Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writer
by Joan G. Kotker, English Faculty, Bellevue College
Published by Greenwood Publishing
Copyright © 1996 by Joan G. Kotker.
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Writing a novel is usually an emotional roller coaster. Some days you think it's fine, some days you think it's mediocre, and some days you think it stinks; you soar with exhilaration and quickly plunge into despair. But with both [Watchers and Mr. Murder], the story came like a great wide river, flowing smooth and swift, and for the whole ride I knew I was going somewhere special. There are other books of my own that I like as well or nearly as well as those two, but Watchers and Mr. Murder were composed with so much confidence compared to other books that I'll always love them a little more and be unable to rank them objectively. (Gorman interview, 47).In fact, the two books have a good deal in common. Both are centered on biologically engineered characters who have been developed by human beings for the use of human beings, and who suffer loneliness, pain, and a terrible sense of being nothing, of belonging to no species. Both works are also very much interested in the concept of doubling and both pose this concept in Christian terms of good and evil, of the split between soul and body, where the human soul is seen as a symbol of purity, the human body as a symbol of corruption.
In Watchers the doubles are Einstein, the dog, and The Outsider. Each has been genetically engineered to be used as a weapon, but the dog has the advantage of looking like a dog, looking normal, and so he can conceal his otherness. A noble character, he is a symbol of goodness. The Outsider is grotesque in appearance, and knows that it is. It can pass as nothing other than a monster, and it is desperately envious of the dog, who has choices not available to it. In its viciousness The Outsider is the symbol of evil, and in its pain it is the symbol of the evil of human beings, who would create a creature such as this. This pair, the dog and The Outsider, are similar to the central characters of Mr. Murder, Marty Stillwater and Alfie.
Marty is a mystery writer who lives in California, and Alfie is an operable clone (hence his name—he is the alpha, or first of these) who has been genetically developed from Marty's blood and bone marrow cells. His function is to be an assassin, controlled by his creators, who have programmed him to exist entirely under their direction. He is physically identical to Marty, and like The Outsider, he knows that he is somehow other—that although he looks human, he is not human. He wants desperately to have a real life and be a real person, and he is, perhaps through telepathy, aware of the existence of Marty, his double. He decides that Marty has stolen his life, his wife, his children, and his profession, and that he must kill Marty to gain them back. In this pairing, it is Marty who is the symbol of good and Alfie who is the symbol of evil. This again follows the pattern of Christian symbolism, since Alfie exists only as a physical being; he lacks a soul. And like The Outsider, Alfie symbolizes not only evil in himself but also evil in human beings, since it is they who have created him.
Yet another example of doubling in Mr. Murder is the Christmas story that Marty is writing for his children, "Santa's Evil Twin," in which Santa's physically identical twin is making of Christmas a time of misery and pain rather than joy and celebration. Here, too, the pairing is specifically identified in terms of good and evil. And finally, when Marty is interviewed by People magazine (which creates the title of Mr. Murder for him, reflecting the fact that he writes mysteries), the article includes a photo of him that is out of focus and deliberately makes him look grotesque and monstrous. Thus, he too is, at least in this context, considered to be an outsider and something other than human, on the basis of his stories. There is some suggestion then that to create monsters is to be a monster, although with Marty this is only implied, showing that there is a difference between the creations of fiction and reality. This message is also one of the messages of Watchers; indeed, in both books Dean Koontz is saying to the reader, "Be very careful to keep your fantasies securely within the world of fantasy."
