. That is, people choosing to come together to “address and prevent harm, violence, emergency or crisis.” Like a whale pod, we come together, to create “caring and accountable communities.” Not detectives and criminals, perpetrators and victims, just a whole lot of people working together to find new truths.
At the beginning of Glass Onion, Benoit is in the bath playing Innersloth’s social deduction game Among Us. His colleagues also suggest Jackbox Games’ Quiplash, Vlaada Chvátil’s Codenames, and, later, crosswords. But he says they won’t do, he needs a “great case.” It’s not the only time he’s frustrated that creative works aren’t satisfying his crime-solving and relationship-finding itch. Same.
After his experience with Miles, I recommend Benoit plays Grace Bruxner and Thomas Bowker’s game Frog Detective 3: Corruption at Cowboy Country. After going to the “bad place” (jail), truth and justice actually happen in the end. There is also an apology, a recognition of trauma, healing, and different ways of redeeming…all because of community. This is promise and practice coming together. This is the unsolved bit, transformed. This is not disruption…it’s a pleasure, and despite what you’re told, it’s what many of us want.