“I don’t get why you keep watching this. Don’t you know that every episode is the same?” I could hear the frustration in my dad’s voice. I was watching Lewis and had arrived at the moment where poor sergeant Hathaway was once again victim of mockery for the fact that he – the utter pleb – had studied at Cambridge, not at Oxford where the series take place.
“We don’t even get to see people being killed,” he shrugged. He walked out of the living room probably heading to another free TV in the house. He then turned around one more time and added “Elitist nonsense.”
I have always had a thing for detectives. As I child, I had once been accidentally exposed to the Dutch 90s crime classic Baantjer in which I was traumatised by some stabbed guy and an overwhelming load of mullets and denim. I remember it well; I was at my grandparents’ playing a card game when I got distracted by a cute and furry cat on TV. Suddenly the music took on an ominous tune while the cat lured the women into the other room of the house. Though I must have been around eight years old, I had seen enough of the world to know that this dumb woman was on the verge of going down some unknown and dangerous rabbit hole. But I couldn’t stop myself from watching, taunted by the eeriness of the obscure. After having stepped over the threshold, the woman’s eyes caught something on the floor that made her scream hysterically. The camera dramatically zoomed in to a man lying on his back with his eyes and mouth wide open as if the knife in his fat chest had smothered his last scream. The body haunted me for weeks causing nightmares in which I was chased by a woman wearing an oversized blazer and a scrunchie. I vowed to never watch crime series again.
That all changed when I was about 12 years old and entered the new world of CSI: Miami. To me, its bright filters, ridiculously handsome actors, and impressively clever forensics, moved death and temporal disorder away from anguish towards entertainment. I was immediately hooked, still too young to be affected by the cliché plots and Horatio’s awful sunglass moments (She came here to catch the sun. But it looks like something … caught her. YEEAAAHH!!). But after some years having seen Miami’s worst criminals and Horatio’s most atrocious dead body jokes, my mother, being a dedicated detective reader herself, started to share her passion for British detectives with me. It was love at first sight. I immediately dumped CSI: Miami like it was a cheap mistress and entered a new life with Midsomer Murders, Morse, Lewis, and many, many more. It was a lonely passion, mainly shared by retired people, schoolteachers, and people who had nothing better to do than to watch Inspector Barnaby and D.S. Jones questioning suspects in the most unprovocative and polite British way, drinking tea and driving around the picturesque countryside for 1,5 hours, while, to quote Kourtney Kardashian, there’s people that are dying.
Yet, there are only a few things I can appreciate like the grace of storytelling in detectives. It doesn’t bother me at all that detectives like Lewis and Midsomer Murders hardly ever depart from their basic structure. In fact, I always find great pleasure in the familiarity of the plot and set of archetypical characters. Like my personal favourite, the White Van Man. Following the equally named British working class stereotype, the White Van Man is a character who serves as a plot device to give the detective some basic information about a suspect or victim. Crucially, while being interviewed by the detectives, he never stops doing what he was doing when the detectives came in. That is, no matter how disturbing the crime – rape, murder, cannibalism – the WVM always feels like he’s got something better to do than being questioned by homicide detectives like loading boxes into his white van, answering their questions with most bizarre nonchalance. “James Moriarty? Yeah, he used to work here. Then one day I found out that he had locked Brenda from administration in the file cabinet so I sacked him. Anything else? ‘cos I’ve got to go deliver these boxes.” Sir, there’s people that are dying.
For my dad, the detective enthusiasm became unbearable after I had followed a university course called Introduction to Literary Criticism. There I learned that detectives weren’t just about crimes, but that they themselves also hid the most complex ideological messages which could only be detected by the sharpest eye. Fuelled by this new energy of being a metafictional detective, I searched crime series for hidden ideological formations, hegemonic forces, and other fishy practices. Wednesday evenings became utter torture for my dad whom I had baptised as the Watson to the most ostentatious Holmesian monologues. CCTV surveillance was followed by a talk on the Foucaultian Panopticon, the Chief Police Officer was a Kafkaesque bureaucratic Nazi, and drug-fuelled police officers chasing a suspect by car were a breakdown of institutional hegemony and a postmodern celebration of capitalism. The pretentiousness knew no limits.
“That’s the genius of it, really. There is so much more to detectives than just crime solving.” I was watching The Fall (2013) in which Jamie Dornan, before his Fifty Shades of Grey escapade, roamed around Belfast raping and murdering young women. He was chased by Gillian Anderson who occasionally took a break from ending this fifty shades of fucked up crime to murmur profound feminist criticism on patriarchal misogyny, while staring into the distance as if she was the oracle of Delphi. It was the best thing I had ever seen. Trying to make my dad understand the brilliance of it all, I mused that by going after Jamie Dornan, DCI Stella Gibson wasn’t just catching a criminal. It went far deeper than that. From a position that was predominantly male and where she was often reduced to a cold, but promiscuous bachelorette, she was also dismantling the very patriarchy from which these kinds of misogynist behaviour originated. My dad responded with a sound I could only identify as if he was trying to get rid of some tenacious phlegm that was stuck inside this throat. It didn’t matter. I knew I was onto something, and like Stella Gibson, DCI Barnaby, or Sergeant Hathaway, I would always stand my ground and never be deterred by scruples. That is elementary, my dear Watson.