Clued in: the murders in shows such as A Touch of Frost parallel ritual sacrifice
The police or detective drama, along with the hospital soap, is a staple of the television schedules. They present reality in complementary ways: one cures the ills of the body, the other of society. They can even be combined. The American series Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001) starred Dick Van Dyke as Dr Mark Sloan, a medic who solved crimes with the help of his son, a homicide detective.
From Holby City (BBC One, 1999-) to Midsomer Murders (ITV1, 1997-), the message is clear: there is no problem that cannot be solved by either medicine or forensic science…or so it seems. In fact, there is always residual anxiety. The patient may be patched up, but her home is still a dangerous place; the murderer may be unmasked, but those who hired him go free. This dissonance points to a deeper truth in these dramas, one unresolved by diagnostic skills or powers of deduction.
It has to do with the nature of society, with class, exploitation, huge disparities of wealth, inequalities in gender and ethnicity, and the concentration of power in the hands of the few. These factors play an important role in the problems faced by doctors and detectives. But they rarely surface in the programmes themselves, at least in their true state. In general, the media sells us fantasies, not fact. It discourages systematic thinking, as does free-market philosophy, with its beloved notion that society is no more than a collection of individuals, each pursuing their own interests.
It is not the job of police dramas - which are now my main focus - to lay bare the workings of capitalism: art is not sociology. But they do register tensions in wider society, particularly those to do with reality and representation - the red herring - and the relations between part and whole, how the clues fit together.
Poirot (ITV1, 1989-) takes refuge in the 1930s, where murder is simply another Art Nouveau flourish. But the decade has parallels with our own time: a coalition government, unemployment, a financial crisis and an appetite for consumer goods (Captain Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s assistant, is particularly keen on cars).
Detective Chief Inspector William Edward “Jack” Frost, the eponymous hero of A Touch of Frost (ITV1, 1992-2010), scoffs at the new culture of accountability. It’s a very English attitude to authority, as is Frost’s motto that what counts in police work is “experience”. Set in the fictional Midlands town of Denton, the series also touches on the relations between the provinces and the capital.
Scott and Bailey (ITV1, 2011-) goes further, outraging metropolitan sensibility by not acknowledging London at all. Detective Constable Janet Scott and DC Rachel Bailey are members of the Major Incident Team of the fictional Manchester Metropolitan Police. The series challenges the male dominance in police drama and shows an awareness of social problems, poverty, dysfunctional families and gang culture that also stands for the turmoil of the two detectives’ private lives.
We return to the Great Wen with Whitechapel (ITV1, 2009-), one of the most intriguing of police dramas, because each episode focuses on a modern-day re-enactment of real past crimes, whether the Thames Torso Murders or those committed by Jack the Ripper or the Krays. The series could be said to capture the very nature of capitalism, its ability to reinvent itself without actually changing its nature.
It is clear that all these programmes indirectly mirror contemporary concerns. What’s more, they offer a counter to free-market philosophy. Its motto is “only disconnect”; the detective’s is “only connect”. He or she pieces together a coherent story from scattered clues. A key part of this process is a distrust of appearances. The detective knows that things are not always what they seem. Such scepticism has almost vanished in an age that equates trust with transparency. The detective keeps the art of interpretation fleetingly alive, but he or she also endangers it - for in the end, there can be only one correct reading because there is only one murderer.
At least that is the case in the hour-long dramas. Those that last for a period of weeks tell a different tale. The Shadow Line (BBC Two, 2011) and Line of Duty (BBC Two, 2012) destabilise notions of knowing and not knowing, guilt and innocence. Interestingly, both series feature a black protagonist and, in both cases - look away now if you haven’t seen them - he dies. The detective becomes the victim, and the programme ends where it usually starts, with a death.
One of the noticeable things about police dramas, in contrast to medical ones, is that they are often named after the central character: Inspector Morse (ITV1, 1987-2000), Lewis (ITV1, 2006-), Luther (BBC One, 2010-), Wallander, both the Swedish original and the English-language version starring Kenneth Branagh (BBC One, 2008-), and so on. The focus is as much on the character as the crime. The psychological dimension of the genre has its roots in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, hailed as the first detective story because the hero is charged with finding out who killed Laius, the king of Thebes. It was, of course, Oedipus himself.
Some critics have argued that the detective story has an Oedipal structure. I won’t go that far, but it is hard to ignore themes of incest and parricide in some works. In The Dogs of Riga (2012), Kurt Wallander is implicated in the death of a foreign colleague before sleeping with his wife. In Before the Frost (2012), he momentarily gives the impression of being the father of his daughter’s baby.
These days critics are rather sniffy about Freud, but if they were to look at him again they might change their minds. He never stopped revising his opinions and is arguably the last great writer of tragedy. Thirty years ago, the great intellectual goal in English was to combine Freud and Marx. A Touch of Frost would be a good test case. Frost’s disdain for his superior, Superintendent Norman Mullett, can partly be explained in terms of Oedipal anxiety about father figures and partly in terms of the incorporation of the amateur sleuth into the ranks of the professional, the absorption of the individual into the system.
We can also take an anthropological approach to the detective story. This involves a different view of murder. It has been seen as a symbol of social unrest and a kind of father-killing, but it is also a form of debased sacrifice. Ritual sacrifice, whether of humans or animals, has been an enduring part of human history and has not completely disappeared. In 2001, the body of an unidentified six-year-old, “Adam”, was recovered from the Thames. He had been drained of blood and dismembered, probably in a “muti” killing. I don’t think it is too much to suggest that the stylised murders of the serial killer recall the slaying of sacrificial victims. The difference is that they occur without the religious context that gave such deaths meaning.
The main functions of sacrifice were to please the gods, ensure a good harvest, atone for sins and bind the community together. One of the startling features of the ancient Athenian ceremony known as “the Murder of the Ox” was that everyone who participated, from the priest to the “maidens” who brought the water, was deemed guilty of the act. After a trial, blame was thrown upon the knife, which was hurled into the sea. There’s a similar situation in the detective story, where everyone is a potential suspect. Another parallel is that both sacrifice and murder require the correct reading of signs: the priest examines the entrails, the detective the body and the surrounding area.
But what is completely absent from both written and filmed versions of the detective story is any sense of the divine. Nevertheless, fictional murder answers the same sorts of need as sacrifice. In Agatha Christie’s Marple (ITV1, 2004-10), for example, the villagers unite around the horror of the death and either the victim or the killer represents what needs to be removed from the community in order for it to flourish again.
It is difficult to know what these parallels tell us: has our psyche been shaped by the practice of sacrifice, or is sacrifice itself an expression of our psychic structure? The nightly diet of detective drama supports either proposition. It certainly makes you wonder whether there is such a thing, after all, as human nature.