TV Recommendations–The Best in British Detectives


Unmasking the Villain

The creation of a Metropolitan Police in Britain in 1829 gave rise to the fictional detective hero. Edgar Allan Poe created the first one, C. Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. Charles Dickens followed with Mr. Bucket in Bleak House in 1852. With a new public desire to find out how crimes are solved, many stories with detectives as protagonists began to appear. In the beginning they were police officers. The sub-genre of the amateur sleuth evolved later. The tradition lives on and has now migrated to the television screen.
Here are three different series which I watch often. All three have a contemporary setting. In each the detective is a police officer. Even though they all involve violent murders, they could be classified as “cozy” inasmuch as the setting is rural and the people often know each other. These are in contrast to the “noir” or hard-boiled genre which usually takes place in a big impersonal city with its “mean streets” and is heavy on physical violence.


This story is a pastiche, a tongue-in-cheek imitation of the classic thirties murder mystery. The setting is the idyllic fictional tropical island of St. Marie. The police chief hero is not a native and is something of a “fish out of water.” He is a bumbling individual and thrashes around but ends up discovering the culprit. Of the Who-dunit, how, where, when and why,the emphasis is on the “how” because the murder seems impossible. But then our hero has his “Aha” moment often caused by something irrelevant to the story. Every traditional gimmick is employed: false confession, red herrings, rehash of the story with everyone involved gathered in a room while the detective eliminates them one by one until he shines the light on the culprit. He or she is of course the least likely individual. It is a formula, and we like its familiarity.


The setting for this series is the picturesque county of Midsomer with its wealthy inhabitants, Tudor houses, thatched roofs, and impeccably maintained gardens. It has its fetes, garden tours and other English festivities. Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is a likable fellow, the very essence of Englishness. He is often shown at home with wife and daughter.
Against this idyllic setting, there are sinister crimes, murders of revenge, jealousy, fear of revelations of misdeeds in the past, hatred and betrayal. Unfortunately the plot is so intricate that it is often difficult to follow: many corpses, several overlapping tragedies and sometimes even more than one culprit. The key to unraveling all these happenings is “Why.” Here too the least likely person often turns out to be the villain, (or one of them). Still, it is captivating to watch because the characters are well developed. Also the acting is very good.


This series is a spin-off of the Inspector Morse mystery series; Inspector Lewis was Inspector Morse’s sidekick. The setting is the beautiful University of Oxford with its population of ambitious and often arrogant professors and dons and its miscellaneous students often overworked and underprepared. Professional rivalries, cheating, betrayals and other shenanigans are on the menu. Again the beautiful architecture and historic traditions are at odds with the sordid machinations of the academics who do not hesitate to stab each other in the back, literally and figuratively. In contrast to Inspector Morse who was an intellectual and opera lover, Inspector Lewis has a working class background and little familiarity with literary quotations. Instead he relies on his common sense, good intuition and hard work. He is stubborn and determined to get to the bottom of a case. Here too the “Why” is the predominant question and the villains are often snotty and arrogant.
In all three series the focus is on the detective, but he is not the central character and his own problems do not intrude and cause a distraction. The suspect is not obvious and is often respectable, a pillar of the community or an admired academic. The solution is credible and derives from the characters and the plot. There is no “Deus ex Machina” or artificial ending. Solving the mystery and unveiling the villain is the goal and it answers our craving to see the murderer identified and punished and order restored.

Fanfare For The Common Man?

Editor’s note: Simone suggested some music to accompany this post. It is Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man.” (there are big drums for the first 30 seconds and then will come music many will recognize)

“Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” is the title of a book by Richard Hofstadter which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It was written shortly after Adlai Stevenson had lost the Presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower partly because Stevenson was said to be the “egghead” who read books but did not know much about real life.

Hofstadter argues that this kind of anti-intellectualism is deeply ingrained in American culture. He sees it as the fusion of evangelical religion and the business ethos which suggests that practical training should take precedence over book learning. Intellectuals form an elite and Americans are deeply suspicious of elites because they see them as a threat to democratic aspirations. You have to be average to be liked, thus the lowering of culture to the lowest common denominator. Publications like Readers’ Digest and the trivialization of Walt Disney adaptations come to mind. (I am thinking in particular of Winnie the Pooh and Mary Poppins.)

