Of Dolls and Murder Screens Tonight at SMoCA Lounge

Well-honed powers of observation are an absolute must for any detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew this, as demonstrated by the sleuthing skills of his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes.

Millionaire heiress Frances Glessner Lee also believed criminal investigators should have a similarly keen eye, which is why she helped revolutionize forensic science and spent decades creating painstakingly decorated and highly accurate dollhouses depicting miniature crime scenes.

Inspired by actual murder cases, this series of corpse-strewn dioramas were titled "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" and are at the heart of the enthralling 2010 indie documentary Of Dolls and Murder, which screens tonight at SMoCA Lounge in Scottsdale.

Susan Marks, the film's director, exhaustively details both Glessner Lee's background and the creation of her dollhouses in the 70-minute documentary, as well as how both influenced forensic pathologists, police detectives, and even the hit TV show CSI. Plenty of screen time is also devoted to a much headier issue: Our culture's obsession with murder as entertainment.

Dr. John Eric Troyer, one of talking heads featured in Of Dolls and Murder (who works as a scholar with the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath in England) states that mankind's morbid curiosity with murder is a byproduct of grappling with our own mortality.

"There's sense of a kind of a need to understand that we all die. But I think more than the need there's a desire to see some kind of depiction of death as long as its not our own," Troyer says.

Before diving into such heavy-duty material, however, the film explores the late Glessner Lee's unique life. A Midwestern socialite who was forbidden by her family from attending college, she instead spent two decades creating the 20 "Nutshell Studies" dollhouses. It allowed her to indulge her meticulous nature, a yen for miniatures and mysteries, as well as a lifelong love of Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle was once stated, "It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important," and Glessner Lee's dollhouses illustrated the author's belief in exhaustive fashion.

A particular fan of Holmes' obsession with easily overlooked facts other gumshoes might miss, her "Nutshell Studies" dioramas intricately mimicked murder scenes down to the smallest detail, including working doors and locks, realistic-looking decomposition, and bloodied bodies adorned in outfits knitted with straight pins. For inspiration, she combed through court records of cases such as the triple murder of couple Robert and Kate Judson (as well as their infant daughter) or the death of Charlie Logan (who's wife attempted to hide his murder by making it look like a suicide).

The goal of Glessner Lee's creations (18 of which survive today), was to train burgeoning investigators to look for the smallest detail. Hence, they were dubbed "Nutshell Studies" because she felt detectives should "convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell."

As documented in the film, the dollhouses became part of a influential series of forensic seminars first presented by Glessner Lee in the 1940s, and were ultimately donated to the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office and are used to help prepare detectives at the Baltimore Police Department. The "Nutshell Studies" also became the inspiration behind "The Miniature Killer," a fictional serial murderer on CSI who created similarly meticulous dioramas.

Of Dolls and Murder uses this homage to Glesner's creation as way of segueing into a far more important issue with hit CBS cop drama: Namely, the fact its caused the public to believe that most cops are able to use impossible pull damning evidence out of thin air in order to catch dastardly criminals. It's known as the "CSI Effect," and has become a thorn in the side of law enforcement officials and prosecutors since the show debuted in 2000.

Marks manages to weave all these issues into a intriguing and engaging film, which is guaranteed to entertain anyone who's ever cracked open a Sherlock Holmes novel or watched any of the myriad police procedural shows that have dominated television screens for more than the last decade.

Of Dolls and Murder will screen at 7:30 p.m. tonight at SMoCA Lounge in Scottsdale. Admission is $7. Click here for more information.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.