Koontz's fascination with doubling can also be seen in his novel Whispers (1980), in which the antagonist, Bruno Frye, turns out to be an identical twin. He and his twin have been raised to believe that they are one person. The result of such psychological manipulation and distortion of self is that the two become psychopathic killers who, through their murders, attempt to destroy the person who so shaped (or misshaped) them. Like The Outsider and Alfie, the dual Bruno character is also aware of its otherness and is both a source of evil and a victim of evil. Koontz draws him compassionately, showing the horror of what has been done to him. This early example of the double does not, however, have the good-evil combination that appears in the two later novels, suggesting that in these two works Koontz has followed a pattern that he has followed before, wherein he takes a particular concept, works it out in a particular way, and then returns to it later to explore another aspect of it. (A comparable example of Koontz's returning to a topic and reconsidering it occurs in the novels Phantoms and Hideaway, and is discussed in Chapter 3.)
The initial major complication puts into play a whole series of further complications. In Mr. Murder this initial complication occurs when Marty realizes that he has been saying over and over into a tape recorder, "I need, I need," and he has no recollection of having done this, nor does he have any idea of what he was referring to, of what it is he needs. He is afraid that he is suffering from fugue, a psychological state in which a person suffers from blackouts during which he or she acts normally but later has no memory of what was done, who was there, what the circumstances were. Marty's fear leads him to behave uncharacteristically, snapping at his wife and children. Now Marty begins to have psychic attacks, in which he is slammed by a wall of terror. He goes to his doctor, afraid that he may be suffering from a brain tumor, but everything seems to be normal.
While these odd fugue states and terror attacks are occurring to Marty, a killer is in the Midwest going about his usual routine of assassinating victims who have been chosen for him, although he does not know who chooses them or why they must die, nor does he know who he himself is, or how he came to be an assassin. He completes his task in Kansas City, but then he behaves uncharacteristically and, instead of following routine, gets in his car and starts driving west. He has a compulsion to do this, although again, he does not know why.
The killer turns out to be Alfie, a genetically engineered murderer who was cloned from Marty's blood and bone marrow cells. (Marty had been in the same hospital where the cells that were supposed to be used for the engineering of the killer were extracted. By mistake, his cell samples had been switched with those intended for Alfie.) Alfie is an exact replica of Marty, and somehow he is in psychic communication with him and knows of his existence in California. While Alfie doesn't understand why he feels compelled to go to where Marty is, he does know that something is wrong with him, that he is incomplete and lacks a real life. His efforts to create a real life for himself cause greater and greater complications. First, Alfie reaches the Stillwater home and breaks in, familiarizing himself with the life that he is convinced has been stolen from him. He finds pictures of Marty's wife and children and copies of his books, complete with pictures of the author on the back covers that look exactly like Alfie. But when he sits at Marty's desk, he cannot write as Marty does; the words will not come.
At this point, Marty returns from his doctor's appointment and walks in on Alfie. Alfie looks at him and says, "What now? Do we somehow become one person, fade into each other, like in some crazy science-fiction movie. . .or do I just kill you and take your place?. . .And if I kill you. . .do the memories you've stolen from me become mine again, when you're dead? If I kill you. . .am I made whole?" (124-25). Alfie moves from questioning to aggression, and Marty shoots him, hitting him in the chest, but Alfie doesn't even fall, although he is covered in blood. A struggle ensues and Alfie goes over a balcony railing, landing flat on his back and fracturing his spine. He has also lost a great deal of blood from the gunshot wounds. Marty leaves to call the police, and when he returns, Alfie has disappeared. When the police arrive, it becomes obvious that they think Marty has invented a story in order to create publicity for himself, that there is no factual basis for what he reports. This terrifies Marty, since he knows Alfie is real and will be back. When the police leave, Marty and his wife begin to pack up, convinced that they must get away at once before Alfie returns. They are correct in their assumption; as they are packing, Alfie comes and abducts their two daughters. Marty succeeds in rescuing the girls, and the family abandons their home, trying to get very far from Alfie. They head for Mammoth Lakes, a small rural town where Marty's parents live.