Our founders did not subscribe to this anti-intellectualism. In fact they were suspicious of the masses. They were the heirs of the Enlightenment and very well educated. They loved books and were keenly interested in scientific discovery. But their values were threatened by the Puritan strain exemplified by John Cotton who wrote in 1642:”The more learned and witty you be the more fit to act for Satan you be”. Andrew Jackson was the first president who styled himself as “a man of the people.” I guess they did not use the term “folks” at that time.

Two other books that treat this same theme are Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason” and Isaac Asimov’s “The Cult of Ignorance.” Both report an unfortunate belief shared by many people who don’t have any respect for knowledge and who then say “Democracy means that my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” Thus the dumbing down of America. We call intellectuals eggheads, nerds, geeks and dorks. About half of Americans between 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries. More than one third consider it “not important” to speak a foreign language. Many think that one’s education needs to lead primarily to immediate financial benefits. One can see this anti-intellectualism still alive in the Republican party and in the utterances of the Tea Party. When they don’t like what science has discovered, they deny it. Rick Santorum called Barack Obama a snob for wanting everybody in America to go to college.

In pre-revolutionary Russia the intelligentsia was the educated, professionally active population. It consisted of spiritual leaders, artists, writers and scientists. The tsars repeatedly tried to clip their wings because they challenged their absolute power. The Russians are very proud of this cultural heritage. The worst insult you can hurl at a Russian is to call him/her “nekulturny” (Not cultured).
Russians cherish their rich history of art, literature, music and ballet. They revere the Bolshoi and Marinsky theaters and the vast collections of history and art in the Hermitage Museum. They are also deeply in love with poetry. Their national hero is Aleksander Pushkin who wrote Eugene Onegin, a novel entirely in verse. I suspect that even Vladimir Putin is proud of this heritage as long as it does not threaten his power.

According to Hofstadter, intellectualism consists not so much in accumulating knowledge and feeling superior about it but rather as a habit of mind. It is being sensitive to nuances and seeing things in degrees rather than in absolutes. It is essentially relativist and skeptical but also circumspect and humane. It also means constantly exploring and widening one’s horizon.

Alice In Debate Land


Alice considered the Mad Hatter and the equally mad March Hare and declared: This is the stupidest Tea Party I have ever been to.

Seventeen Presidential candidates are sitting in a sand box, throwing sand into each other’s eyes.
They are talking all at once, calling each other stupid and not listening to one another.

Then Alice encountered the Dormouse who was spinning a long tale leading to nothing, The Knave of Hearts who stole some tarts and the Queen of Hearts who said: Sentence first, verdict afterwards. And then she commanded: Off with their heads!

Here is Donald Trump. He does not feel he has to discuss the environment or the economy. Instead he has fun calling women fat pigs and Mexicans rapists, drug runners and criminals. Next to him is Carly Fiorina. She is furiously attacking Planned Parenthood and adds false embellishment to an already doctored video. She would also break off all communication with President Putin of Russia.

Also at the party there is a Mock turtle who once used to be a real turtle and a Cheshire Cat with very long claws, many teeth and a grin that does not disappear even after he does.

Now meet Jeb Bush. His answer to constant gun violence and mass killing is “stuff happens.” He also claims, “my brother kept us safe. When was this, Jeb? Before, during or after 9/11? Jeb favors a picture of Margaret Thatcher on the $10 bill. Perhaps he thinks that Britain still rules here. As to Ben Carson, he would like us to know that electing a Muslim president would be a big mistake. He also denies evolution. Did he skip biology classes in college?

The White Rabbit ran a race in a circle with no possible winner. Is it any wonder that Alice wished she had fallen into a different burrow? (In that she is not alone.)

All the other Republican candidates sing in unison the praises of creationism. All of them also hate the Supreme Court. Now listen to Marco Rubio. He declares climate is always changing. It is not because of human activity. He also loves the Second Amendment and is totally opposed to abortion.

And the following sentence comes from the mouth of Rand Paul: Socialism could lead to mass genocide.

At this Alice wakes up and drifts in a daze not knowing where she is or who she is. Quite by accident she stumbles on “The Island of Sanity.” She rubs her eyes.

