Wherever you go, there you are

What mysteries teach us about identity

I’m still trying to decipher the secrets of the universe from the list of Edgar Debuts.

I’ve now read 36, which is disappointingly just under half. (I blame Julia Quinn, as there’s been a lot of distracting Regency duke-bonking novels on my Kindle as of late.)

My reading order is entirely random, so it is always considerate of the universe when the books shuffle themselves into a sort of pattern. But then, all reviewing - and most communications planning - is a polite form of apophenia, so I’m happy to roll with it.

In this case, I encountered a series of formulaic - ‘classic’ even - detective novels. Hero, villain, crime!, procedural sleuthery, ‘surprise’ whodunnit, and a tense finish. The only difference between them, besides era-specific tonal shifts, was the choice of protagonist. These books could have all used the same elevator pitch: ‘A detective novel, but the detective is [x]’.

For example:

  • Nightmare in Manhattan (1951). Detective is a transport cop.

  • The Bright Road to Fear (1959). Detective is an undercover agent.

  • Florentine Finish (1964). Detective is a diamond trader.

  • Strike Three, You’re Dead (1985). Detective is a baseball player.

  • No One Rides for Free (1987). Detective is a recovering drug addict. [PEAK 80s!]

  • Carolina Skeletons (1989). Detective is a journalist.

  • A Grave Talent (1994). Detective is a lesbian. [PEAK 90s!]

This pattern isn’t solely exclusive to these recent books. Probably the most egregious is Dorothy Unnak’s The Bait (1968), the entire premise of which is ‘Detective is a WOMAN’.

For most of these, the [x] doesn’t really account to much. It is a shtick. An aesthetic twist on the trope. If the detective is a baseball player, the reader gets a slight change in vocabulary and some sporty world-building. If the detective is defined by his addiction to cocaine, there’s the mandatory relapse chapter. Ultimately, the structure, the journey, and the themes are all the same.

However, that slight twist can (or could) be huge. The detective’s identity is an opportunity for an entirely different view of the world. And it also has the potential to change how the world sees them. Nightmare in Manhattan’s station cop has a different process for apprehending a criminal: that’s a shtick. A Grave Talent’s Kate Martinelli has completely different way of seeing the world, and being seen by it: that’s something more.

(At least, she should. I would argue that A Grave Talent has dated badly. By being so painfully coy with the reader, it makes Kate’s sexuality itself the biggest twist in the mystery - and a very predictable one to anyone, say, post-1994. Like The Bait, 35 years earlier, identity-as-object is the focus, rather than identity-as-perspective, and the book misses out because of it.)

To reference back to the best book I’ve read so far from this list: In The Heat of the Night. Heat is a basic detective mystery, but changing the detective’s identity has a huge impact on the type of story told, how it is told, and the themes it can address. Sherlock Holmes without privilege is a very different sort of story.

Identity is a subject of vast interest to strategists and marketers. For the purposes of this email, let’s define it broadly: how people see themselves, how they are seen by others, and, most importantly, the resulting lens through which they see the world (‘worldview’, in the classic sense of the term).

Identity has even replaced behavioural economics as the thing that we all need to be conversant in. This makes sense: behavioural economics taught us that consumers and citizens don’t necessarily behave rationally, but, instead, there can be certain predictable irrationalities. Identity is perhaps the irrationality: the infinitely personal, worldview-driven influence on decision-making that separates humans from econs. Identity helps explain why people act the way they do, rather than how they ‘should’, in the economic sense.

Our grab-bag of mysteries demonstrates two key points about identity. Points that, I believe, marketers have long understood in an intuitive way:

First, these mysteries all have the same story at their heart. The same product. The difference? The identity of the protagonist. One slight shift in perspective, and a familiar story can become something very different. Identity is a key variable when it comes to how a story - or any narrative - is told, or heard. A bucket of fried chicken is a bucket of fried chicken, but you sell it differently to suburban families than to Londoners; to comic book fans to hungover Millennials.

The grab bag also demonstrates the role of multiple identities. In every one of our ‘but the detective is an [x]’, said detective could be a [y] or a [z] as well. At various times in A Grave Talent, for example, Kate identifies as a police officer, a woman, a lesbian, an art aficionado, a San Franciscan, and even a runner. In each of those moments, that identity decides her worldview: inflecting how she acts, and the decisions she makes. Kate’s never solely one identity, she’s an ever-shifting sequence of them. The tricky thing with books, of course, is that they have a rigid, textual construction, so at any given moment, Kate can only be one thing. Non-fictional people contain, as Whitman said, multitudes.

With a marketing, like a book, a certain amount of flattening takes place. A message needs to speak to the right identity at the right time, in the right place, and in the right worldview:

…and the reverse is also true. You don’t speak to someone as a parent during Game of Thrones, as an accountant at a Tool concert, as a Manchester City fan in the waiting room of an NHS clinic. It is simply a matter of common sense. And identity.

More reading on the topic:

  • Burke and Stet’s Identity Theory is a much deeper dive, and, although most won’t all be useful for marketing purposes, it is a readable approach to a dense topic.

  • A pricier volume, but with all the key readings: Rediscovering Social Identity.

  • Each individual will also interpret and express their identity in a a different way. Very elegantly illustrated in this gorgeous new exhibition on what it means to be ‘British’.

  • Flexible identities may be linked to better creativity. This study looks it through one dimension, but how could you prime other forms of identity in workshops or brainstorms?

Perhaps more importantly: every study, survey, biography, etc, is a de facto look into identity. A basic grounding (above) is useful to know what to look for, and the language to use to describe what you’ve seen, but ultimately, as with everything else we do, it is about developing an empathetic, or at least sympathetic, base of audience insight.

As always, please send any recommendations my way, and I’ll share.

Two links about me:

  • I was a guest on the Hype Collective’s podcast. We talk about what strategy ‘is’, breaking in to the industry, and a bit about agency culture. It was a fun and far-reaching discussion, thanks to hosts Josh and Helene. There are some things I said that I want to mull over a bit more, so I may be returning to this later. Hmm.

  • The Best of British Fantasy 2019 continues apace. I now take submissions via Twitter, which seems like a publicity stunt, but has been really effective. I’ll share the numbers in a future update, but it has made a substantial difference in the number of stories submitted - and who is submitting them. Details. Again, more on this and the thinking behind it later.

This influencer had a rough brush with reality. And not even identifying with Taylor Swift can save her. The comments are a must-read. (Here’s some background, which is also very entertaining/mean.)

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