Wednesday, December 12, 2012

If There Was Any Justice in the World - The Evolution of the Detective Story

The laughter echoes through the halls of the mist-shrouded mansion. The clink of wine glasses, the sudden high-pitched voice of the host. A small group of seemingly innocent, happy people gather in the drawing room. Two of them are having an affair, three others were involved in a previous murder inquiry, that little old lady isn’t what she appears to be, and all of them have motives for killing the mysterious man in black.
Suddenly, a shot rings out. The maid screams. The inquisitive (but not overly surprised or distraught) group crowds around a body sprawled on the floor. Outside, the storm has arrived and the guests peer out into a snowy wonderland. The butler informs them that the phones are down.

“Well, old boy,” says the hawk-nosed individual in the interesting coat. “I suppose we’ll have to sort it out ourselves.”

It’s the classic setup. An interesting character trots around the English countryside, uncovering things folk would rather have kept hidden, asking awkward questions, pushing the limits of the law in defense of the law, and ultimately, inevitably, triumphantly arresting the local vicar for the murder.

Mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers observed half a century ago that “Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of amusement than any other single subject.” It is still true today. Mystery is one of the three most popular genres in the English fiction market (the other two being romance and science fiction). (1) The most-watched TV shows in the world in 2006 and 2007 were the crime shows CSI: Las Vegas and CSI: Miami. Even the medical drama House, most-watched in 2008 (2), drew its inspiration from Sherlock Holmes, and another runner-up was the comedy-mystery show Monk. Clearly, there’s just something about a mystery.

As Christians living in a culture with so many books and movies centered on violence and immorality, it is important to examine what we read and watch. That begs the question, is it ever good to use evil? After all, “what fellowship has light with darkness?”(2 Cor. 6:14, ESV)

It’s not a new idea. Many in the early 20th Century thought that “To write a story about a burglary is, in their eyes, a sort of spiritual manner of committing it.”(Chesterton, Defense) But when it gets down to it, murder mysteries, at least the good old-fashioned kind, aren’t really about murder. There is invariably a body, sometimes two, but they aren’t there because the author likes killing people, but because murders happen in real life. Mysteries, particularly the ones in later years, try to accurately portray how police deal with murders, and how murder is to be dealt with. There’s one thing about mysteries that isn’t realistic, and it’s not the murders. It’s not the evil part—it’s the fact that murderers are caught. Mysteries always have happy endings.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s fictional sleuth proclaimed that “in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”(qtd. in Dubose, 216) The murderer is nearly always caught, and justice done. For detectives, the first commandment is devotion to law and justice. Sleuths stand as lonely sentinels against encroaching lawlessness. In literature, the closest comparison would be knights and dragons, or possibly David and Goliath. It doesn’t get much purer than that, and the pursuit of Justice is a very Christian principle. 

But people didn’t see it like that in the early days of mystery. In the 1800s, murder was not considered a polite topic of conversation, much less something one should read about in novels. As a matter of fact, the novel as we know it has only been around for about two hundred years. With the coming of literacy in the lower classes, and the advent of cheap printing, it quickly took off, particularly in England, which was the home of the first modern, non-arbitrary, efficient police force. It could only have happened in a world where “public sympathy had veered round to the side of law and order.”(Sayers, Omnibus) In a world of stiff collars and tight corsets, people snatched up novels jam-packed with murder and intrigue. Magazines featuring serial stories were immensely popular, and gave such authors as Charles Dickens a launching pad to fame.

The Beginning
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe is widely considered to be the father of the modern mystery. In 1841, Graham’s Magazine published Poe’s short story Murders in the Rue Morgue. His sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin, had a sidekick who doubled as the narrator of his adventures. Such a pairing would become a staple for the detective genre, a brilliant, eccentric, asocial detective accompanied by his admiring and slightly dimwitted biographer. Poe gave us the locked room mystery with his first short story, and the obvious solution with The Purloined Letter. It set the standard plotline for later mysteries—a crime, a puzzle, a search, a rational solution, and an arrest.

