Murder by Brit
January 20, 2014
I have stated before that I have never really been a fan of mysteries. Recently, I began exploring a little more of this genre, and I have found a couple of good books. I just finished my first Agatha Christie novel and enjoyed it quite a bit. I was also delighted with the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. While this is still not my favorite genre, I do plan on continuing to sample some more books of this type. One thing that has not changed, however, is my dislike for crime solving programs on television. Unless the crime is being investigated by someone with a British accent.
One of the staples of American television is the crime procedural. From Law and Order to Hawaii Five-0, shows that revolve around a detective or police officer trying to solve a mystery have been around since the advent of television. And I have never liked any of them, unless there was some other aspect of the show that was not just about solving the crime. For example, I adored Medium, which was technically a crime drama. However, I watched it more for the family interaction and the clever and interesting way in which psychic Alison sorted out her visions. Without that supernatural element, I would probably have not been a fan of this show either. So, imagine my surprise when I first started to sample some of the crime shows coming out of Britain and found that I actually liked them.
The question is, what is it that the British are doing differently? Is it the pace of the program? A lot of my favorite series have taken at least an hour and a half to unfold each mystery. Or maybe it is the fact that the stories put a lot more focus on those being investigated. I have noticed that with American crime dramas, the mystery is often not who did it. It is about why, and how to prove it. The person who is guilty is usually obvious right from the beginning, and the police must find a way to bring the criminal to justice. British mysteries usually create a scenario where you are not sure who the perpetrator is until the very last moment. The fun is sorting out all the disparate characters you are watching and trying to figure out who really had the motive and opportunity. It is also great to be able to go back and see the clues that you may have missed once the perpetrator has been revealed.
Then there are the ones investigating the crimes. The “tortured and vengeful detective” is the current favorite type of TV sleuth. This has become so common that every time I hear about a new crime series coming to television, I immediately wonder which person from the lead detective’s past was brutally murdered. In fact, nearly all investigators onscreen today are either troubled or quirky or social misfits. Watching television (British or American), you would think that only weird and haunted people take up the occupation of crime solving. Yet the British still pull this off much better than America. And they even will sometimes show detectives that are not this way at all, which brings me to my all-time favorite crime series: Midsomer Murders.
Why do I love this show so much? Midsomer Murders takes place among the many villages of the Midsomer region in England. This is, without question, the deadliest place in the world to live. Honestly, there are so many murders that the population will probably never be back to pre-1997 levels (that was the year that the show debuted). And the murders are of an infinite variety and creativity. One of my favorites was impalement by shattered wine bottles, which had been shot at the victim with a sling. But lead Detective Barnaby is the real reason why I adore this series.
Tom Barnaby is what most other television detectives are not. He is normal. Absolutely, 100% normal. He is happily married to Joyce and has a lovely and living daughter named Cully. He lives in a normal house. He doesn’t drink too much. He has no tortured past. He is just your average, middle-aged officer who has been on the job so long that he is good at it for no other reason than experience. Barnaby’s mundane and average life outside of the job is one that is almost completely absent from the current world of TV detectives. And it is this average existence that makes the show work.
Why? Because Barnaby’s normalcy contrasts sharply with the murderers and serious nutcases he deals with every day. And that is refreshing because it means the focus can stay on the case at hand and the victims involved, not the investigator. Not having to spend a lot of time dealing with the lead detective’s demons means that the mysteries themselves can be much more intricate. This is one show that will really keep you guessing right until the end. Sometimes I guess right and sometimes I don’t, and that is the fun of it. And that is why when I discovered Midsomer Murders, I could finally say that I loved a crime solving television show.
Unfortunately, Tom Barnaby has now retired (even his retirement was just your average man moving on in his life), but the show continues with his just as normal cousin, John Barnaby. And you can still catch the years of the first Barnaby’s cases on DVD. So if you are someone who is tired of tortured detectives and criminals that are so transparent, you simply have to wait for them to make their inevitable mistake and be caught, check out Midsomer Murders. And also try some of the other great British crime dramas. Even the ones with the troubled detectives are great.
And remember Holmes fans, Sherlock returns this month.