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The Game's Afoot: Knives Out, Detective Conan, and the Morality of the Mystery Genre

Published on 12th December 2019

Warning: Spoilers for Knives Out and the Detective Conan anime series up until episode 650

Knives Out, Rian Johnson's head-spinning take on the traditional whodunnitdoesn't subvert the storytelling tropes of the detective genre so much as explode their implicit ethical worldview. That's the brilliance of Johnson's new film: it turns the classic whodunnit on its head not to "subvert expectations"--a phrase much-maligned by The Last Jedi'perpetually incensed critics, the storytelling technique it describes scapegoated as the culprit behind the film's supposed narrative incoherence and the purest crystallization of Johnson's smug elitism--but to interrogate the metaphysics of the detective genre shaped by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, etc. [1]

In truth, for all of its zany turns and narrative surprises, Knives Out doesn't actually begin to transcend its genre until the final ten minutes. Up until that point Knives Out had simply been an especially clever detective story, if not a rather convoluted logical puzzle. It is only when detective Benoit Blanc reveals that Marta's quality as a nurse had foiled Ransom's plan to poison him by switching out the medicine, and that therefore Harlan Thrombey had killed himself, that Johnson finally shows his hand. We realize that the film's free-wheeling cascade of turns had been set in motion not by Harlan, but by Marta.

This shift in our understanding of the film's protagonist--our understanding of the plot's mastermind, if you will--unravels the very notion of a detective story itself. So long as we believed Harlan the victim a master plan, and Marta the protagonist. This narrative reveal wrests control of the story from Harlan and returns it to Marta. This new information restores to Marta mastery of her own narrative and therefore her agency. Marta, we realize, is not a player in a story someone else authored for her. She is the author of her own story. She is not part of the supporting cast in Harlan's story--he is the minor character in hers. 

That Harlan is a crime novelist is not a coincidental narrative detail. Harlan's final act of life was to concoct an elaborate plot straight out of one his crime novels--indeed, it was to concoct the crime novel plot to end all crime novel plots. His first instinct, when Marta reveals her supposed fatal error, is to revert to the rigidly rational but ridiculously contrived plotting characteristic of so many mystery novels. Harlan writes the story and casts Marta as the protagonist--the character second in importance to only himself, the catalyst of the plot and the centerpiece of an unsolvable mystery. So enraptured is Harlan by his own genius, so possessed by his novelistic impulses, that he never stops to consider the two critical possibilities that render his involute role-playing moot. The first is the toxicology report, which by identifying the morphine in Harlan's veins immediately exposes the falseness of his plot to exonerate Marta. The second is the chance that the ambulances might come in time. Even if they didn't, the wait would have revealed that Marta had not in fact erred after all. The first oversight damns Harlan's rationality, the second his humanity. 

Harlan died, ultimately, because couldn't stop thinking like a crime novelist--or, more accurately, like a character in a crime novel. In contrast, Marta always thought like a human being. Her first instinct was to call for help; Harlan's, to plot a novel. The film ultimately punishes Harlan and rewards Marta. It is not Harlan's dagger that kills him; it's his cleverness. Inversely, it is not Marta's cleverness which saves her; it's her kindness. Charlie Chaplin verbalized the ethical statement at the heart of Knives Out best: "More than cleverness, we need kindness."

This hierarchy of priorities is alien to detective fiction, which almost exclusively trades in extravagant displays of complex reasoning by the author of the murder within the text and without. 

The sheer pointlessness of Harlan's plotting allows us to appreciate its cruelty, and by proxy the cruelty of much of the detective genre's narrative conventions. 

Johnson, ultimately, demonstrates the distinctively dehumanizing logic of much of the detective genre. Marta's sheer humanity exposes the ethical impoverishment of the mystery genre's tropes--the tropes by which both Harlan and Ransom abide, the tropes which shape their worldview and determine their behavior. The conventional mystery novel cannot accommodate a person like Marta. It is not designed to. 

The film, we are led to think, is a private game played by two chess-masters, with poor Marta unwittingly caught in the cross-fire. That the game was orchestrated by two white men attempting to manipulate the brown woman caught in their web, and that she effectively shredded this web by foiling both of their plans, is a deliberate narrative move pregnant with obvious political and social commentary. Ransom set the board, Harlan rearranged the pieces, and Marta swept them off the board altogether before taking a sledgehammer to that too. 

