Death from a Distance

Mar 29, 2017

I’ve never been one for murder mysteries, but lately I’ve spent much of my “down time” watching the kind of British detective dramas that run on PBS stations – series like Inspector Lewis and Grantchester. In such shows, idyllic English villages and towns suffer an astonishing number of grisly murders. The motives turn out to be the usual ones: petty jealousies; family feuds; long-simmering resentments that suddenly boil over; sudden uncontrollable passions like anger, lust, and greed; a dangerous game or malevolent joke carried too far; and the occasional very tricky psychopath.

As much as writers may try to devise memorable plotlines, the details quickly fade from our minds. It’s no wonder that mystery readers deeply engrossed in a developing plot can read many pages before some peculiar detail triggers the realization that they’ve read the book before. It happens because the detective plot is largely technical. The clues, although sometimes striking, accumulate through twists and turns and so lose their significance like the clues in daily crossword puzzles. The intricacy of the case is a form of concealment. Beneath the fascinating plot is murder and other disturbing forms of brutality. Because the investigation is foregrounded, turning the survivors into suspects and witnesses, it’s easy for us to lose touch with the underlying horror.

In a detective series, the brutality is forgotten for another reason. We are captivated by the life of the detective. In the show Endeavour, which covers the early years of Inspector Morse’s career, the cases are incidental to Morse’s struggle to solve the mystery of his own heart. Detective work comes easily to him due to his brilliant puzzle-solving ability and his encyclopedic knowledge. We find something similar with the main character of Grantchester, a village vicar with an uncanny insight into criminal motivation. Both succeed at the job, but each man is fighting internal demons, a struggle exhibited partly through bouts of excessive drinking and partly through a series of romantic misadventures. The hero’s personal troubles are naturally, inextricably tied to his frequent observations of violence and his growing awareness of mortality. But all detectives are protected by their professionalism. The investigative process is their main mode of coping with a brutal world. The demanding technical skills of investigation shield them emotionally, just as surgeons are shielded from the mortal drama their patients are caught up in.

The matter is similar for the viewer or reader of murder mysteries. If I spend a weekend morning watching these shows, I’m aware that I’m being made to believe that murder is mainly a fascinating plot device, a point of interest for a disinterested observer. Basking in an ultimately false sense of security, I feel like someone who reads obituary pages out of curiosity or merely to feel better by comparison. In murder mysteries we have the luxury of hearing about other people’s tragedies dispassionately. But I worry that Americans have become too good at turning death into a game. Our zombie-fighting fantasies and televised war voyeurism can be a way of denying the reality of our own deaths.

An awareness of our own frailty is, I believe, the basis for our humanity. A fictional murder investigation is, like other games, a form of entertainment, and cumulatively, such entertainments may make us numb to the truth of other people’s deaths and suffering. The ways in which life isn’t a game can sometimes escape us, and that should be a cause for concern for all of us.