Monday, April 6, 2015

The Morse Code

I've been watching the classic British mystery series Inspector Morse through Hulu. A review of the visual medium is a little out of character for this blog, but never mind. It's fascinating to mark how prevalent the genre of detection is in popular TV and speculate as to what that means for our wider culture, and Morse exemplifies a particular turn in mystery drama and fiction of the eighties which, I've found, influences my own thinking about the genre.

Like P. D. James, whose best work appeared at this time, the writers of Morse returned to the policeman as detective, as opposed to the collection of interesting eccentrics, amateurs and private detectives that flourished after the Golden Age of detection. 

Morse was irascible, morose, a clever puzzle solver, but frequently baffled by human motivation, prone to bad habits in life and relationships. He was often wrong, or relied falsely on intuition, which showed that the rational solver of clockwork mystery puzzles was more often than not a pleasing fiction rather than realistic portrait. By the same token, the conclusion to many of his cases was often ambivalent, showing that murder, morality, guilt and the law did not intersect as often as the consoling certainties of earlier detective fiction would indicate.

After Morse, the preeminent home counties detective became Inspector Barnaby, of Midsomer Murders, which reverted to the chirpier, more predictable structure of the cosy country-house murder. (Morse and Inspector Barnaby would neither have held on to their inspectors rank in real life with the number of murders per case that occurred in drama). And Morse was also followed by the forensic detective, the CSI crime-solver, substituting the myth of the infallible lab technician for the flawed investigator of human frailty.

But Inspector Morse retains its interest because of its richer, darker plots and flawed, fallible protagonist.