 Marta, by breaking this game, does more than restore her own agency. She restores her humanity, and that of the entire narrative itself. 

That, like Detective Conan with Ran, Knives Out's central thematic argument pivots on Marta's saintly kindness is about as magnificent a middle finger as one can imagine to the "Ray/Ran/InsertFemaleProtagonistHere is a Mary Sue" crowd. Johnson unapologetically writes Marta as a character defined by her moral perfection. She, like Ran, is a literally flawless character. 

Marta and Ran are spiritual twins--idolized by their authors and despised by their critics for their unfailing purity of character. They deny the detective genre's denial of human agency, reject its fetishization of the rational puppetmaster. 

Johnson's film is much like the knife with which Ransom attempts to murder Marta: a strikingly convincing simulacrum. But the knife is not a knife, and Johnson's murder mystery is not a murder mystery--not only because no one is actually murdered, but because it consciously rejects the internal moral logic of such mysteries. 

Johnson deconstructs and then reconstructs the classic whodunnit, and through that process exposes and redefines 

Johnson's deconstruction and reconstruction of the modern detective genre recalls the work of the most popular Japanese detective manga and anime of all time: Detective Conan. Conan is a series built on juxtaposition and contradiction, delivering its most powerful thematic arguments by establishing and then violating its own storytelling principles. To be sure, like Johnson, Gosho respects the legacy and follows in the footsteps of the Golden Age detective novel popular in the 1920s and 1930s, as shown by his many tributes to Agatha Christie and his love for the classical locked room whodunnit.

Yet Gosho, like many other contemporary mystery authors, also routinely challenges the classical model of detective writing. He is quite comfortable ignoring Ronald Knox's Ten Commandments of detective novelists (most regularly the fourth and sixth commandments, though at various points the first, second, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth commandments have been transgressed). He implicitly shares Raymond Chandler's critique of the Golden Age classics by refusing to write culprits bereft of authentically human and emotionally comprehensible motives. He violates or has violated at least half of S.S. Van Dine's "20 Rules for Writing Detective Stories," including Vine's contention that detective fiction should have "no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked out character analyses," all of which "hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion." On the contrary, unlike Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle, for example, Gosho often emphasizes characterization at the expense of cases, valuing psychological examination over puzzle-solving. The apotheosis of this tendency manifests in his use of entire cases as mere auxiliaries to character development or thematic argument.

Most notably, Gosho makes an absolute mockery of Dine's third rule of detective fiction: "There must be no love interest in the story." Vince argues that to include one is to "clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment," as the "business on hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar." Gosho spits on this advice and then drags it through the mud, introducing no less than nine ongoing romantic subplots over the course of his series. 

I highlight Gosho's violations of these particular guidelines, and not others, because they represent more than methodical differences in the technical construction of the mystery. Instead, they indicate a more fundamental clash between Gosho and Dine in how they conceive the nature, and purpose, of detective fiction itself. At times, at least by the standard of purists cut from Dine's cloth, Gosho appears to be writing a slice-of-life romantic comedy with action thriller and mystery elements rather than a "true" mystery story.  Gosho's willingness to traverse multiple genres, and his interest in the psychological makeup of and relational drama between his characters, sometimes subordinates his focus on the mystery itself (though Gosho never allows himself to lose sight of that either, as to date he has not written a single Detective Conan arc or short story of any kind that does not feature a mystery in one form or another). To someone like Dine, Gosho's artistic vision is problematic because it displaces deductive reasoning, logical rigor, and problem-solving from their rightful places at the center of detective fiction. They constitute the primary domain, to which every other element of the story defers and is shaped by. 

This clash between Gosho and Dine is but a shadow cast by the monumental and truly revolutionary challenge that Gosho poses to the tradition of detective fiction, which can be distilled down to the simple formulation uttered by Shinichi Kudo on the steps of an emergency escape in New York City: "no reason is indeed." This is, in many ways, the central thematic thrust of Detective Conan's story and characters. That the biggest detective story in Japanese history, one which has drunk deeply from the well of classical and contemporary detective fiction, should ultimately question the structural and metaphysical foundation of the entire tradition of detective fiction itself is nothing less than outrageous. It is also enormously compelling, as Gosho's point lands with such power precisely because Detective Conan as a series is so dedicated to, and an exemplar of, the principle (and beauty) of robust reasoning. 