An orphan, Poe was repeatedly cheated and swindled throughout his life, often by relatives. It can be assumed that the idea of justice, of a murderer caught and punished, would appeal to him, as it has to the rest of us for the last century and a half. But at the same time, his was not a Christian justice, and he had very little stomach for mercy. He wrote, “As far as I can understand the ‘loving our enemies,’ it implies the hating of our friends.”(3) His vengeance was to do justice:

“What can be more soothing, at once to a man’s Pride, and to his Conscience, than the conviction that, in taking vengeance on his enemies for injustice done him, he has simply to do them justice in return?”(Poe, Marginalia)

But while Poe’s stories were popular, the real mystery explosion had to wait for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “consulting detective.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Popular Morality
Born into a Scottish family, Conan Doyle relied heavily on his mother, as his father was an alcoholic. After a demoralizing stay at boarding school, it was “said that Arthur's first task, when back from school, was to co-sign the committal papers of his father, who by then was seriously demented.”(4) However, while at school, he found he had his mother’s gift of storytelling. He spent some time as ship’s surgeon aboard the seal-hunting vessel, Hope. He traveled widely over the years, with destinations varying from Africa to the Arctic, and had a voracious appetite for adventure that bled into his stories.

“It is every man’s business to see justice done.”
~Holmes in The Crooked Man
In 1886, he began the novel that would propel him into the spotlight: A Study in Scarlet. A disciple of honor and decency, it seemed that Conan Doyle was a proponent of the religion of the Romans, rather than specifically Judeo-Christian values. In his books, justice, truth, and honor are appealed to more often than God. In the Victorian age, virtue was in vogue; even the atheists bowed to Decency. His faith in Popularity Morality, more uncertain than absolute Truth, eventually meandered into spiritualism and necromancy, both of which were all the rage (Grann.)

He had great faith in Progress. In his book, The Great Boer War, he proclaimed that “Idealism and a morbid, restless conscientiousness are two of the most dangerous evils from which a modern, progressive State has to suffer” and affirmed that the British, as a more “educated and progressive” people than the Boers, had “the right of conquest.” The Boers were “brave, honest farmers, but standing unconsciously for mediaevalism [sic] and corruption, even as [British soldiers] stood for civilization, progress, and equal rights for all men.”

Devoted to fairness, Conan Doyle was himself an aide to the police in several cases of miscarried justice. During WWI, long after his heyday as a writer, he attempted to save military lives by suggesting that members of the Navy wear “inflatable rubber belts” and infantrymen be issued some sort of “body armor.” He also prophesied the danger of the “submarine and airship.”(4) Ironically, these suggestions were considered annoying by all but a few. Among the few was future PM Winston Churchill, who wrote to thank him for his ideas.

A Sidney Paget Illustration for The Adventure of the Silver Blaze

Conan Doyle’s sleuth, one Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street, would become the most iconic detective in all history. Rumor had it that the King was such an enthusiast that to prompt new stories he put Conan Doyle’s name on his Honours List. Holmes’s morals are solidly respectable, but he’s not above twisting the rules a bit to suit his own ends. All the same, Conan Doyle always made out as if Holmes’s ventures into private justice were lawful, and perhaps he thought so. In The Adventure of the Three Gables, for instance, when Holmes has agreed to hush up a crime in return for a payment to the victim, Holmes calls it “compound[ing] a felony,” which is broadly true, but the exchange would never stand up in court.

Conan Doyle used Holmes as a paragon restoring order to what was already a basically decent society. “I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go,” Holmes says, in Three Gables. But while there are usually a few shady side characters, the cast of characters are, overall, virtuous and honest people. Characterization is generally weak, and tends to lean on the splintered staff of caricature.

The Holmes stories sparked a whole generation’s interest in detective fiction, and writers accordingly began cranking out works of similar pattern. The stories varied from barely veiled imitations to outright parody, but the next great detective took until the new century to stumble ignominiously onto the stage in the character of Father Brown.