Meanwhile, Alfie's handlers—members of a clandestine right-wing political group known as the Network—realize that he is no longer following the standard operating procedures he has been programmed for. What is worse, he has disappeared. They begin to track him, determined to reprogram him and, if that fails, destroy him. While they are doing this they see an article on Marty in People magazine and realize that there is some connection between Alfie and Marty, although they do not know what it is. Nonetheless, they research Marty's background in the hope of finding Alfie, and decide that Marty would probably go to his parents in Mammoth Lakes if he were seeking a sanctuary. Alfie, still in telepathic contact with Marty, follows him and the stage is set for all the players to come together.
In Mammoth Lakes, the Network, the first of the players to arrive, has set up a surveillance vehicle outside Marty's parents's home. When Alfie arrives he recognizes it at once for what it is and kills the operatives inside. Then he enters the house. When Marty's parents see that something is wrong, that he is a very different Marty from the person they raised, Alfie kills them. He is convinced that the "other" Marty, who in his mind is the fake Marty, has somehow gotten to them before he did and poisoned their minds. He follows the trail of Marty and his family, who have gone to ground in a cabin in the nearby mountains. Alfie's primary handlers reach Mammoth Lakes, find their dead operatives, and track Alfie to an abandoned religious commune, where he has cornered the Stillwaters at the top of a bell tower.
In the climax, Alfie is killed by his two handlers just before he can kill Marty. They begin to put into place the planned execution of the Stillwaters, so that the case will be closed and the police will ask no awkward questions that might lead to exposure of the Network. At this moment, one of the handlers, Clocker, turns on the other and kills him, in this way saving the Stillwater family.
Finally, in the denouement, the surviving operative Clocker helps the Stillwaters escape to a safe place, later providing them with false identities. He tells them that they can never return to their old lives, since even though Alfie has been destroyed and he was the only operative clone the Network had developed, there may be unknown members of the Network who are harboring grudges, determined to avenge themselves on the Stillwaters when it becomes safe to do so. Under their new names, Marty becomes the author of successful children's books illustrated by his wife. Clocker disappears, leaving as enigmatically as he came, and subsequently a book of fiction is published that seems to be a sort of Star Trek approach to the topic of cloning. Through documents that Clocker has stolen, and presumably, Marty has organized and summarized, the Network is publicly exposed and, at least for the moment, its power is destroyed. The mysterious disappearance of the author Martin Stillwater becomes yet another popular legend returned to year after year but never producing final answers, much like the disappearance of union figure Jimmy Hoffa. All that the public knows about Marty is that once there was such a person, and now that person is no more.
One specific issue raised by Mr. Murder is its ending. Usually, Dean Koontz ends his novels with a resolution that is, in one way or another, brought about by the action of the protagonists. Through their bravery and persistence, they succeed in containing evil; they are the central characters of the story, and they bring about its closure. This is not the case in Mr. Murder, though. Here, Koontz uses what is known as a deus ex machina ending. This is a term taken from the ancient Greek theater, where gods who intervened in the actions of humans, rescuing them from what seemed to be hopeless situations, were lowered by a structure (or "machine") to the stage below. Deus ex machina is a Latin phrase meaning "god from the machine." In literary analysis it is used to describe a sudden ending that the reader has not been prepared for and that resolves a problem that seemed headed for deadlock. It is in this sense a magical ending: someone steps in, just like a magician, and makes things all better; the magician waves a wand, and the lady in the box who was just sawed in half is shown to be whole after all.
In Mr. Murder, Karl Clocker is the god or magician who steps in. The Stillwaters are in a bell tower with Alfie. They have done everything that they can to save themselves and now Alfie is about to triumph; in fact, he is on the verge of cannibalizing Marty when Oslett and Clocker suddenly appear. Oslett kills Alfie, and then turns his gun on the Stillwaters, ready now to kill them too, when out of the blue Clocker shoots Oslett. The reader has been given no indication up to this point that Clocker is anything but a loyal operative of the Network, and the ending is jarring in its convenience. It feels as though Koontz had to get the Stillwaters out of their predicament in some way, and so he turned to Clocker because he could think of nothing else. However, anyone who, like Dean Koontz, has written over fifty novels, clearly has had a good deal of experience creating endings, and it is therefore unlikely that he chose this ending for lack of another alternative. Perhaps instead his intention is to show how very dangerous the Network is—so dangerous that escaping from it is dependent on luck and the grace of God as well as one's own efforts. While it may be true that God helps those who help themselves, faced with any force as powerful and all-encompassing as the Network, salvation requires both parts of the equation—that is, the help of God (or the magical intervention of fate) and oneself.
