Tara Hanneffy peeks into the alluring world of crime drama to discuss why we are infatuated with their detectives.
Everybody loves a good detective show. Over the years, from the polished made-for-tv version of Hercule Poirot, to gritty figures of John Luther, the formula has spawned hundreds of variants, each one as popular as the next. The figure of the detective is a key element in the success of procedural crime dramas, but what is it about them that we love so much?
Firstly, it is worth examining why the genre of crime fiction is so attractive to us. Despite some of the harrowing scenes that they contain, the detective formula is a very marketable model. There is a sense of comfort to be gained from such programmes. A central detective character and setting are usually consistent throughout the show, only exposing us to a variable limited selection of characters and suspects to choose from. Many detective shows are procedural, meaning that we are given a detailed insight in the workings of both the police and the criminal, which invariably interests us.
In any decent ‘whodunnit’, nothing much is unknown to the audience, and this lends us a feeling of security and satisfaction when good triumphs over evil at the resolution of the programme, even if we didn’t guess the killer first. However, it is the detective that makes this formula so attractive to us. They are frequently the titular character and the star of the show. As an audience, we love the figure that the detective represents. They are more ‘of the people’ than the police, a sort of portable hero who is able to transgress all restrictions of society, a professional mystery solver who is able to bring about the much desired resolution at the close of the programme. We admire the detective figure because they are inherently more clever than us; we are provided with all the clues but the detective possesses the ability to unravel the mystery before our eyes.
“We admire the detective figure because they are inherently more clever than us; we are provided with all the clues but the detective possesses the ability to unravel the mystery before our eyes”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can be credited with creating the inspiration for some of television’s best loved detectives. Sherlock Holmes was not the first literary detective – Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had also explored this trope before – but Conan Doyle cemented in public imagination the figure of the detective as an eccentric, aloof and brilliant character. From this formula there emerged two key kinds of detectives: what I will term the ‘glossy’ detective and the ‘gritty’ detective.
Glossy detective shows are classic comfort television. The murder is presented to us within a fixed setting, with a fixed cast of characters. The detective is one who solves ‘tidy’ murders – murders committed with poison, or something that doesn’t draw a lot of blood. They are physically unusual, either endearing or glamourous. These are the kinds of detectives whom the suspects trust, and subsequently solve the murder after an epiphany, revealing the killer in somebody’s sitting room. Some of the world’s best loved glossy detectives have come out of Britain, when these types of television shows were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, both creations of Agatha Christie, have become memorable figures in popular culture, thanks to the genius of David Suchet and Joan Hickson respectively. A more recent version of this formula is Death in Paradise, which is set in the Caribbean (though conveniently, most of the suspects are British and everyone speaks English). The comedic detectives and its exotic location makes it pure pleasure viewing. However, Australia has two strong contenders which are worthy of a mention. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a delightful programme set in 1920s Melbourne, complete with crime, stunning costumes and romance as well as a beautiful, and talented female detective at its core. There’s also the slightly more melancholy Dr Blake, who despite his sad past, is a lovable crime solving doctor.
“As an audience, we love the figure that the detective represents. They are more ‘of the people’ than the police, a sort of portable hero who is able to transgress all restrictions of society, a professional mystery solver who is able to bring about the much desired resolution at the close of the programme”
Gritty detective shows are arguably far more popular now. The gritty detective, is one who has a dark history or on-going personal issues. The crime tends to play out alongside their attempt to resolve their problems, which results in a double victory: the crime is solved and good triumphs over evil, but we also see the progression of the character that we are invested in. These shows are set in gloomy, dark places where the potential for crime is strong, either in extremely populated cities or very rural towns. Some contemporary British examples of this model are Shetland, set on a rural Scottish island, and the excellent Hinterland, set in the moody Welsh countryside. There is also the very long-running Silent Witness, which features a team of pathologists who take on the role of the detective and investigate the crime. In France, troubled detective Martin Servaz from The Frozen Dead (Glacé), is an excellent ‘hard-boiled’ detective who attempts to battle his demons while solving crime. Marcella, Luther, The Killing, and Top of the Lake are all among the other shows that feature this fascinating gritty detective figure.
Whether you prefer glossy or gritty, the detective figure is one that you can’t go far wrong with – and it isn’t going away. The ‘golden’ era of detective fiction that saw Marple and Poirot at the height of their fame is long past, but there will be no end to the regurgitation of the detective formula for many years to come. Which is just as well, because how would be indulge our secret passion for crime then?