Five people are standing next to each other looking relaxed, confident and happy to be together. In the middle is a woman. They listen to each other attentively. But they have also come prepared to say what they have to say and to do so clearly and even succinctly. No one is negative or on the attack or is distancing themselves from our current President. What a refreshing contrast it is to be watching civilized adults. Bernie Sanders gives his usual speech denouncing billionaires, but he manages to sound as though he is doing it for the first time. And everybody applauds when he says he is sick and tired of Republicans harping on Hillary’s emails. He is a little wobbly on gun control.

Hillary speaks forcefully about women, gun control, immigration and her willingness to take on the Republicans. She is doing a great job of presenting who she is rather than being defined by others. Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb get a chance to say a few words and Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, emerges as a possible contender at some point in the future.
We all look forward to seeing more of this substantive discussion and more well conducted and moderated debates.

Alice is wide-eyed and wondering where she has been…and where she is going.

A Very Popular Pope

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis recently swept across the United States in his custom made Popemobile and drew adoring crowds everywhere he appeared. People waited in line all day to catch a glimpse of him and went into ecstasy at every sighting. This fan frenzy reminded me of the Beatlemania phenomenon of the ‘60s and of the hysterical Princess Diana cult of the ‘90s. People must have a need to worship someone. They seem to like to follow a crowd, lose their individuality and become part of something bigger than themselves.

The Pope certainly attracts this kind of popularity. “Authentic” is the favorite adjective used to describe him. He is obviously a “good” person, really cares for the disadvantaged, has a benevolent smile for everyone and radiates good will. People feel that he speaks for them and project their hopes onto him. And yet I cannot help asking myself these questions: What is so wonderful about finally recognizing that we are adversely affecting our environment and are the prime cause of global warming? We are like cancer cells destroying their own habitat. This is now a safe topic to tackle except perhaps if you live in West Virginia and believe that it is still debatable.

Population explosion is a big cause of the environmental problem. The total number of people on the planet is moving us toward Armageddon. The Vatican which is the richest organization in the world could do much to slow this event and to end poverty by endorsing birth control. It refuses to do so and opposes the use of condoms which would also help prevent AIDS.
Pope Francis has often stated that he would save homosexuals who repent. Save them from what? If they have done nothing wrong, why do they need to repent? Says Bill Maher of the papacy: “I think it is the easiest job in the world. You have tenure and you are selling an invisible product you don’t have to prove exists.” And Pope Francis would also allow atheists to go to Heaven. I think this is really funny since atheists don’t care about or believe in Heaven. It is also a pretty safe promise because no one has ever come back from Heaven to describe what it is like.

Further questions. Why can’t priests marry? Wouldn’t it solve the problem of priests abusing children? Why can’t women be priests? Women don’t want to be patronized. They don’t want to be patted on the head and told that they are wonderful creatures. What they want is equality.
The Pope apparently met with Kim Davis, the Kentucky official who refuses to marry gay people. Andy Borowitz of the New Yorker says: “Reporting every day to a job one has no intention of doing can only fill one with anguish. The pope wanted to show compassion.” It turned out that the Pope did not in fact deliver words of encouragement to Davis, but was in fact pranked into this by an American Bishop who had his own agenda.

And now we come to the Pope’s action which perturbs me the most: The beatification of Father Junipero Serra. Serra was a Franciscan priest who founded the California Missions, which were the first settlements in the area. In doing so he eradicated the culture, religion and language of the indigenous people and violently converted them. Entire populations were also wiped out by disease. The whole concept of sainthood is an archaic one. It is based on the belief in miracles and the supernatural which we should have outgrown by now. A miracle is an event which cannot be explained by scientific laws. Belief in the supernatural closes the mind against questioning and the search for a real explanation. So no matter how “liberal” and benevolent Pope Francis appears to be, he represents the Catholic Church which is based on dogma and is therefore incompatible with many of the positions he claims to support.

Editor’s note: Your comments of any character are strongly encouraged and will become part of this conversation.