Marty is a dynamic character to the extent that, when he is confronted with Alfie and the possibility that his life will be destroyed, he finds within himself the strength to fight back to save what is his. This is not a change, though, but a predictable development of the person he is. He is described as a man for whom family and a settled home life are paramount, and so it is no surprise when he risks everything to protect this. When he and his wife go into sanctuary and take on new identities, he remains essentially the person he was. He is still a writer, but now he concentrates solely on children's stories and no longer writes mysteries. Although circumstances force him to be a loner, this is no big transition, since he is a person who has always disliked publicity and who was embarrassed by the attention he received in magazines such as People. The insight he has gained that justifies defining him as a dynamic character is the knowledge he now has about the world of politics and government. He understands that both can be all-powerful and at the same time so secretive that they can be seen only by the effects they cause; exactly who has caused a given effect is likely to be a matter of conjecture and almost never a matter of certainty.
His wife, Paige Stillwater, is also a round, dynamic character. Dean Koontz often has strong women characters in his novels, and Paige is a good example. Where Marty has had a happy, secure childhood, Paige's has been unhappy and dysfunctional. Her parents were cold, distant, and abusive, and when she was sixteen, her father killed her mother and then committed suicide. Paige was the one who found them when she came home from school. An aunt she did not like was named as her guardian, and Paige then went to court to be declared an adult so that she could be her own guardian.
The Network operative who is the source of this information (they are discussing her to see how much of a problem she may be to them in their effort to eliminate first Alfie, then the Stillwaters) says, "The judge was sufficiently impressed with her to rule in her favor. It's rare but it does happen" (340). And when another operative comments that Paige must have had an excellent lawyer, the first agrees and tells him that Paige was her own lawyer. Clearly, even as an adolescent she was a strong person capable of taking responsibility for the conditions of her life. She is now a child psychologist, and has supported Marty in the early years of his writing, while he established himself. When the family is trying to escape from Alfie, Paige plays as significant a role as Marty, lying in wait for the clone while Marty takes the children to safety, since the clone can sense Marty but cannot sense Paige, and so she will have the element of surprise. And although both her efforts and Marty's are only partly successful in destroying Alfie, they are successful to the same extent: this is clearly an equal partnership.
When the family goes into sanctuary, the changes in Paige's life are greater than those in Marty's. Unlike him, she leaves what was her profession and no longer practices as a psychologist, but has instead become a book illustrator. And where her work in psychology took her out into the world and put her in contact with many different people, she now lives a far more reclusive life. She has also learned that her self-sufficiency has limits. Even though she could as a girl overcome the power of the judicial system, there is little she can do to overcome the power of the Network, the power of fanatics who do not show themselves. Nonetheless, she has found contentment in the new life that she and Marty have created for themselves and their family.
Karl Clocker is in many ways the most intriguing of the protagonists in Mr. Murder. He is a huge, hulking man who has a talent for violence and who, for that reason, "was a man of his times" (177). He is a fine example of Koontz taking what might be a stock character—the shadowy operative whose profession defines him—and adding depth by giving him unanticipated interests and personality characteristics. Clocker is a quiet, self-contained person who seldom talks. On the occasions when he does so, he is so cryptic that little communication takes place. But Koontz has also made him a Star Trek fan and on this topic, he can talk forever; he knows the plots of all the movies and television episodes, and spends his time while on surveillance reading Star Trek novels. He is paired with another network operative who loathes anything to do with Star Trek, and this becomes the basis for some fine humor in what is really a grim book. And since readers are familiar with the Star Trek series, Clocker's cryptic comments are not nearly as inscrutable to the reader as they are to his Network colleague. We understand that Clocker is making fun of the intensely serious colleague, a preppy Princeton graduate who is uncomfortable with the world of fiction and fantasy. When the graduate asks Clocker when they'll be arriving somewhere, he says, "Half an hour, forty minutes—assuming the fabric of reality doesn't warp between here and there" (265).
