From Rebus to The Responder, it’s time to bury the defective detective


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During the 1920s, which was considered to be a remarkable time for crime writing, a Catholic theologian and literary critic named Ronald Knox devised a list of guidelines for detective fiction. His aim was to eliminate the overuse of cliché in the genre, which often led to a ridiculous and predictable outcome. Knox made certain recommendations, such as limiting the number of secret rooms to one and completely avoiding the use of twin brothers. Nonetheless, the most notable rule he imposed was straightforward: "The detective should not be the perpetrator of the crime."

Rebus - Figure 1
Photo The Independent

The latest adaptation of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels premiered on the BBC, and within just three minutes, the main character, a detective inspector, is shown beating up a suspect in custody. This scene highlights the blurred line between those who solve crimes and those who commit them, which is a common theme in detective stories despite efforts to avoid cliches. The genre continues to rely on tired tropes, such as the protagonist struggling with personal issues. Perhaps it's time to add a new rule to Ronald Knox's commandments for detective fiction: the detective's personal life must not be completely falling apart.

Police officers have always had personal flaws. Some detectives, like Nero Wolfe, struggled with agoraphobia, while others such as Hercule Poirot were vain. Sherlock Holmes battled with drug addiction. In television shows, these imperfections are even more emphasized. Rust in "True Detective" was an alcoholic, and Martin Rohde from "The Bridge" was known for being unfaithful. Fitz in "Cracker" had a tendency to engage in all types of wrongdoing. Even Ted Hastings, who is typically seen as a friendly detective on "Line of Duty," went bankrupt and ended up living in a Travelodge. This theme of imperfect detectives is so common that it has its name: the defective detective.

The explanation for this is uncomplicated author's reasoning. The detective is the person in charge who must possess a bit of brilliance or practicality that helps in maintaining a fair judicial system. However, to prevent it from seeming overly predictable and like a superhero, they must also exhibit a few weaknesses that make them approachable and often ruins the swift resolution of the case. Imagine if Gregory House had not been addicted to Vicodin, how well would he have assessed his unusual patients. He might have been a better doctor, but he would have been a less captivating character just like his inspiration, Sherlock Holmes.

In the past, detective shows were more focused on solving crimes in peaceful settings like libraries or Victorian London streets. But now, police procedurals often highlight real-world issues such as drug addiction, knife crime, and human trafficking. Instead of being referred to as "murder mysteries", these shows are now called "crime dramas" because they portray a messed-up world and the detectives often have their own personal issues to deal with. It can sometimes be overwhelming to witness so many problems in one show.

Patricia Highsmith, who is considered one of the best crime writers of the latter part of the 20th century, wrote a book on writing thrillers. In it, she stated that even if a character is 100% vile and repulsive, they can still be fascinating. However, most TV detectives these days are far from fascinating. Shows like The Responder, Bloodlands, Strike, True Detective, Unforgotten, Marcella, and Rebus all feature detectives who are unhappy, corrupt, alcoholic, socially inept and violent. These characters often resort to screaming, shouting, punching and kicking, with the occasional emotional moment with a female character, usually a therapist or ex-wife. Unfortunately, they lack the redeeming quality of charm.

It's time to reconsider whether crime drama heroes have to be depressingly fragile, especially with Inspector Rebus returning to our screens after a long break. Happy Valley was a hit because it blended Hitchcock-style suspense with Yorkshire humor. The lead character, Catherine, dealt with trauma and PTSD, but it never got in the way of making the show entertaining. On the other hand, watching Martin Freeman's character mope around Liverpool in The Responder makes me wish for a bit of the Calder Valley's charm to make its way over to Liverpool.

Rankin, known for his famous Rebus novels that set the tone for "Tartan Noir," a category of gritty Scottish crime fiction, was instrumental in transforming the expectations that come with crime novels featuring detectives. Nevertheless, as the new Rebus play begins with the lines “Truth be told,” sung in a mournful voice, “I’m not the man that I once was,” it seems clear that troubled detectives have become a cliché instead of a refreshing take on a tired genre. Initially, Tartan Noir was intended to challenge the hokey portrayal of detectives in Golden Age fiction, like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey. Unfortunately, it has now turned into a monotonous and unrealistic portrayal of crime and police work.

Maybe it's time to put an end to the subpar investigator, whether they're in a shallow resting place, buried under your mother-in-law's patio, or at the bottom of a body of water.

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