Watching the detectives

Aug 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Cross Channel

“Is that detective on tonight?”

“Inspector Gently? No.  He was on two weeks ago; it was Inspector Lynley last week.  Tonight there’s no detective”.

“Inspector Gently was good”.

Indeed, he was.  One of those BBC period dramas where no expense is spared to create a complete sense of its setting.  It was pure 1960s, right down to incidental details that were not even necessary to the plot.  But would it have been the same without Martin Shaw?  Sometimes television detectives become so associated with particular actors that when someone else takes on the role it never seems quite right.  Joan Hickson made so much  her own the role of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple that Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie might have been playing a different character.

The most recent episode George Gently was not so much a detective story as an exploration of issues in 1960s English social history; themes of nuclear deterrence, single motherhood and being gay in a society where it was still illegal, ran through a programme that revolved around the mandatory murder.  Martin Shaw played the inspector whose duties as a policeman were not allowed to encroach upon his belief in individual liberty.  It would have been hard to imagine such a detective back in the days of Z Cars, Softly, Softly and Dixon of Dock Green, police series made in the period in which George Gently first appeared in novel form.

Had 1960s police forces had Martin Shaw-like detective inspectors, British social history may have unfolded in very different ways; it would be hard to imagine policing creating tensions in communities with a force comprised of George Gentlys.  Perhaps the best detective stories are vehicles for something else; perhaps there is a sub-plot in trying to discern the author’s real purpose.

Morse was even less policeman-like than Gently.  Morse became so identified with John Thaw that it would have been unthinkable that anyone might have assumed the role following Thaw’s untimely death.  Apart from the alarming thought that there might be murders amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford, Morse was often marked by moments of high culture. Knowing nothing of the music that was of the essence of Morse’s character, I would watch the episodes with the television subtitles switched on so as to know what music was being played or to which piece of opera Morse was listening.  There is a sublime moment from Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ to which I would never have listened had it not appeared in an episode of ITV’s favourite detective.

It is strange to confront issues and culture in such an oblique fashion, but that is perhaps the point we have reached. Perhaps there is work for a detective in discovering how we have come to be where we are, how Gently and Morse came to be characters who did the sort of thinking we might once have done for ourselves.


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  1. To save money and promote a ‘crime as opportunity’ paradigm changing agenda, 27 years ago the British Home Office deliberately cooked up a junk science myth to facilitate arguments against calls for more police officers. This led to the gradual withdrawal of officers from our streets. The myth is still being used today. I attach a link to a British Government e-petition that contains a link to the myth busting article by Dr Mike Sutton and calls for a funded evaluation of traditional random assignment, non-directed foot patrol:

  2. Champions of crime fiction claim that crime/detective novels are in the vanguard of examining how we live and what lies beneath the veneer of society – and in many cases, I think they’re right.
    (I’m also keen on the food eaten by Italian detectives – especially in Sicily.)

  3. Italian detectives? There is no-one to match Zen!

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