Religion in Mystery - Absolutes
G.K. Chesterton was a prolific novelist, historian, critic, journalist, poet, and Roman Catholic apologist who wrote mystery and fantasy fiction on the side. One of the first to use his sleuth as a vehicle for conveying his ideas, Chesterton added a deeper layer to the classic mystery. While borrowing, like all, from the Holmesian model, he took the rational eccentric detective into philosophical and theological territory, with a strong element of the fantastic.
“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
~Chesterton in Orthodoxy
His tales are more parables than mysteries, in many ways, but are nevertheless brilliant howdunnits, and his shrewd, childlike detective Father Brown is, while somewhat predictable, very entertaining. The stories repeatedly return to the idea of paradox, which fascinated Chesterton. The point, of course, is that the dog did not bark.

Chesterton was also one of the first serious literary critics to comment on detective fiction. He believed that the detective story’s greatest achievements were to romanticize ordinary life, ordinary places, and to promote policeman and peace-keepers as heroes, in opposition to the glorified rebel. He advanced the idea that civilization is the real rebellion, a rebellion against chaos and entropy, and the policeman, who keeps order, its defender.

“The romance of the police force is thus the whole romance of man. It is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies. It reminds us that the whole noiseless and unnoticeable police management by which we are ruled and protected is only a successful knight-errantry.”(Chesterton, Defense)

Unlike Conan Doyle, Chesterton did not show the world as ordered and just, but through the lens of original sin. It is civilization that is outnumbered, not lawlessness. In The Hammer of God, Father Brown is asked “Are you a devil?” He replies “I am a man…and therefore have all devils in my heart.”

Chesterton held the Biblical view of justice, and it was demonstrated clearly in Father Brown.

“Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star….you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please….But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’”(Chesterton, Innocence)

L to R: Lord Howard de Walden, William Archer,
J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan), Chesterton and George
Bernard Shaw on the set of the mercifully unreleased
silent cowboy film How Men Love.
Chesterton was the first author to so obviously connect true justice to religion (and thus absolutes rather than Popular Morality) in his detective stories. He disapproved of Conan Doyle’s penchant for spiritualism, saying that he agreed with Conan Doyle “about where the line is drawn between good and bad, but have the misfortune to think his good bad, and his bad good.”(Chesterton, Impressions)

While singing his praises for originality, Chesterton said that Conan Doyle’s endings smacked of unlikely coincidence, and his methods weren’t evenhanded. It wasn’t fair to the reader, he argued, that vital evidence be withheld until a climactic revelation. The reader had to be given just as much information as the detective, and early on in the game. Along with other detective writers, he formed a group known as the Detection Club, based the Ten Commandments of “Fair Play” outlined by Ronald Knox. Other members included Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie.

Chesterton was also much more interested in motives rather than evidence or search, which foretold the psychological novel of the 1920’s onward.

The Golden Age
“There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder.”
~S.S. Van Dine’s Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories
Then came the war. It tore through European social structures like a hurricane, reversing traditional master-servant roles, and shredding titles like so much confetti. The clouds broke on a brave new world, a crazy democracy-mad place where tradition and Victorian nicety were a thing of the past. Women took on a more active part in society and the workplace. In fact, the next writer to make a splash in the world of detective fiction was a woman. She was, in a way, the woman.

By this time, mysteries had become increasingly focused on the intellectual puzzle. Authors cut out entirely the exotic foreign characters and shoot-’em-up climaxes. Fair Play was the rule, proscribing any convenient plot devices. In the wake of Freud, it was the perfect atmosphere for the psychological whodunit to make its appearance. In 1917, Agatha Christie slipped quietly into the literary world and took over. Her mysteries were ideally suited to the changing scene, and with her first novel she fired the starter gun for the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Dame Agatha Christie
Defense of the Innocent
The Golden Age is still a literary phenomenon. It was an unprecedented explosion of mystery fiction which no one has every quite managed to explain. Dame Agatha Christie was its indisputable queen. Born in Torquay, England, she was a shy, reserved woman who served as a nurse during WWI. In 1917, at the age of 27, she published The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It featured the small eccentric Belgian who was to become the most recognizable detective in the world after Sherlock Holmes, and the only fictional character to ever have an obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

The inimitable David Suchet as Poirot

Christie’s books, like those earlier, focused on a detective devoted to justice and law and order. In Cards on the Table, her detective, Hercule Poirot, declares that the man who kills for an idea “has usurped the functions of le Bon Dieu.” Christie believed firmly in the happy ending, and it perhaps explains some of her enormous popularity in a world turned upside down by the often unhappy endings of WWI. Her stories existed in a world where justice was always victorious.

