Veronica Mars is a very interesting TV show because it manages to combine two genres in a way which tells us a lot about both of them. Those genres are the hard boiled detective story and the teen melodrama. Both of these are highly structured and so highly formulaic, and when looking at texts like this it is important to understand that the very structure of the art is a way of encoding its message. Morgue described this concept recently as “supertext”. I am not an expert on one of these two formula, so I’m going to be really talking mostly about the one I know, trying to pull things in from the other as best I can.
At the highest level of summary, the protagonists in both are embroiled in trouble, alienated and isolated in a world where they don’t have a lot of power, where injustice is rife up to and including systemic faults and corruption at all levels.
There are two main mysteries that run through the first season of the show. The first is foregrounded in the opening monologue; how did Veronica Mars lose her virginity? The second is the death of her best friend. Each episode tends to segue between these and smaller-scale mysteries. In fact a number of mysteries usually overlap, of varying complexity and duration. Taken as a whole, the first season is very complex; another thing which makes it interesting.
Murder is a staple crime in detective fiction, especially Hard Boiled fiction, where bodies tend to pile up at an alarming rate. Rape, or other sexual violence, however, is vanishingly rare. I cannot think of a single rape in Hammett or Chandler at all, and precious little by the way of sexual violence, though there is the occasional sexual motive, and the occasional sexual misconduct. Daly and Macdonald are more cognizant of the possibility, but only Spillane is not afraid to spice up a story with a helping of sexualized violence. For all that Chandler wants his stories to be realistic, sexual violence is altogether too real. Rape and grief’s prominent positions in Veronica Mars’ narrative immediately positions the show as serious in a way inaccessible to ordinary hard boiled dramas.
The grief that Veronica feels about her friend’s murder permeates her existence, and it is a matter of obsession to her to resolve the crime. More than simply losing a friend, the criminal investigation and prosecution which followed, in the back-story of the show, destroyed the career of her father. It transformed him from a respected local official into a somewhat shady PI. It is made clear that this consequence was in large part due to a powerful corruption of the other civil authorities. Chandler would certainly recognize this template from his own work.
The prime suspects in the crime are the family of her friend, and it is clearly they who have exercised undue influence over the judicial processes around the crime. The dominant question is, why would they explicitly cover up the murder of their own daughter if they weren’t involved? The resolution then follows the classic detective orientation – it may not be quite the least-likely suspect, but certainly all the likely suspects are exonerated of the murder and a suitably convoluted explanation is offered for the cover-up. This does not right the past injustices, but justice is ultimately served in the case of the murderer.
This is a common pattern in the hard-boiled novel: a comparatively straightforward crime with a reasonably ordinary motivation is wrapped and encoded in an official corruption which is largely a smoke screen to be pierced rather than integral to the nature of the crime. Actually this is one key difference between Hammett and his followers – corruption in Hammett is integral.
Murder is not particularly prevalent in teenage dramas, but sexual violence is implicit and lurking outside the view of the text. In Beverly Hills 90210 it mostly appeared on an emotional level; I remember clearly the episode where Brenda and Dylan finally went up to sleep together in a hotel room he’d rented after prom. He told her – if she was just another conquest, it would have happened a long time ago. Even at the time, this endearing entreaty struck me as fundamentally menacing, fundamentally about sexual predation. Dylan in this phrase reveals the very real danger of romance in the context of an American high school drama. Brenda, he says, will not be used and discarded, as by implication, have so many others.
By way of an aside, my sense in 90210 was that there were shades of grey associated with these discussions. I wonder now in the age of American Abstinence-Only sexual education whether the whore/madonna dichotomy is now an unbreachable divide, and so this discussion is now completely off the table.
Veronica’s response to her rape is understandably vitriolic; she demonizes all of those who contributed to the circumstances leading to it, and creates a virtual bogey man of the perpetrator. The mysterious personage becomes a Moriarty-like figure: mostly off-stage, but whose effects ripple through the show. Revenge is a primary motive, and you sense that in her anger, all those she vanquishes and those she crosses to do so, are stand-ins for this primal villain.
Veronica is an adolescent character forced by circumstances to assume an adult approach to life; circumstances which are a good deal more grim and severe than most adults experience. Yet, she is still constrained by the limitations of her age, and, importantly, her gender. The hard-boiled veneer she assumes is her way of moderating and coping with her circumstances of violation and betrayal. This tough shell isolates her from her former peers. Although it does allow her to form connections with elements of her society who were previously out of bounds, these are uncomfortable replacements; as her best friend complains mid-way through the show, they can’t just hang out because Veronica always has an angle to play.
This lonesome existence is straight out of the hard-boiled playbook, but whereas for the Op or Sam Spade we catch only glimpses of the motivation and cost of such a position, it is front-and-centre for Veronica. When we compare Veronica to Chandler’s prescription for the detective he envisages at the end of The Simple Art of Murder, Veronica fits closely. The difference is that whereas Chandler’s vision is inherently romantic, Veronica is mostly tragic. The apparent benefits of her cynical exterior have a very high and equally apparent cost.
Eventually the perpetrator is identified, and once again a classic formal detective ploy is used – the crime that was not a crime. Veronica’s virginity was lost to her long-time boyfriend who was under the impression that the sex was consensual, albeit assisted by drunkenness. The bogey-man which was at the centre of her anger turns out to not exist. The violation that had been at the centre of much of Veronica’s anger and hence was virtually definitional in the character explored by the show up until that point, turns out to be based not on a violation, but on the fear of one. The retrospective fear of having lost control, of having been hit when vulnerable, governs her behavior.
While this does not render her response invalid, it does cast a rather different perspective on it. The pity and fear we felt for her, the tragic identification, is somewhat expelled, replaced with relief that a terrible event has not effectively been expunged from her life. While the consequences of her response will live on, that originating event loses most of its power.
Like a Scooby Doo villain, the mask has been pulled off, revealing that the demonic force is merely a person, and in this case, a person with good intentions, if not honest ones. The process of investigation has, in this singular existence, allowed the reclamation of a lost innocence; something which is not possible for the Op or Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.
This has gotten rather longer than I expected, so I will leave off there; I will return however, to how these strands interact with other hard boiled fictions.