Like many of its peers in the mystery genre, Detective Conan enshrines logic as a both storytelling principle and a metaphysical worldview. The cases, even when they stumble into implausibility, always adhere to logical structure and empirical reasoning. The story arcs are meticulously plotted, the Checkhov's guns neatly arranged on the wall and then systematically discharged in an ever more mentally cathartic crescendo of reason. This structurally rational ethos finds its purest expression in Conan Edogawa himself, who trains an objective, discerning eye on all that passes before him and thinks in terms of syllogisms. Many a times do he and his impeccably rational peers reprimand others for entertaining illogical notions like the existence of ghosts and beasts. [1] 

Yet Conan, and indeed the narrative of the series, abandon pretensions of logic when they matter most. The characters, when put in a situation where they can save themselves at the expense of another, never make the utilitarian calculation to optimize their chances of survival. Conan goes out of his way to prevent murderers from killing themselves, as does Heiji. Most famously, Ran saves Vermouth's life in New York despite thinking that she was a serial killer. She repeats the action when shielding a suicide bomber threatening to kill her and her father from the SWAT team sent to rescue them. These actions are always presented as straightforwardly correct, indeed as nothing else than the fulfillment of a moral imperative. Time and time again, the narrative endorses the characters’ actions, despite their apparent absurdity. This seeming contradiction is fundamental to the message and overall themes of the series.

Why cause yourself potential harm to save a killer, especially one who’s trying to murder you? Is it reasonable to endanger other innocent people by sparing the life of a person who would not hesitate to end another’s? Does it not contradict all forms of logic and reason to persistently do such a thing? Those are the questions implied by the actions of our protagonists, and verbalized by Vermouth after Shinichi and Ran keep her from tumbling off a broken fire escape to certain death on the wet, concrete streets of New York City far below. 

 “Why did you save me?” she asked.

Shinichi's answer is one that defines his character, and defines the series:

“I don’t know why you would take a life, but as for saving one…is a reason necessary?”

Or, in another, even more clearer translation of the same statement:

“Is a reason necessary? I don’t know why you would kill someone but as for saving someone…a logical mind isn’t needed, right?”

The irony could not be more acute. The defining thematic thesis of a detective story that venerates reason is the denial of reason, that praises logic is to condemn it. As observed above, the story of Detective Conan is one built on juxtaposition and contradiction, delivering its most powerful thematic arguments by establishing and then violating its own storytelling principles.   Shinichi, and Gosho, could not have been any more blunt. Deductive reasoning is the fundamental pillar of his worldview, and integral to the show's method of storytelling. And yet here, in the moment of truth, such cold logic is abandoned. Yes, it would make more sense to arrest the serial killer, or just to leave the murderous individual to die. Knowingly saving the life of the person trying to kill you smacks of idiocy and even ethical short-sightedness, as said person could go on to kill even more people. Yet, despite that, the narrative always acknowledges Shinichi’s and Ran’s actions here as legitimate and right.

Shinichi's rejection of reason is moral in nature, and Gosho repeatedly frames it as such. It is but an expression of Shinichi's deep humanism, his recognition of the dehumanizing potential inherent to instrumental rationality. When misapplied, it can culminate in the denial of life itself, the only other thing as sacred to Shinichi as reason. Shincihi, ultimately, rejects logic because he favors life. 

But Shinichi's humanism goes deeper still. His words to Vermouth are meant to echo his delirious but revealing monologue in the Desperate Revival arc, right after he revealed the culprit behind the murder at the school play. There, as he lay panting, convinced that his time back in his normal body was up and his true identity about to be exposed, Shinichi ruminated on the one puzzle that he's never solved:

“..a trick is nothing but a puzzle mankind came up with. If you use your head, you can uncover the logical answer. It’s disappointing…no matter the explanation I think of, I cannot understand why one person would kill another. Even if I can see why, I can’t understand why.”

