Since this series is about detective narratives in pop culture, this post was originally going to be about CSI. But at time of writing (Tuesday afternoon) everyone in our office in London came home early because of fears of another night of riots and looting, and so it’s just too hard right now to set aside real-life relations between the police and the people to talk about fiction. Likewise, I don’t want to risk framing what’s going on in reality in terms of detective fiction.
The incident which sparked things off was the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police, and the latest reports suggest Duggan probably never fired at the police. But, as many commentators have said, the looting and destruction which has followed in the wake of Duggan’s death seems largely unconnected; an opportunistic mayhem after realizing the police can’t be everywhere at once.
Everyone here is asking the question “why?”. Commentators are talking about the break down of the social contract, inequality, and a lack of hope and options has fed the flames. People have brought up the influence of consumerism, and young people feeling incarcarated in their own lives. And meanwhile, we’ve seen plenty of knee-jerk support for more extreme policing methods, which has allowed the government to authorize the use of water cannons, and also rubber bullets for the first time on the British mainland.
Dehumanizing language is being thrown around here there and everywhere to describe the people in the streets, and from seeing some of the videos, you can see why they’re angry. But there have also been brilliant moments inspiring hope, like volunteers turning up in hundreds to clear up the mess left by looters and shopkeepers banding together.
What can talking about Columbo or whatever do for us at a time like this? Only, as I’ve already said, that detective and police shows are mostly set in a fictional world where crime is about good guys and bad guys, with little to no grey area. Most of the time, criminals are portrayed as inherently bad; if the wider “causes of crime” come up, it’s in the form of short morality lessons, wrapped up at the end of the episode. That’s maybe reassuring to viewers, but ultimately disappointing if the job of our cultural products is to look deeper.
There are the rare shows the venture further, really I’m mostly talking about The Wire here, and given that there are reams of blog posts and books already penned about the questions that show raised about the criminal justice system and the institutional underpinning of society, I’m not going to try and retread the same ground. (You could arguably include Treme by the same creative team, although it’s not so clearly within the detective/police remit of this series). But these are incredibly complex issues and the standard-format weekly routine of most TV shows is just not able to cut it in exploring them.
The format drifts towards exceptional crimes, by exceptional criminals, because riots aside “everyday” grinding violence and poverty are just not good subjects to wrap up in a witty half-hour or 45 minute bundle.
Most of the time, for much of the audience, the limited scope of shows about “justice” is okay. But events like we’ve seen the last few days in London shake everyone’s faith in “law and order,” even those that usually benefit from the system most clearly. What is the point of detective fiction or the police procedural? Are the creators and writers of these shows letting us down by not addressing these issues more often, so that we’d have more than the rare shining example to talk about?