The Metropolitan Museum of Art just recently closed its exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer. For four months, huge crowds flocked to the museum to see the exhibit, which was hailed as one of the most comprehensive collections of the artist’s drawings ever assembled. On a rainy Wednesday at the end of its run at the Met, I went to check out the exhibit for myself—despite the weather and the fact that it was a weekday in the off-season, the place was still packed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the master’s work while they still had the chance.
I always want to love exhibits of this size and significance, want to be able to say I love them. But in this case I just can’t. Yes, I was impressed with the sheer volume of material collected in one place. There were some individual works I found myself drawn to: a sketch of a staircase that never got built, a doodle of a dragon with its head turned in on itself, a drawing of the death of Cleopatra. I felt educated by the detailed descriptions of the plans for the Sistine Chapel, and I was amused at the peek the exhibit afforded of Michelangelo as teacher—seems even the greatest among us sometimes feel frustration at trying to teach their craft to others.
But, at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine, I admit, I was underwhelmed. Maybe it was the inclusion of so many works by Michelangelo’s teachers, students and contemporaries. Maybe it was the visual overload from just too much red chalk. Maybe it was a function of quantity over quality, the sheer volume demanding the viewer look at everything, when the percentage of true standout pieces was relatively small. Maybe it was because I was damp and being jostled by a lot of tourists. Whatever it was, I didn’t love it.
And then in the final gallery, I got some possible insight into my nagging disappointment. At the very end of the exhibit, there was a panel that explained that, after his death, Michelangelo wanted all his drawings destroyed so that they would never be exhibited publically—he only wanted audiences to see the final perfection of his work. Pardon me? So then why exactly had the Met just led me through a half-dozen galleries looking at exactly the kinds of works Michelangelo never wanted seen?! I felt implicated somehow, unwittingly complicit in the exposure of the master’s imperfection. And I wasn’t happy about it. Has the man not earned the right to decide how he wants to be represented?
But of course, it got me thinking about my own field, and how we deal with process, with imperfection, with incompletion. How Chaucer left works unfinished to avoid giving his readers the benefit of closure. How I give students copies of my own works in progress to compare with the final published version to provide insight into the process of academic writing. How we sometimes look to authors’ letters or diaries that were never meant to be read to help understand their literary works. And how in today’s multi-media world, so much of what once was private can be exposed to millions with a click or a swipe.
I’m not sure what this means for our craft. In the case of Michelangelo, nothing in that exhibit diminished his greatness for me, but it made me uncomfortable on his behalf. Do we not have a responsibility to honor the wishes of the greats among us? Or is it okay to exploit them, for our own edification, entertainment, economic gain? Should what is private be fair game if its creator isn’t around to protest? What is our responsibility to the wishes of the dead when we know them? And when we don’t? I have no answers to these questions, except to say that they are questions that we, as students and producers of writing in an increasingly exposed world, need to consider.
Recently, I published my second mystery novel, entitled Murder at the People’s Theater. Mystery fiction is generally divided into two categories, the hard-boiled and the cozy. Typically, the hard-boiled detective is a solitary figure who walks the mean and often rain-swept streets of a major city in pursuit of justice, whatever that means in the morally relative—at times, corrupt—universe that the detective inhabits. Traditionally, that city is Los Angeles, but at this point, pick anywhere on the map.
This investigator acts according to a moral code from which he—or she—never waivers. The violence committed by the perpetrator or by the detective is right there on the page (and in this context, it can be hard to tell them apart), as is the sexual content of the novel. Although the detective may be a solitary figure, living and working alone, the investigator does take time out for a liaison or two, often with someone who may or may not be in handcuffs at the conclusion of the case. The hard-boiled detective bears the scars of this profession, which can include not only physical injuries but the deeper emotional wounds that take longer to heal. And there is often a more-than-medicinal dose of alcohol to lubricate the lonely nights experienced by an individual who still operates according to a clear sense of right and wrong, at times hampered by a justice system that appears to have forgotten the difference.
Murder at the People’s Theater falls under the category of cozy. Here is a synopsis:
Taking a break from the academic life, Erica Duncan starts a new job in the producer’s office at the prestigious People’s Theater but soon discovers that the position holds more drama than expected. In search of its next big hit, the theater is presenting Michelangelo: The Musical, focusing on the life and loves of the artist. When an unassuming co-worker is found murdered in the theater lobby, her body posed in a copy of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Man, this is the kind of publicity that the show does not need. At the People’s Theater, Erica assumes the role of detective, never an easy part, especially in a place when almost everyone is an actor, and self-invention is a way of life. Murder at the People’s Theater is also a story of mothers and children, from Michelangelo and his mother, and the actors who play them, to the birth mother who has no interest in being found by the daughter she gave up for adoption 20 years earlier.
The cozy is supposed to serve up a more “genteel” form of murder. Violence is underplayed and sexual activity can be suggested but occurs offstage. This detective is often an amateur, unlike the hard-boiled detective for whom it’s not just a job but a life. The amateur and, at times, unwilling detective holds tight to a moral compass that directs her—or him—to do the right thing, even when deterred or actively discouraged by those who insist that he or she move on, nothing to see here.
The detective in a cozy could well be risking his or her (day) job but still persists, even when faced with polite but pointed threats to life and limb. The hard-boiled detective may work alone, but the detective in cozy fiction is part of a community: a theater or a college are two that spring immediately to my mind. Essential to the cozy is an understanding of the world in which the mystery unfolds, the code by which this culture operates providing an essential clue to the solution of the mystery itself.
In the twenty-first century, we have come a long way from the cozy being the exclusive domain of ladies who sip tea at garden parties and wear funny hats. Hard-boiled fiction, considered the more masculine genre, has been taken more seriously in part because it is more serious: unlike the sometimes humorous approach to murder in a cozy, there are not a lot of laughs in the cynical and world-weary perspective of the typical hard-boiled detective. But it would be inaccurate to suggest that the cozy is a “kinder, gentler” form of murder.
Yes, the detective usually emerges from the experience physically unharmed, but the same cannot be said for the murder victim, who still dies a violent death at the hands of another. (Based on my first two novels, I have a thing for head wounds, apparently, something I had not noticed until recently.) And the cozy does what all mysteries do: after the murder, we learn unflattering information about the victim in order to shift the emphasis from sympathy for the deceased to solving the case.
Making the victim less sympathetic cannot change or erase the fact that we have someone who has been handed a punishment far worse that the wrongs, real or imagined, that he or she may have committed because someone has decided to serve as judge, jury, and executioner. But the point of the exercise, for both the amateur and the professional detective, as well as the reading audience, is to solve the crime, so that is where the emphasis should be.