The premeditated murders that Shinichi regularly encounters are masterpieces of instrumental reasoning, yet their causes--hate, jealousy, guilt--are arational. This is not a contradiction, but a necessity. It's a special kind of emotional madness that would drive one to execute the elaborate schemes Shinichi deduces. Yet while the motive can be explained as systematically as the murder, it cannot be likewise comprehended. The purely, narrowly rational mind cannot grasp the features of human nature that enable crimes of passion--and therefore cannot grasp human nature period.

Shinichi, the avatar of reason, cannot hope to solve the puzzle of human nature, because it is by nature unsolvable. Nay, it actively refutes the the host of presuppositions and outlooked suggested by the very category of "solving." Shinichi laments this truth, yet his actions confirm his embrace of it, for he just as he cannot rationally account for the taking of life, so too he cannot rationally account for saving it. Shinichi's reason for for saving Vermouth is that he has no reason. So sure is he of the rightness of his life-saving act that he does not bother with justifications. Any justification would necessarily be false, for one cannot justify killing or saving a life. Shinichi doesn't know why anyone would kill anyone, and he also doesn't know why anyone wouldn't save anyone. There is no logical reason to either kill or save a life.

Hence the insight revealed by Shinichi's character: Our humanity is at the root of both our villainy and heroism, because our humanity comprises the arational. The human being exist beyond the realm of logic, because the human spirit exists beyond the realm of puzzles. Shinichi's character arc revolves around the recognition and internalization of this metaphysical truth. It is one of Gosho's most elegant and delicious ironies: the avatar of reason is the ultimate champion of its denial. It is not that Shinichi starts the series as a detachedly logical detective and ends it as an emotionally irrational romantic. His arc is something altogether more challenging: grounding a/joining the rational in/to the arational.   

"You're a troublesome case." Transition into the thematic significance of romance in Conan

A big part of Shinichi and Conan’s character arc is coming to understand that people are fragile, highly emotional people who are often severely affected by the trails they endure; they are not math problems to be solves, or just bundles of met.

 Interestingly, it is usually the people who advocate pragmatism and the like who are admonished by the narrative.

It does this repeatedly in many incidents. We return to an earlier example- the suicide bomber hostage case (eps 648-650) when Ran and Sera clashed on the best way to resolve the issue. Sera attempted to lure the bomber to his death, before Ran deliberately foiled her plan. Sera could not understand Ran’s actions; considering the situation they were in, killing the man who was holding them hostage was the best way to guarantee the survival of everyone present. It would make sense for a show so heavily stepped in logical reasoning to side with Sera here, and yet Ran is the one presented as being in the right, even though her actions were dangerous and made everything more difficult for everyone.

The show’s heavy focus on romance is one of the more significant demonstrations of the type of series it actually is. Characters frequently act irrationally for the sake of loved ones, including Shinichi, and yet this is treated as natural and right. People, whether recurring characters, murderers, or victims, are caused heartbreak and emotional devastation as a result of their romantic feelings. This pain could have been avoided had they not entangled themselves in relationships in the first place, and yet the show never takes such a stance and in fact encourages such intense bonds despite the pain that often comes with them (in fact Miwako Sato’s character arc deals with this theme head-on, and will be discussed later in this analysis).

Minerva Glass alludes to all of this in her conversation with Ran in episode 617, when they stood before a statue of Sherlock Holmes. She quotes the great detective:

“Love is an emotional thing. I will say nothing in praise of it…it is antagonistic to clear reasoning.”

Minerva uses Sherlock’s words as justification for avoiding romantic trouble all together, to spare herself any more heartbreak and pain. However, the content of the case itself soundly rejects this, as the tone is overly romantic and at its conclusion it is revealed that Shinichi confessed his true feelings to Ran. He even offers Ran a scathing rebuttal of Minerva’s “Love is 0” right after, implying that she’s got everything backwards. The case finishes with Minerva herself accepting that she was wrong and beginning to rebuild her relationship with Ares. The entire thing works well as a rebuttal of the idea that love could somehow be a bad thing.

This is ironic, of course, because it stands in direct opposition to Sherlock Holmes’s philosophy, as espoused above. The Sherlock Holmes canon has a heavy influence on Detective Conan, in more ways than one. Shinichi, the protagonist, looks up to Sherlock Holmes and idolizes him as a model. Detective Conan itself structures its stories based on the Sherlockian concept of mystery and utilizes many similar tropes. That it should be so directly contrary to it thematically is startling, and Gosho knows it. However, that only goes to further emphasize how important this element is to the series, and how it ties in to the overall themes. It is not the only time that DC deliberately and bluntly contradicts the philosophy of its greatest inspiration; Sherlock and Shinichi’s differing views on life and death are another example, but that is a discussion for another time.

