Murder, She Blogged: Reality Calling

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?

by Jess Mccabe
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2 Comments Have Been Posted


I definitely agree, though I think Law and Order: SVU sometimes touched on the complications and limitations of the justice system. Now it's been a while since I've watched it (mainly because I'm pretty sure at one point I had seen every rerun USA had to offer) but a couple of episodes stick in my mind. One, with Carol Burnett and Matthew Lillard, in which an older woman has manipulated a younger man to kill her husbands. By the end of the episode, the black widow-esque woman works with police to ensnare and arrest the younger man; the episode leaves you feeling depressed and without justice. While the physical killer has been arrested, and therefore technically justice "has been served," the mastermind is getting away.
Also, there's at least one episode (and maybe more) where a rape victim becomes a criminal (by killing, assaulting, stalking her rapist) when the justice system has passed her over. This episode (episodes?) definitely shines a light on all the limitations in actually convicting a rapist, even when the police KNOW he did it, and how there can be many shades of gray when it comes to who is a "criminal." Maybe it's because this particular offshoot of L&O deals with such grim material (rape, lack of justice, sexual crimes), but this show often left me feeling depressed about the justice system in America. But I loved the show, and would probably still watch it if I had cable. It just goes to show that portraying the realities of the justice system is not mutually exclusive with entertainment that viewers will come back and watch. More shows should follow that lead.

Criminal Intent

One I didn't watch, but wasn't Law and Order: Criminal Intent showing the crime from both the perpetrator's and the detectives' points of view? These might be outside the realm of what you are talking about since they don't really focus on the detectives/police, but what about shows set inside prisons and focusing on the incarcerated, like Oz or Prison Break?

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