Monday, April 17, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.   



Let me tell you what I regard as a really satisfying detective story.

Sherlock Holmes receives a visitor who has a problem. Simply by interviewing the visitor, Sherlock Holmes adduces much of what the problem really is. Accompanied by the redoubtable (and not stupid) Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes visits the scene of the crime and investigates. He may face some opposition and some dangers along the way. If this is one of the four Sherlock Holmes novels (as opposed to the dozens of short stories), then there might be quite a few dangers along the way, but they will all prove to be connected with the perpetrator of the crime. In the end, Sherlock Holmes resolves all mystery and the criminal is brought to justice, perhaps to the embarrassment of Inspector Lestrade, who thought he could solve the crime by more orthodox techniques.

You see the pattern here, don’t you? Mystery. Investigation. Resolution. A perfectly satisfying detective story.

And here is another paradigm of the perfectly satisfying detective story.

The Surete bring to the notice of Inspector Jules Maigret a string of crimes that are happening in Paris (well…usually; because there are some Maigret stories set elsewhere.) Following a few leads, Maigret heads for an apartment block where the victims of the crime live. Of course he begins by interrogating the concierge. Then he interrogates at great length everybody in the household where the crime occurred. It is his subordinates (Janvier, Lucas and others) who do much of the legwork, checking out alibis, giving chase to suspects and so forth. Maigret’s main method is the long, intense and penetrating interview, which gradually wears suspects down and winkles out motives and kinks in people. It is by these means that he unmasks the criminal. Usually the crime is motivated by some sad family dysfunction.

Again, a perfectly satisfying detective story. Problem. Investigation. Solution.

I could refer to other tales in which this paradigm holds good. Father Brown detecting by intuition and recognition of suspects’ obsessions. Nero Wolfe sitting in his chair at home and thinking hard while his pal Archie Goodwin does the legwork. And so on and so on.

Believe me, in bringing all this to your attention. I am not denying the real attractions of the related – but separate – genre of the “thriller”, where there may be some detection, but the main impulse is to keep the action rolling (from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to the present). Nor am I attempting to promote a retro view of detective stories, where one admires only what the TV profession in Britain unflatteringly call the “cosies” – the comfy detective stories, usually set in rural setting, featuring Hetty Winthrop or derived from Agatha Christie.

What I am preaching against, however, is the current tendency in detective stories to turn away from the reliable pattern of “crime-detection-solution” by overloading the tale with side issues involving the psychological or family problems of the detective him- or her-self. We are now, I believe, seeing too many detective shows, which are psychodramas rather than true detection. In the process, their stories are frequently padded out with incredible improbabilities, and the essential detection is lost.

In this case for the prosecution, I bring to your attention four shows concerning detection, all of which we have watched in their entirety on Netflix.

I list them here from best to worst.

 First there is the quite likeable series Shetland, set on the Shetland Islands of Scotland (though publicity tells me it is mainly filmed on the mainland of Scotland), based on novels by Anne Cleeves and starring Douglas Henshall as police detective Jimmy Perez. Three series were aired in Britain between 2013 and 2016 and a new series is in the making. The mysteries set up in Shetland are good ones, and the solutions are usually logical, so I am in no way decrying the series. But it does have some of the obligatory angst which “serious” detective shows now seem to require. Jimmy Perez is a widower who has sad conversations with his adult daughter and obviously misses satisfying female company. This fact does not hold up the detection process too much, thank goodness, but it does mean that every so often there is a sequence in which Jimmy Perez does little but sit in his room feeling sorry for himself. Still, the psychodrama tendency is generally kept in check in Shetland.

A bit worse is the English-language re-make of the original Swedish-language series Wallander. The remake, now concluded, originally aired on British TV between 2008 and 2015. Kenneth Branagh is the grumpy, unshaven and often drunk Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander. Like Shetland, the series often has country settings, though of course in this case in the Swedish countryside. But depressive Kurt Wallander is separated from his wife, with a slightly alienated daughter and with an Alzheimic father played by David Warner. Cue, alas, far too many shots of Kenneth Branagh staring into the middle distance to express angst or alienation or depression or whatever your bag is. Too often, these side issues overwhelm the mystery and its resolution, which should be at the heart of the story. They are – let’s be frank about this – padding.

I’ve already dealt on this blog with a much worse piece of psychobabble padding in a detective show, the Belfast-set detective series The Fall (see my post WhichIs the Psychopath?).  This draggy, over-stretched series had Gillian Anderson as an English detective on the trail of a serial murderer with weird sexual tastes. The cop herself is addicted to sex and sees it as her privilege to bed young police constables who are her subordinates. The series is filled with long, loving shots of murdered women; and with unconvincing dialogue in which the detective asserts her right as a free woman to indulge any sexual pleasures she pleases. I had the Schadenfreude of noting that the series gradually lost its audience when it was first broadcast in Britain and was the subject of a scathing review in the Guardian. More to the point, I noted that the sex stuff was really padding which stretched out what should have been a three- or four-episode story to eleven wearisome, slow-moving episodes.

I thought The Fall was the pits for this sort of thing. Then I saw the even worse Marcella (broadcast in Britain in 2016). Created by the Swede who created the much superior series The Bridge, Marcella has police detective Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) tracking a serial killer (or serial killers) who is (are) somehow associated with evil hard-faced bitch Sinead Cusack’s London property development company. The twist is that Marcella Backland’s estranged husband (black actor Nicholas Pinnock) is an employee of the said company, although he himself is not a suspect. There are so many improbabilities in this series that it is laughable. Something traumatic has happened to detective Marcella Backland in the past, and she every so often has blackouts from which she recovers, not remembering what she has just done. She often tussles with her estranged husband over access to their children. There is another woman now in her estranged husband’s wife, but that doesn’t prevent a scene in which he comes back to her and bonks her out of sympathy for her angst. One might begin by questioning why the police would allow somebody with ties to the suspect company and its suspect employees to be part of this investigation in the first place. Even more serious, one might ask how likely it is that such an overtly unbalanced, mentally-ill, amnesiac person would be practising as a detective anyway. Ah yes, but then it all allows for all the psycho-drama angst of Marcella suffering her condition, which neatly pads out a simple mystery and might allow some viewers to believe they have been watching an adult drama.

I’m aware that wearisomely-long detective stories are no new thing (doubtless you are aware of the long Victorian detection novels of Wilkie Collins). But the padding-out of detective stories in their TV incarnations has now become a positive plague. And it is especially noisome in that they so often produce the impression that a detective is not complete without being neurotic, depressive, mentally unbalanced, profoundly unhappy or obsessed with sex.

I’m amazed that most of them can do any detecting at all.

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