This theme is also explored from a different angle, as can be seen when it comes to characters who allow their emotions to blind them to the truth. Yes, the series values emotions over cold logic, but that does not mean that it is acceptable to distort the truth to spare one’s feelings. The incident that represents this best is the 3 K’s case in Osaka, one of the best cases in the entire series solely on the basis of its fascinating exploration of Conan’s character. In that case, one of Conan’s favorite soccer players and idols, Ray Curtis, is the one who commits the murder. Conan, in his investigation of the case, was all too eager to prove all three suspects innocent, interpreting the evidence found in the most positive light and actively suggesting explanations to the law enforcement officers that declared the three suspects, including Ray, innocent. Heiji becomes acutely aware of Conan’s actions and grows frustrated with him when he sees that he is being deliberately obtuse. When Heiji aggressively challenges Conan, he loses his cool, stating that he would find the evidence that would prove Ray innocent.

What makes all of this so interesting is that it is one of the exceedingly rare occasions, if not the only one, where Conan so blatantly betrays his own principles. A detective, in his investigation, should be neutral; leaning one way or another means that he or she is biased on some level, which in turn could make the understanding of the evidence unreliable, since there is already a predisposition to support one specific conclusion. Conan wasn’t investigating to find the murder; he was investigating to prove Ray innocent. The reason was obvious: he couldn’t accept that his role model could possibly be a criminal, and yet seemed to be aware on the subconscious level that it was a very real possibility. As such, he actively fought against it, even at the cost of removing all semblance of open-mindedness from his deductions. Heiji could only look on with a mixture of pity and disappointment, as Conan ignored his oft-repeated quotation of Holmes, one that he himself had told Heiji before:

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

What made Conan’s actions even more startling was that they contradicted what he had told Ran ages ago. Ran herself had faced a similar dilemma during the Night Baron case, when it dawned on her that her karate idol might be the murderer. She recalled Shinichi’s response to her when she had asked him what he would do if he discovered that Professor Agasa had possibly killed someone. Shinichi’s answer had been simple: he would try his hardest to find the evidence that Agasa wasn’t the killer, but if it soon became clear that he was, he would turn him in, despite all the pain it would cause him. Fortunately for Ran, her idol was soon proven innocent, partially by evidence that she found herself.

Unfortunately, Conan didn’t have that luxury, because his idol was indeed the killer. He threatened to become a hypocrite, a traitor to his ideals, a liar. In the end, however, Conan came to terms with the fact and confronted Ray himself, condemning him for his actions and eventually convincing him to hold himself in. The entire affair tore Conan apart from the inside, and his cold, bitter, and ultimately sad demeanor as he talked down Ray was a testament to the agony from which he was suffering. Despite that, he narrative’s portrayal of Conan’s actions is unabashedly positive, indicating that he had ultimately done the right thing. Yes, it had made him suffer, but individual emotional pain, in this case, was not an excuse for obstructing both justice and the truth.

There’s yet another case that tackles this from yet another angle: the Tottori Spider Mansion case. It’s one of the saddest cases in the show, namely because the murderer’s lover committed suicide due to a miscommunication between her and him. The killer, Robert, was an American who had struggled to learn Japanese. He once told the twin sisters who lived in his lover’s household that he thought that his lover was beautiful, that she ‘shined’ like a light. Tragically, the twins misunderstood the word ‘shine,’ thinking that it mean ‘die,’ which is how that word is pronounced in Japanese. The girl, who already had her own issues, sunk into depression when the twins told her that her alleged lover wished that she would die. She committed suicide shortly after, which started a chain reaction of events that led Robert to murder several people. Conan and Heiji figured out the sad truth behind the case, but they both agreed together to not let anyone know what had actually happened. The reasoning was simple: it would inflict a huge amount of mental trauma on both Robert and the twin sisters.

