Last week on HBO Max, I watched the first two parts of The Mare of Easttown with Kate Winslet. It's good so far, and when it ended, having to wait a few days till the next episode but still in the mood for a mystery series of some type, I decided to finally watch The Undoing, which premiered last October, also on HBO Max. The contrast between the working-class, small-town Pennsylvania setting of The Mare of Easttown with the affluent Manhattan milieu of The Undoing was a big one and something of a reminder of why crime stories are so great a lens through which to observe human behavior. I would hardly call The Undoing a deep dive into human nature, but it does serve as an enjoyable reminder of why crime fiction, so often approached as a form of social fiction, exploring people living in constrained conditions, under economic duress, is equally good at exploring the trials and tribulations of people who don't have to worry about money.
Nicole Kidman, husband Hugh Grant, and their son all live resplendently on Manhattan's East Side, near Central Park, and their son goes to a $50,000 a year private school. All seems right with their lives (too right, perhaps) till a woman of lesser means they know, an Elena Alvez, who lives in East Harlem and whose son goes to that same private school on a scholarship, gets brutally murdered. The series essentially becomes a "did the husband do it or did he not do it" story.
In Golden Age type crime fiction typically set among the upper class, the crime story is a puzzle and you don't really care about who lives or who dies as you do with characters of great depth. The Undoing is not that kind of story, and it has a dark shimmery feel with layerings of psychology, but it is a story, I found, that I could watch caring about the characters enough while still enjoying how much their own flaws and secrets lead to the unraveling of their oh so perfect lives. Who doesn't like to see rich people made to endure hellholes like Riker's Island? Who doesn't crack a smile seeing these people made to take perp walks of humiliation? You get to vicariously enjoy their wonderful digs but also to see them suffer in those grand surroundings. It's plush and it's satisfying.
Still, there is a bit more. Written by David E. Kelly, The Undoing has enough darkness to make its point that pathology in action is no joke, and the economic circumstances of the people caught up in a person's sickness are no protection. Kelly presented this even better in Big Little Lies, where real damage and pain rear up in a community you can only call privileged, but it's a good point to make and repetition in a writer is hardly a sin.
How to approach writing about a class of people who don't have genuine material concerns, the worries that nearly everyone else in life faces on a daily basis? One way is through a crime story, albeit one deeper than The Undoing if you want to make a strong impact. Pathology is human and happens everywhere, up and down the economic ladder. Yes, the family with means or the person with wealth can afford the lawyer that the defendant compelled to get a public defender cannot. The wealthy always have their advantages. But within the group the crime was committed in, those comfortable people, the damage wrought was real and lasting and never to be undone. The trauma, if that's part of it, will affect a life or lives forever, and the person reading or watching the tale of the rich people truly suffering should be able to relate to those people as they would relate to anyone else on any economic or social level. Crime is the great leveler but also, in one sense, the great connector.