“The detective story was the story of the chase; it was also very much a story with a moral; in fact it was the old Everyman Morality Tale, the hunting down of Evil and the triumph of Good.”(qtd. in Dubose, 158)

But unlike her predecessors, she focused primarily on the psychology of the suspects, rather than the circumstances of the crime. It became more person-oriented, and foretold an explosion of similar literature.

“‘In fact…you prefer law and order to private vengeance?’

“‘Well, you can’t go about having blood feuds...Say what you like, trial by jury is a sound system.’”
~Murder on the Orient Express
In her autobiography, she wrote: “The innocent must be protected; they must be able to live at peace and charity with their neighbors.” But she played with the idea that the neighbors themselves might be the ones doing the enforcing. While an advocate of law and justice, Christie sometimes expressed sympathy with the more vigilante style of private vengeance. Famously, in Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None, the murders were perpetrated by self-appointed agents of justice, acting when the law has failed them.

Joan Hickson (Miss Marple) meets David Suchet
Still, Christie (and her detectives) maintained that murder was murder, and to place oneself in the position of one who decides who lives, and who dies, was extremely dangerous. “I do not approve of murder,” is Poirot’s fastidious and frequently used defense, and the protection of the innocent his highest calling.

“The more passionately alive the victim, the more glorious indignation I have on his behalf, and am full of a delighted triumph when I have delivered a near-victim out of the valley of the shadow of death.”(qtd. in Dubose, 158)

Raymond Chandler...I seriously couldn't find a picture of
him smiling
“[M]urder is an act of infinite cruelty, even if the perpetrators sometimes look like…nice motherly women with softly graying hair….The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations….It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in.”
~Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
The ’30s – A Hero of the Streets
During the 1930’s, mystery branched off into two subgenres. In America, the Depression was in full swing, and bloody tales of gangsters and bootleggers filled the popular imagination. Books featuring clean murders in country houses seemed quaint, and the form remained primarily a British staple. But the public needed an alternative, and writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett adapted, writing “hard-boiled” mysteries.

In hard-boiled novels, the law has failed in a big way, eroded by corruption in high places. What little justice exists is dealt by a few honest private eyes, men with suspect morals based on shaky truths. When placed alongside the rigidly civilized society of Sherlock Holmes, the cities inhabited by Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are dystopian by comparison. Even contrasted to the fallen world of Chesterton, hard-boiled novels present a bleak and lawless picture. One might as well give up on idea of the “romance of the police force,” unless fear counts.

Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe
These stories plunge their protagonists into the harsh realities of the inner city. The detective is no longer a quasi-sacred agent of justice, but a gritty, near-villain. He’s the only good (or slightly better) guy in a world of crooks. Yet, Raymond Chandler declared in The Simple Art of Murder, the hero must be “a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” Justice ceased to rely on the law, but on the individual. Chesterton’s motto that one should believe in ideals, and not human beings(as delineated in Orthodoxy), was flipped on its head.

Authors of such mysteries were often scornful of their soft-boiled counterparts. Raymond Chandler, in his famous rant on the subject, said “They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world. They try to be honest, but honesty is an art.” He conceded that Conan Doyle was a “pioneer,” but called Holmes little more than an “an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” As for Dorothy Sayers, her novels were only “second-rate literature.” To Chandler, the dream of a just world in their novels did not justify making a casualty of realism. Murder is horrible in real life; it should not be treated as an intellectual puzzle. And because soft-boiled novels were so very black-and-white on a moral level, they completely excluded what he felt was essential for true art: “the quality of redemption.”