Very little substantive information is provided on Clocker. He says that he has always wanted a life of adventure, and that is why he joined the Network. He says that all along he has intended to expose the Network, but he does not say why he wanted this life, where he received his training for it, or what his life was like before this. Nonetheless, the information given about Clocker is so entertaining that we feel we know him—how could we not know someone we like so well? He is thus a good example of a minor character who feels well developed because he has a quality—in this case, his Trekkerdom—that readers can relate to immediately. He is also an example of a static character, since he has planned all along to betray the Network and this is exactly what he does at the end. (Of course, he would seem dynamic to his Network colleagues, who have no idea of his real intentions.)
Mr. Murder has three other antagonists: Clocker's colleague Drew Oslett, police lieutenant Cyrus Lowbock, and the major villain, Alfie. A well-developed and round character, in many ways Alfie is a child. He is a genetically engineered assassin who has been in the field only fourteen months. He has no sense of who he is, only of what he does: he kills people on command. Despite his acts Alfie is a pitiful character because he knows that there is something wrong with him, that something is lacking. He goes to movies to try to learn what it is like to be human, but he receives mixed messages. Should he be the gentle Jimmy Stewart or the violent Sylvester Stallone? He is lonely and tortured, and he doesn't even know his name. As it turns out, he has been given no real name. He is just Alfie, the alpha or first of what is intended to be a series of human clones developed for specific purposes.
Although Alfie has been designed to have extraordinary recuperative powers and can be killed only by a direct hit to his brain, he is a classic example of technology gone wrong, since his handlers no longer have control of him. In being unable to totally eradicate his human emotions and needs, they have created a monster who potentially threatens everyone. Clocker says of Alfie, "The first operative Alpha-generation human clone is a renegade, mutating in ways we might not understand, and capable of infecting the human gene pool with genetic material that could spawn a new and thoroughly hostile race of nearly invulnerable super beings" (362), and no one disagrees with him. Although Alfie escapes the control of his handlers, he is a static character, since he escapes at the opening of the story and therefore the only Alfie the reader knows is the renegade Alfie. He begins the story determined to create a human life for himself, and he ends it with this determination. His plea is the same at the beginning of the book as it is at the end: "I need, I need, I need."
A second villain is the Network operative Drew Oslett. As with Clocker, very little information is given about him and he plays a small role in the story, so he might well have been a stock character—a shadowy high-tech operative working for an equally shadowy, high-tech organization. But the individual quirks that Koontz gives him make him seem like a real person, someone the reader might well know. These quirks are his love of fast, glitzy, high-tech equipment, games, and lifestyles. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard, he thinks very well of himself and is sure that it is through some error, some careless oversight, that he has been given a plodding Trekker like Clocker as a partner. (He even considers killing Clocker, but decides he doesn't have the time right now—that finding Alfie takes precedence over getting a more appropriate partner.) Just as Alfie seeks to create a life for himself through films, Oslett creates his through the constant sensory input of the media. His favorite film is Lethal Weapon 3, which he loves because there's no story line to follow, he doesn't have to get involved with the characters, and it is full of violent, extremely loud action sequences. He also delights in equipment, and there's a wonderful scene in which Oslett buys himself ski clothes so as to be prepared for the weather in Mammoth Lakes. He is entranced by the various and sundry high-tech features of the clothing. It is easy for the reader to identify with such characteristics and for this reason Oslett is far more than the stereotyped operative he might have been. Nonetheless, he is a flat character. Like Alfie and Clocker, he is static, ending the novel as he began it, with no new insights into himself or the way the world works. An interesting, although again minor, antagonist is someone whom the reader