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.
DEATH IN PARADISE
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.