However, another part of his angst might have been due to the fact that the soft-boiled mysteries were still much more popular than hard-boiled. That included the “second-rate” novels of Dorothy Sayers, who, along with Agatha Christie, was another great of the Golden Age. She would move detection into the world of aristocratic academia, but despite Chandler’s criticism, Sayers’s mysteries did not gloss over murder or its consequences. Her sleuth frequently wrestled with the fact that for him detection was only a hobby, that he did not treat it like the horrible thing it was.

“‘[I]sn’t it a little coldblooded to catch murderers as an intellectual exercise? It’s all right for the police—it’s their duty.’

“‘In law,’ said Harriet, ‘it is every citizen’s obligation—though most people don’t know that.’”
~Gaudy Night
The Consequences of Law
Dorothy Leigh Sayers was born in the town of Oxford, England, and was one of the first women to graduate from the college there. To her dismay, she would become more famous for her detective stories than her other works. Sayers’s mysteries, featuring the light-hearted, quick-witted Lord Peter Wimsey, were more intellectual fare than most of her predecessors, with heavy themes and frequent references to great literature. A mixture of Poirot’s and Holmes’s methods, Lord Peter focused primarily on practical evidence, rather than psychology.

Dorothy Sayers pushed the detective novel beyond its former boundaries. She set out to elevate the mystery into the realm of real literature, or at least to the point that it could be accepted on a wider scale as truly artistic. Her novel Gaudy Night is championed as the first feminist mystery story, and deals with weighty questions involving women’s roles in society and the consequence of scholarly truth.

Dorothy L. Sayers
Sayers, like Chesterton, was a theologian, but it wasn’t blatantly obvious in her stories. Lord Peter is too irresponsible to believe in God, though he respects Judeo-Christian values. Sayers seems to enjoy looking through the eyes of an outsider. Unlike Agatha Christie, whose primary concern was with innocence, Sayers examined guilt, punishment and redemption.

She had some personal experience with the three. When she was twenty-nine, she discovered that she was pregnant out of wedlock. She knew that she had made a big mistake that would affect both her personal and professional life, but she refused to take the easy way out. In January, 1924, she gave birth to John Anthony. While her cousin raised the boy, Sayers did send regular support for the “fine little chap” from her job at an advertising agency. She did stay in contact with John Anthony, but she could never quite bring herself to tell him to the truth. That incident and its consequences would stay with her for the rest of her life, and surely must have given her sympathy for the offender.

But how far should sympathy affect decisions? Gaudy Night deals with the conflict between principles and pragmatism. How much should one sacrifice for one’s beliefs? Was pursuit of an idea really worth the price of adherence? If, as Lord Peter puts it, “the first thing a principle does—if it really is a principle—is to kill somebody” is it really worth the price?
“If I am honest, I shall probably lose you altogether. If I am not—”

“If you are not…then I shall lose you, because you wouldn’t be the same person, would you?”
~Gaudy Night
Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walters as
Lord Peter and Harriet Vane
Near the ending, the irreligious Wimsey, speaking of another character’s decisions, comments that “[S]he could not prevent other people from suffering for her principles. That seems to be what principles are for, somehow…I don’t claim, you know…to be a Christian or anything of that kind. But there’s one thing in the Bible that seems to me to be a mere statement of brutal fact—I mean, about bringing not peace but a sword.”

Sayers’s conclusion is that justice is worth doing, the truth is worth the telling, in spite of the consequences. Doing the right thing will always “[do] violence to somebody.” So while she held Chesterton’s view of justice, she did not portray its administration as simple or painless. Chesterton’s Father Brown is always concerned with the man’s soul, and whatever punishment may occur (and in those days, the sentence was death by hanging) takes place offstage. Sayers tackled murder and its implications, both for the innocent and the guilty.