might well have expected to be a protagonist, the plainclothes police detective Cyrus Lowbock. He appears in the novel in only one scene, but his impact is greater than this would indicate, since his cynicism adds to the story's bleak worldview. It is a staple of the police procedural that individual police are often disillusioned about the criminal justice system, the political power structure, and the likelihood of reforming criminals. But Lowbock takes this disillusionment one step further by being thoroughly cynical about the victims of crime. He is convinced that Marty is inventing the story of Alfie as a way to get publicity, and Lowbock's main concern is not to find the truth but rather to protect himself, to make sure that he is not professionally vulnerable in any way in his handling of the case. He explains to Marty that nowadays police are sued for what they do, for what they do not do, and for anything in between. In Lowbock, Koontz creates a person charged with protecting the public who is interested only in protecting himself and who will take no action rather than have it be the wrong action. This is such a surprising stance for a police officer to take that it catches the reader's attention and makes of Lowbock a rich character, despite the fact that he is basically flat, a character of whom we know very little. He is also a static character, since he appears in only this one scene and any insights he may come to as a result of the case are gained outside of the reader's field of vision.
Finally, the Network itself can be seen as an antagonist. It is, according to Clocker, made up of people who hold power in the establishment—that is, in government, business, and the media, and who are convinced that democracy can no longer work, that the mass of people cannot be trusted to govern themselves, that the world of high technology has made obsolete the world of government by the people. The Network has instituted a number of research programs designed to enable it to quietly take over the positions of power in America, and Alfie was intended as one small part of this, the first of the obedient, engineered police and soldiers who would serve the Network. Of course, the Network is a flat character, since there is no information on how it originated, how these people came into contact with one another, or what has caused them to take the stance they have taken. It is static, since at no point does the Network admit that it might be wrong in its assessments. This use of a group in the traditional role of a character is typical of the way in which organizations take on the role of characters in the world of the technothriller, where their motives and workings intrigue the reader as much as those of a person.
In terms of weather, Koontz has used it in routine ways in Mr. Murder. A rain storm when Paige is driving the children home signifies that something bad is happening there, and so it is—Alfie is in the house. And as the story comes closer and closer to its climax, the weather becomes worse and worse, culminating in a heavy snowstorm in the mountains. These events basically serve as window dressing, though. They help set the tone of what is happening in the story, but they do not cause any of the events.
In contrast to his use of weather, Koontz makes imaginative use of clothing and costumes in Mr. Murder, especially in his description of Karl Clocker. A large, hulking man, Clocker is given to wearing tweed jackets with leather buttons and leather patches on the elbows, very loud sweater vests with bold diamond-shaped patterns, bright socks that clash with his sweaters, suede Hush Puppies, and hats with little feathers tucked in the brim. His clothing alone drives the dapper Drew Oslett mad, and it raises the question of exactly what sort of person Clocker is—he doesn't sound like the usual hit man and as it will turn out, he is not.
Clothing is also used to establish the character of the self-protective police detective, Cyrus Lowbock. Koontz says that in his gray cords, black loafers, and navy blue cable-stitched sweater he looks like a model for tasteful luxury items such as Rolls-Royces. He adds, "He looked less like any popular image of a cop than like a man who had been born to wealth and knew how to manage and preserve it" (162). While there is no information given on how much money Lowbock has, he certainly does know how to manage and preserve his professional status in the police department and is far more concerned with how he will appear than with whom he can help. Clothing details such as these are an efficient way to give readers a sense of what someone is like, especially when the person is a minor figure.