Unfortunately, Heiji lost his cool after Robert confessed to the crime and launched on an impassioned rant about how he didn’t care about the consequences of his actions, only that he wanted to lash out however he could (even if that meant hurting a total stranger, like Kazuha). Even as Conan shouted mentally for Heiji to not share the truth, he did so anyways. The result was predictable: Robert completely broke mentally. As he was taken away he kept muttering the same words to himself over and over; Conan compared him to a damaged puppet. Fortunately, the twin sisters were spared a similar fate: their grandmother distorted the facts and hid the truth from them. The narrative declares this the right course of action, he smiles in relief at the grandmother’s actions.

The message in this case was very clear: sometimes it’s better to hide the truth and provide comforting lies, because the alternative is too horrible to accept. In the Ray Curtis case, hiding the truth would have been an obstruction of justice, and so it was only right that Ray be arrested, regardless of the pain it caused Conan. However, in this case, there would be no violation of justice if the truth behind Robert’s lover’s suicide remained secret. As such, concealing the reality was totally acceptable, especially because announcing it to the world would have resulted in utter emotional devastation, especially because there were two innocent children involved. They didn’t mean to indirectly cause the death of a person, and so did not deserve to have their young spirits crushed by the truth. In this situation, the narrative prioritized emotional well-being over the truth, because in the end, DC as a series places more value on that. This is reaffirmed over and over via other incidents in the show, such as the one involving Araide’s family (in which the police deliberately distorted the facts to protect the maid Hikaru who had accidently caused the death). DC thus tackles the issue from several opposing viewpoints, handling it with greater nuance than it would have had it not done so.

As observed above,

Gosho's subversive style of mystery storytelling foreshadows his dialectic of construction through juxtaposition and contradiction.

Yet for that Conan and Conan exalt the sacred brilliance of empirically-grounded deductive reasoning, the series undermines

Like many of its peers in the mystery genre, Detective Conan takes for granted

It is ironic, then, that the overall narrative of the series, and indeed the characters, abandon pretensions of logic when they matter most. When confronted with serious, life-or-death situations, the show and its lead characters appear to advocate seemingly illogical perspectives and even scorn colder, more calculated opinions. This apparent contradiction is accentuated by the constant paralleling and juxtaposition of reason and emotion, detachment and passion, communicating very effectively one of the most important messages of the seriess.

The irony is acute, and quite intentionally so.

It is the key ingredient in solving the mysteries presented throughout, the one rule that the show never stops following, the aspect that chains everything to reality and gives the series an internal consistency, the unshakeable belief held by virtually all the detectives ever introduced.

Shinichi’s inability to understand why people kill another is one of the most important demonstrations in the series of the conflict between emotion and reason. Shinichi could hear and comprehend the motivations of the murderers he meets, but he could never truly understand them. To a person who is so drenched in logic in every aspect of his existence, willingly ruining both your life and someone else’s through murder doesn’t make any semblance of sense. The reality that Shinichi failed to realize at that moment was that acts as extreme as murder are not usually driven by cold logic; rather, they are the result of turbulent emotions, of the feelings that make us human. The murderers that Shinichi and Conan meet throughout DC may use highly pragmatic and systematic methods of killing, but they are rarely motivated by logical reasons. They let their hate, jealousy, guilt, and the like push them forward. To attempt to explain their behavior in strictly logical terms is a failed endeavor.

Shinichi’s character is built on two things: logic and love of life. Shinichi explicitly rejects reason and rationality in his statement, precisely because of how much he values life. In short, his two primary principles clash to create his fundamental philosophy in regards to the lives of the people around him. That he rejects logic specifically because he respects life is significant, as it ties the two ideas together while simultaneously contrasting them sharply. This is one of the most important moments in the entire show as well as for Shinichi’s character, for how it brings together several different themes as well as cementing who Shinichi is in one graceful, deft motion.

The narrative also tackles this theme from a different angle, and it is deliberately contrasted with this moment. Note how Shinichi mentions that he doesn’t know why someone would take a life- this is a callback to Desperate Revival, specifically episode 191. In that episode, Shinichi speaks of the one puzzle that he can never solve:

“..a trick is nothing but a puzzle mankind came up with. If you use your head, you can uncover the logical answer. It’s disappointing…no matter the explanation I think of, I cannot understand why one person would kill another. Even if I can see why, I can’t understand why.”

This draws an interesting parallel with Shinichi’s statement in NY.