Lord Peter’s position of authority during the war caused him to send many men to their deaths, so when he successfully captures and sends a murderer to the gallows, he feels keenly the responsibility. His sympathy often sends him into a deep depression at the end of the case, but it never causes him to let the murderer off. In Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane is confronted by a woman whose sympathy for the murderer has caused her to question punishment.

“Miss Barton [said], ‘Our attitude to the whole thing seems to me completely savage and brutal. I have met so many murderers when visiting prisons; and most of them are very harmless, stupid people, poor creatures, when they aren’t definitely pathological.”

“‘You might feel differently about it,’ said Harriet, ‘if you’d happened to meet the victims. They are often still stupider and more harmless than the murderers. But they don’t make a public appearance.’”

P.D.  James
The Post-War Novels
And then came the second war, greater and more horrible than the first. If the first war ripped social hierarchy up by its genealogical roots, the second made one body in a drawing room seem like a drop of water in an immense ocean of death. Sayers put Lord Peter on the shelf permanently, and though a few old-timers kept turning out Golden Age soft-boiled mysteries, they never quite reached the mainstream as in the pre-war years. People were tired of the idealist rosy-tinted world of Christie and Conan Doyle.

The first police procedural was published in 1945. With a higher emphasis on realism, procedurals started to gravitate into drama, rather than puzzle. While Conan Doyle had set the standard with Holmes, it was taken to a whole new level. Many shows now fly primarily on the main detective’s personality. On the upside, the fashionable Watson was eliminated in favor of intelligent, full-fledged partners.

P.D. James is a notable trailblazer, finding a middle way. Drawing from her thirty years’ experience in the British Civil Service, she uses the realism of police procedurals, but sets her stories in cloistered and isolated communities to retain a sense of the closed village of the Golden Age. Her books spend copious amounts of time building up the characters’ psychologies, in the style of Sayers.
“Murder is the unique crime; it's the only one for which we can never make reparation to the victim. We feel that the murderer steps over an invisible line which divides him or her forever from the rest of us.”
~P.D. James, quoted in The Observer

She is an Anglican, and has faith in the existence of a god of love, despite the great suffering in the world. She believes in original sin “to the extent that I don't think we come into the world as unselfish, kind and loving. I think we come in as selfish little animals.”

While acknowledging her debt to writers like Sayers and even Christie, James rejects Golden Age detectives as “creatures of fantasy or romantic wish-fulfillment…” and attempts to depict “professionals doing a difficult job in a modern world.” She sees them as creating some small semblance of order, making right tiny wrongs in a vast canvas of suffering and sin. She draws a line between the harsher crime novels and those which point toward justice. When asked if all have a good moral, James said, “No, not the most violent and sadistic of the crime novels, but detective stories do affirm the sanctity of each individual life and the possibility of human justice.”(5)

Her detective, the reticent poet Adam Dalgliesh, is reserved, quiet, and very private. Even to the reader, there is something quite mysterious about what’s going on in his head. It sets him apart from the loud-talking, extroversive, muscle-bound character who has become standard issue on TV. But for that matter, while Inspector Morse has a cult following, the character is far from the usual sex symbol. He was one of the characters who was created in the limbo between the Golden Age and the technological revolution, and managed to successfully bridge the two through the medium of television.

TV Detectives – The Return of Popular Morality
Colin Dexter was born in Stamford, England in 1930. A Cambridge graduate, he was a teacher for many years, until he was forced to retire due to oncoming deafness. Instead, he took a job as the senior assistant secretary at the University of Oxford. In 1973, while on vacation with his family in North Wales, Dexter read a decidedly unsatisfying mystery. Convinced he could do better, he jotted down the first lines of a story featuring a detective named Morse. Two years later, The Last Bus to Woodstock was published.