A final element of setting is the tools, weapons, and equipment that characters use. Again, much can be shown about a person through descriptions of that person's choices. Clocker, for example, uses an atypical gun for a hit man, and of course he will turn out to be an atypical hit man. Oslett's love of sensory input comes through in his surveillance tools. He uses an electronic map to track Alfie, a Satellite Assisted Tracking Unit that isn't available to the general public, and he is delighted with its colorful, well-designed screen; it reminds him of a video game and of the arcades he loves to visit. The suggestion is that he is a grown-up who has not really grown up, that he is a fine example of the yuppy slogan, "He who dies with the most toys wins," and this turns out to be an accurate reading of Oslett's personality. He has no sense of people, only of things. Because of this he loses control of Alfie without realizing it, and also cannot read his partner Karl Clocker, a failure that ultimately leads him to his death.
He has, however, done one thing in Mr. Murder that is unusual in his work. While he has stayed with his customary point of view, he has used both present and past tenses to tell the story. Most of the novel is in the past tense, but whenever the anonymous narrator focuses on Alfie, that chapter is told in present tense. Thus, Chapter 1, which begins with Marty Stillwater listening to his tape recorder and trying to figure out what he meant by saying "I need, I need" over and over again into it, is told in the past tense. However Chapter 2 opens with Alfie in Kansas City, where he has been sent to assassinate someone fingered by the Network, and is told in the present tense. Chapter 3, which focuses on the perspective of Marty's children, is again in the past tense. But Chapter 4, focusing again on Alfie in Kansas City, reverts to the present tense, as does every subsequent chapter that is centered on Alfie and his actions. This shift in tenses is an effective device for maintaining tension throughout the story. Subconsciously it sends the message that we should be very frightened because Alfie exists now, in real time, and could show up in our neighborhoods at any time, just as he does in Marty's suburban, middle-class home.
Of all the characters, Alfie is the most dependent on the media. When he is trying to complete his life, to become a real person, he takes his image of what that would be from films, ending up in a morass of contradictions. He knows that he must be firm, and also gentle and giving. He knows that he has nothing to fear from death, that heroes are invulnerable, and he also knows that death is a terrible thing. He knows that sexual relationships are fun and joyous, and that they are manipulative and destructive. He knows that children are innocent and good, and that they are corrupt and evil. He understands that women wish to be loved and treated tenderly, and that they wish to be physically and mentally dominated. Alfie has done what small children do, in that he has modeled his behavior on the media, accepting the images he sees there as factual descriptions of how humans should and do interact. And when Alfie's handlers are trying to figure out what went wrong, how they lost control of him, Clocker suggests that it was all the movies and television that caused him to want to change.
Drew Oslett, Alfie's controller, is nearly as dependent in his own way on the media as Alfie is. Oslett loves motion, color, bright lights, and loud noises. It is as though he constantly lives in a Saturday morning children's cartoon and when things quiet down, he is uncomfortable: something is not right. He is constantly in action, watching films, playing with his Game Boy, doing anything to maintain a high level of sensory input. He is very uncomfortable with books, though. He finds them slow and lacking in action, too focused on what people think rather than on what they do. In this he is typical of a pattern in the novel that assigns a love of books to the protagonists, a love of other media to the antagonists.
Martin Stillwater, who is a mystery writer, says of stories that they take the mess of life, with its chaos and unpredictability, and impose on it a sense of order, logic, and meaning. He sees real danger in the visual media, though. He thinks that the combination of its saturation of society and insistence on entertainment values so blurs the distinction between fact and fiction that underlying meaning is all but impossible to arrive at. In both cases—that of stories and that of television and movies—a fictional model is imposed on reality, but there is an essential difference in who is doing this imposing. In the case of literature, it is the reader who interprets a story in such a way that he or she finds meaning in the randomness of life, and for this reason the reader is a key controlling factor. In the case of the visual media, it is the media that impose meaning, since the viewer is not a participant in creating the story. Someone who reads a book must also help to create the book by imagining setting, tone, appearance of characters, and the like. Someone who watches a movie has all of this worked out by the maker of the movie and is just a receptor of that person's imagination. By extension, in considering the media as a whole, popular novels and stories can empower us; they can give us tools with which to shape our experiences, stories to help us make sense of our lives. In contrast, the media, which cannot explore issues and their ramifications in the same way that novels can, give us ways of acting that bear little relationship to reality and that have within them so many internal contradictions that any attempt to follow them as models leads to chaos.