As Shinichi observes, you can logically explain the motive of a murder, but it is another task altogether to comprehend it.

The reality that Shinichi failed to realize at that moment was that acts as extreme as murder are not usually driven by cold logic; rather, they are the result of turbulent emotions, of the feelings that make us human. The murderers that Shinichi and Conan meet throughout DC may use highly pragmatic and systematic methods of killing, but they are rarely motivated by logical reasons. They let their hate, jealousy, guilt, and the like push them forward. To attempt to explain their behavior in strictly logical terms is a failed endeavor.

Here, Shinichi laments the lack of a truly logical explanation for murder; it is something that his rational, reasoning-based mind cannot truly comprehend or understand. Shinichi’s later statement to the serial killer also speaks of a lack of logical reasoning when it comes to saving a life. In short, there is no logical reason to either kill or save a life. The reasoning behind each statement differs, however, it ties once again into the larger theme about the sacredness of life. There is no logical reason or justification to robbing someone of the gift of life; this is so self-evident, according to DC, that it requires no further explanation. Likewise, there need be no in-depth contemplation to decide whether or not to save a life; the fact that acting would help someone preserve their gift of life is all the reason necessary, no justification required. Any outside factors are not considered in either case; all that matters, in the end, is keeping the person alive.

In the end, ironically, for all of DC’s intense focus on logic and rationality, it values emotions and feelings more. A big part of Shinichi and Conan’s character arc is coming to understand that people are fragile, highly emotional people who are often severely affected by the trails they endure; they are not math problems to be solves, or just bundles of met. The biggest and most prominent theme of the entire show is built on an abandon of cold logic and on a glorification of decisions based on the heart and based on human decency.

In many ways, Knives Out is an exercise in trolling of the highest order. It is glorious.

pretzel of a plot

Up until the last ten minutes of the film, Johnson convinces the au

His refusal to consider Marta's simple plea to seek help betrays both a lack of trust in her judgment

Knives Out's pretzel of a plot.

Harlan's cleverness kills him, while Marta's kindness saves her.

the unrelenting force of Marta's kindness, not her intelligence or cleverness, which defeats her opponents.


[1] Certainly that interrogation might and does count as a subversion of expectations, but it is a subversion of expectations with purposes and implications far deeper than merely surprising the audience. It is only the analytically stingy and imaginatively impoverished critics of The Last Jedi (and their ilk) that insist on reducing the rich moral fruits of such subversion to the shallow goal of shocking the viewer. Johnson understands, as demonstrated by both Knives Out and The Last Jedi, that surprise for surprise's sake means little.

[2] Integral to Detective Conan’s worldview is the principle that the supernatural, regardless of its true ontology, has no discernible effect on the material world. Of course, this principle is hardly unique to Detective Conan, characteristic as it is of the vast majority of twentieth-century detective fiction. This stubborn demonization of the supernatural is as motivated by practical storytelling considerations as it is any secular convictions on the part of Gosho Aoyama. As Heiji Hattori put it, detectives would be out of business if murder cases had supernatural causes--and so would Detective Conan, as it would cease functioning as a fair-play mystery series. A empiricist, materialistic, and perhaps even atheistic worldview is implicit in the modern detective genre, regardless of the religious commitments, or lack thereof, of its its authors. It was after all Ronald Knox, a devout Catholic priest, who insisted that in detective stories "all supernatural and preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course."

[3] X deserves special praise for the genius casting of Chris Evans as Ransom. Evans is ingrained in the public imagination as Captain America, the paragon of moral virtue, and the casual moviegoer will almost involuntarily associate him with his upstanding alter-ego despite playing an a egotistical jerk in this particular film. Johnson capitalizes on the audience's instinctive trust of Evans by portraying Ransom as the one family member willing to genuinely trust and support Marta when the others turn on her. This narrative turn plays on both the audience's amiability vis-a-vis Evans and its familiarity with the redemptive jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold trope. Ransom's eventual reveal as the culprit seems blindly obvious in hindsight, not just because the clues but also the structure of the narrative itself suggested it, and yet most viewers would have struggled greatly to see the obvious because of Johnson's psychological manipulation. This is classic misdirection and great mystery-writing, especially as it makes specific use of the medium in which this story is told. Knives Out, had it been a novel, could not have pulled this trick. 

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