The European Dis-Union…Misfortune Has Not Taught Them Compassion

For several years we have watched the Mediterranean  Sea become a huge human cemetery as desperate people fleeing from Syria and Africa crowd onto rickety boats and drown by the hundreds  within sight of the Italian coast. We think, “­­­­How terrible!”  Then we read the next news story. Now there is a new swell of arrivals on the Greek island of Lesbos. People on unsafe boats are crossing from Turkey by the thousands and huddle on a small beach totally unequipped to receive them. Again we read, we watch on our screens and we think. “Poor people!”  And we move on and go on with our lives. Then one day a picture that appears in all the papers and on all our screens hits home. Aylan Kurdi is 3 years old. He is lying  face down on a Turkish beach, his head in the water. He is from Kobani. Someone had lovingly dressed him in a red T-shirt and navy shorts. We know he will never get up and run in the sand. We know he will never reach safety on the other shore.
The people who arrive on Lesbos have an itinerary and destinations. They have researched the best routes and methods and shared information and advice using social media. They have hired guides and smugglers and paid them well to take them across to Greece, their entry point  into Europe. Greece, which has its own problems and is the weakest link in the European Union, suddenly finds itself  overrun and having to “process” thousands of fleeing people. But that is only the beginning of the nightmare for the refugees.  They have to rush across Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary where they face various walls, barriers and hostility on the part of the locals.
Hungary  is blocking them with fences topped with razor wire strands. Many families get separated. Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia are barricading themselves against these hordes of aliens forgetting what they themselves had to endure when they were occupied by the Soviet Union. Misfortune has not taught them compassion. In Hungary people are crowded into pen-like enclosures, food being thrown at them as though they were animals.  Elsewhere they face hostile police with tear gas and water cannons. Did the Hungarians forget that Austria opened its borders to them when they were fleeing from Russian tanks rolling through Budapest in 1956? Hungary may be the main villain here but the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Estonia are similarly hostile. In Bratislava (Slovakia) they proclaim loudly that they will only accept a few hundred Christian Syrians. They want no Muslims; they have no mosques, they say. Many are afraid of Jihadist infiltration.
There is definitely an Old Europe/New Europe schism operating here. Most of the  newly accepted countries have right-wing regimes, hostile to immigration. Germany, Austria, Sweden, old, established  democracies, have shown empathy and understanding. In Germany, with an aging population, young workers are needed. But there is also some residual guilt about Hitler’s crimes. Most of the refugees are heading for these countries which have extended a welcome to them. But no one really expected this melting glacier of refugees sliding inexorably across Europe. Cracks, fissures and splinters are appearing everywhere and the whole threatens to break apart. The Schengen Agreement providing free circulation across European borders has already given way. Chancellor Merkel has been in the forefront of the humanitarian effort, saying refugees are entitled to asylum. The  German population as a whole is sympathetic and there are many  volunteers spontaneously offering help, but  it may have  unwittingly created this onslaught of arrivals that threatens the whole continent. Denmark and Norway are dissuading people from coming. France, Britain and Italy are reluctantly offering some hospitality.
Recently the scale of the refugee crisis has reached catastrophic proportions.Water, food and sanitation problems are worsening. The UN humanitarian agencies are on the verge of bankruptcy Even Germany had to institute border controls along all its frontiers. Europe has lost control of this tsunami of gigantic proportions.There has been no solidarity, no  sharing of the burden, and moral responsibility has been sadly lacking.
But what about the rest of us? This is not only a a European problem.There have been more than 7 million Syrian refugees displaced so far. In Turkey, which is their first destination, many live in refugee camps. Others are in Lebanon, which faces its own problems and has no functioning government. Jordan already has a huge number of Palestinian refugees . None have been integrated or resettled. The Gulf countries, except for the United Arab Emirates have accepted no Syrians. Some Latin American countries have taken in a modest number. But where is the United States in all of this? Where is the Lady on the pedestal? Has she closed the golden door to the tired and the poor? Has she extinguished the lamp that guided the homeless and the tempest-tossed? We are vacillating. Some of us say it is not our problem. Others think there might be terrorists among the refugees. As a result we are piously  proclaiming that we will accept a few thousand of them.  (And maybe more in 2017.) Are we going to repeat the mistakes of the past when we could not distinguish between the culprits and the victims? When we imprisoned Japanese-Americans because they might be enemy sympathizers? Don’t we remember that we refused entry to Jewish refugees during World War  II who then went back to perish in extermination camps?
It is time to wake up and acknowledge that this is now a global problem and that we have a common duty to participate. We cannot shirk our responsibility any longer.