In watching The Big Fix last night (Richard Dreyfus, late seventies) he, as a detective, comes upon a door that is ajar and, of course, there is a dead body inside. Sometimes it's only that the place has been ransacked, but you know the scene. This scenario is probably rare in life. Most criminals want to keep their crime a secret for as long as possible. So why is this device used so much in fiction? Is there an inherent drama in it that makes its ubiquitousness worth it? Is its use actually an hommage to other crime novels/movies?

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I think I would still rather see them use a credit card or a jimmying tool or the janitor or neighbor. The only exception might be when they are being lured into a crime scene for some reason.
The thing is, a lot of the time it works. It may not be original, but as John says there aren't too many options.

At one point at least when it was fresh and new, it could raise the tension. The camera shows that "something's about to happen" when it focuses on that doorknob, the reaction of the character before the audience sees it, and then there's the reveal.

Variations show up in a lot of places. Jimmying the doorknob, or seeing the corpse through a window, or through the grating of an air vent. It's all pretty much used to do the same thing, reveal the "terrible thing" that has happened, and help move the plot along.

Saw 300 the other night. There's a scene where the Spartans discover what has happened to the people killed in a village. One guy notices something, draws tells everyone else, and they all stand there gawking at something off camera. We get everybody's reaction and then the camera shows a tree that all of the corpses have been nailed to, pulling back to show the whole gruesome thing.

It's essentially the same mechanism.
Yeah, it's a cliche, and yeah, it works, but I don't think about it too much when I come across similar scenes in stories, whether they're fiction or on film. Maybe it's one of those things that happen so often that it doesn't even register.

Another thing to consider in similar stories is that the deaths are usually never seen, but the story requires some type of action, so the main character is allowed to discover the body rather than some random person off screen, which is what usually happens in real life.

My favorite cliched discovering-the-body scene is the back of the garbage truck - but those usually happen at the beginning of Law & Order.
Now cops on TV don't usually mess around with doors ajar. They just kick them in, ajar or not.
I think it's used because it's a scary scenario--the door that shouldn't be ajar. Even scarier than a dead body is a live person behind the door. It could be a criminal who, as you say, wants to keep the crime a secret for as long as possible, so someone coming through the door is in for trouble. It's not the body that creates the tension, but the fear of the unknown.

This happened to a distant relative of mine. He was a cop, patrolling a business area that had experienced break-ins. It was after dark and he tested a door which opened unexpectedly (I don't recall if it was ajar or simply unlocked). The cop was too surprised to react quickly. A guy inside tripped him and jumped on his leg until it broke, then fled. They never caught the guy. There was no dead body and they never learned what the guy was doing there. The cop's leg was so badly broken, he couldn't return to the force after spending a lot of time in the hospital.
Yikes. A little sixties hatred of police seems to have been at work there. Or maybe it's just watching The Big Fix that makes me think that.

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