John Thaw, Colin Dexter, and Kevin Whately

Dexter’s mysteries, like those of Dorothy Sayers, are littered with references to English literature. Morse, an intellectual-cum-policeman, was originally an Oxford student. His infamous infatuation with unattainable women cost him that career, and he ends up a disappointed and gloomy chief inspector for Thames Valley CID. Morse shares many of Dexter’s own characteristics; he is a lover of opera, a crossword devotee, a diabetic, and an atheist.
Morse is far from the stiffly moral figures of Holmes, Poirot, and even Lord Peter, who had his faults. Morse bows to the Popular Morality, like Holmes, but his is the morality of the 1990’s, opposed to that of the 1890’s. He is more interested in vengeance than justice. Morse is a policeman, very human, and not always very lawful. Like Raymond Chandler’s hero of the streets, justice relies on the individual, and not the ideal. The attraction is mostly focused on the grouchy, vulnerable, snobbish, rather romantic figure of Inspector Morse, and not the doing of justice.

Lewis: “I’ll be an inspector soon, if there’s any justice in the world.”

Morse: “I’m not sure there is.”
~The Remorseful Day, Season 12
While Dexter’s novels received multiple awards (including two Silver, two Gold, and one Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association), it was the TV show that really made the grumpy detective’s popularity soar. But when it took off, it went like a rocket.

In many ways, the show went far beyond its creator. There were thirty-three episodes, while Dexter only wrote thirteen books. Still, he was intimately involved with the series, and had a Hitchcock-esque cameo in nearly every episode, finally achieving his ambition of a speaking part in 1993. He became good friends with both of the show’s stars, John Thaw and Kevin Whately. The show even affected the later novels, with Morse losing his Lancia to drive the show’s iconic red Jaguar.

Today, twelve years after the show’s conclusion, it remains popular. The series’ last few episodes garnered an astonishing 18 million viewers in the UK alone. While Morse retained many Golden Age elements, the increased interest in the detective’s personality was to become the standard. It is an example of one of the first detectives heavily influenced by the cult of personality.

By this time, the most popular detectives had moved completely onto TV, where drama was necessary to interest the public. Viewers were more interested in gritty realism than nostalgic Golden Age murders in the drawing room. Shows like CSI, Law and Order, Criminal Minds, and other drama-crime serials grew immensely popular, but it was not for the same reasons as the greats of the Golden Age. Crime shows are more popular than mysteries, an example of the dumbing down of television. Most fans tune in to find out about the characters’ romantic lives, the office drama, or this week’s sensationalistic crime. Justice is done, but only if it makes a happy (or suitably heart-wrenching) ending.

“How did you apply logic to a psychopath, that convenient word devised to explain, categorize and define in statute law the unintelligible mystery of human evil?”
~P.D. James, A Certain Justice
A Popular Justice
A telling example is the BBC’s mystery show, Sherlock. Based on Conan Doyle’s writings, the mystery element remains, but Sherlock is constantly beset by a plague of dramatic cliffhangers. In one episode, after capturing a killer who has just injured a close friend, Sherlock proceeds to beat him up before the police arrive. Admittedly, it was mostly for comic effect, but it is a significant shift in tone. Another show that well demonstrates the change in Popular Morality is the Showtime TV series Dexter.

Dexter Morgan is a forensics expert by day, serial killer by night. Ever since he was a small child, he has had the urge to kill, an urge he calls “The Dark Passenger.” When his adopted father, Harry, discovered this, he decided to take action. As a substitute for indiscriminate killing, Harry taught Dexter “The Code,” a policy of only killing confirmed killers who have escaped the police. His sociopathic urge to kill would be satisfied by executing those that “deserve it.”

As the series progresses, Dexter does begin to exhibit more mercy and experience compassion, but the fact remains that he is completely outside the law, and has become a law unto himself. It can (and perhaps should) be argued that Dexter’s slow progress towards knowledge of his sin and eventual redemption makes it justified to root for him. However, it doesn’t alter the fact that it is a very slow progress, and in the meantime, one must feel empathy for a serial killer.
Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan

One Christian commentator pointed out that “the Bible advocates an eye for an eye” and that Dexter “may be an evil person, but he’s ridding the world of other evil people and purposely saving future victims of this evil.”(5) This is a legitimate point, but one that completely ignores the important distinction between private and public justice. We have more hope of justice from a group of flawed human beings, than from one, albeit likeable, serial killer. He has taken the prerogative of “le bon Dieu.” If that power is granted, even to “good” people, it will be abused.