The underlying concept here, then, is that people need models—ways of interpreting the world around them that give it meaning—in order to feel complete in themselves and in their lives, but today's culture no longer provides us with ways that work. When our culture was dependent on the written word, we helped to shape the stories that made sense of our lives. Now that culture is dependent on pictures and sounds, we have become receivers of someone else's vision and are no longer creating the way we interpret our own reality. This leaves us less than whole, makes of us partial people like Alfie, and leads to a very bleak vision of contemporary life. There is a grave danger that, like Alfie, most people will spend their lives as tools of larger forces, controlled by someone else's images of reality, dissatisfied with the lives they have, and at the same time incapable of changing them. There is little to counterbalance this very pessimistic ending to Mr. Murder except the suggestion that we must keep on telling stories, attempting to make sense of life as active agents rather than as passive receivers. Then, if we are very lucky and fate as well as our own actions intervenes, we may be able to have fulfilling lives.
As a sociological novel, Mr. Murder raises concerns about the effects on contemporary society of the mass media, of computers and the hidden network they have brought us, and of the shift from a society based on the written word to one based on images and sound. These are concerns that many Americans share. We are, for example, attempting to determine the effect of television on children. Studies suggest that children believe the characters they see on television, even the cartoon characters, are real, and are examples of how people act in the real world. If the television characters are violent, then from the child's point of view violence is a normal way for people to act, a natural response. Such modeling is evident in Mr. Murder, where Alfie bases his sense of what to do in a given situation on the movies that he has watched. It is also in Drew Oslett's insistence on constant action, because constant action is the norm in the video games and action films he loves. In more subtle ways, such modeling is also evident in Paige Stillwater's desire to be Sigourney Weaver when she needs to be strong and heroic, as well as in the use she and Marty make of Western films as a resource for how to defend themselves against Alfie.
Mr. Murder also illustrates the shift from the media of literacy to the media of images and sounds. Drew Oslett, who as a graduate of Harvard and Princeton might be expected to be a dedicated champion of literacy, of books and their applicability to life, is instead a champion of action, adventure, and surface stories—tales that link one event after another with no regard for why these events happen or what they suggest about life. The fictions that are developed in written stories demand interaction on the part of the reader, and also have the space to explore character, to consider why people act as they do and what repercussions these actions have on themselves and on society. For this reason, they are often defined as character-driven stories. In contrast, films and television lend themselves poorly to this kind of story. Constraints of time and the difficulty of exploring character through image and sound make these stories plot-driven—that is, they focus on what happens first, what happens after that, and what comes after that, rather than on what happens first, how it affects the characters, how they act in response, how this action affects what will happen next, and so on.
In all times and places, people have told stories to help themselves make sense of their lives and their fates. Sociologically, we are in a time when the means by which we tell stories has changed, moving from the written word to the world of images and sound. We do not yet know what effect this will have on us as a culture. Perhaps the media will bring us together in a global world, a world of shared cultures. Perhaps the media will leave us with a culture so barren that we would be better off with none. Perhaps computers and technology, in their enormous power, will bring us wonders undreamed of. But perhaps they will also bring us controls undreamed of. Finally, Mr. Murder leaves us with this quandary: we have created a very dangerous world, and we may not have the means to control it. We may all end up as Alfie does, creatures who sense a deep loneliness and need in our lives, but who are unable to fill it because of the emptiness of the culture we live in. In this way, Mr. Murder is a sociological novel that concerns itself with some of the most significant issues of our time and leaves us with no easy answers.