“Harry was right. I thought I could change what I am, keep my family safe. But it doesn't matter what I do, what I choose...I'm what's wrong. This is fate.”
~Dexter, The Getaway, Season 4
One of the most disturbing things about Dexter is that it is assumed he has no choice as to whether to kill. There are few questions really asked about his Dark Passenger; it is just there, and must be satisfied, like some bloodthirsty pagan god. This reflects the popular opinion that some people just “can’t help it,” and makes Law the enemy. As one of P.D. James’s characters points out, policemen “have to believe in free will. The criminal law rests on the premise that most of us can control what we do.”(James, 363) Dexter denies this, and with it any idea of the legitimacy of the police force.

“It is good for us to reminded from time to time that our system of law is human and, therefore, fallible and the most we can hope for is a certain justice.”
~P.D. James, A Certain Justice
Despite its rather gruesome premise, Dexter is an enormously popular show, which says something about how Popular Morality has changed. It has done a complete 180 degree turn since the days of Sherlock Holmes. The policeman is no longer the honored peace-keeper, but it is the rebel, the lawless vigilante, who obtains adulation.

The Entire Spectrum
Mystery began with Popular Morality in Conan Doyle. Chesterton linked it to absolutes, setting the precedent for Christie and Sayers. In the latter half of the century, Sayers’s conclusion that while “justice is a terrible thing…injustice is worse” was chucked out in favor of something more relevant. We affirmed our faith in a man, and not in an idea. Private vengeance triumphed over public justice. Einstein’s relativity slipped out of its scientific bounds and into metaphysics, where it ripped down the towers of truth. Yesterday’s crime is today’s justice, and as for tomorrow…

Today, mysteries are no longer mysterious, crimes are no longer criminal, and the world refuses to be black and white. Undoubtedly, it is more like the real world, and there’s something to be said for realism. But does realism justify the sacrifice of justice?

That, ultimately, is the deciding factor in the murder mystery, really, in any fiction. Does one love the hero because he is charismatic, or because he wants to do his small bit to corrode the darkness? Does one enjoy the mystery because the culprit is caught, or because he isn’t?

To borrow a phrase from P.D. James, I prefer an absolute, if only a certain justice, to an uncertain, fair-weather Popular Morality.

“Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true…[T]hey feed a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that.”
~Thrones and Dominations, by Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh



Chesterton, G.K. The Defendant: A Defence of Detective Stories. Billing and Sons, Ltd., Printers, Guildford. October, 1901.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Strong Poison. Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, Great Britain. 1930.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Introduction to The Omnibus of Crime. Garden City Publishing, Garden City, NY. 1929.

Dubose, Martha Hailey. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. Thomas Dunne Books, New York, NY. pp. 174, 185-186 & 211

Conan Doyle, A. The Great Boer War.  George N. Morang & Company, Limited. Toronto, Canada. 1900. pp. 28, 40, 185.

Grann, David. The Lost City of Z. The Doubleday Publishing Group, New York, NY. 2009.

Chesterton, G.K. The Innocence of Father Brown: The Blue Cross. Cassell and Company, Ltd. London, Great Britain. 1911.

Chesterton, G.K. Irish Impressions: An Example and a Question. W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., London, Great Britain. 1919. pp.174, 213

James, P.D. A Certain Justice. Ballantine Books, New York, NY. 2007. pp. 363

Sayers, Dorothy L. and Walsh, Jill Paton. Thrones and Dominations. St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY. 1998. pp. 246

Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. The Atlantic Monthly, Boston Massachusetts. December, 1944.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Marginalia 252. Southern Literary Messenger (1849).
Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy: The Ethics of Elfland. 1908.
“They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in the fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.”

Sayers, Dorothy L. Gaudy Night. Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, NY. 1935. pp. 659, 662

No comments:

Post a Comment

WARNING: Blogger sometimes eats comments - copy before you post.