Someone is threatening the great cops of fiction, and it’s not the usual subjects.
I enjoy mystery novels a lot. They always have a solution and they always restore order. Which is very unrealistic and very reassuring.
But it’s becoming harder and harder to find a traditional mystery. In a weird parody of “the personal is political,” the formerly impersonal realms of murder mysteries and crime serials have become a mirror of our changing society. A world that was once as remote and artificial as a Greek myth has become deeply, weirdly personal.
Case in point: You can’t open a book these days without finding a hero attacked, betrayed or manipulated by, through, or sometimes even at the behest of, his nearest and dearest. Family is no longer benign; it’s often the source of the novels’ violent plots. Which might seem like a purely literary matter, except that it seems to mirror certain tensions in the real world.
Until recently, all the great detectives were loners — think Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer or Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey — and that gave them a profound strength. Bad guys couldn’t get to them through their significant others because they didn’t have any. On the rare occasions when detectives had families, they were so traditional as to be inviolable.
In an earlier era, the detective walked the slimy streets, but he didn’t get involved. He may have shagged a few babes along the way, but he was never personally implicated in the mystery. Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret turned a wry eye on human greed and venality, but most days he went home for lunch with his wife, and the office seldom followed him.
There are still a few comfy-cozy mysteries out there. Midsomer Murders on TVOntario first aired several seasons ago as a savage satire on English village life but has quickly turned into a reverent re-enactment. Suspects have the most bizarre love lives imaginable, but the hero of the series, the wryly accepting Inspector Barnaby, is a man of the old school — happily and dutifully married. And that, of course, is what gives him his appeal. He’s so rooted you know he can never be swayed. No matter how fast the world falls apart, he’ll put it back together again.
But over the past few decades, the mystery has changed. Detectives have acquired lovers and wives and intense personal vulnerabilities.
Indeed, it seems that popular anxieties about the unravelling of the family have come at last to the world of crime fiction.
In Peter Robinson’s long-running Inspector Banks series, the affable hero loses his home to arson, his brother to crime and any number of relationships to the pressures of his job.
In one particularly gruesome installment of the gripping Tom Thorne series, by Mark Billingham, the good inspector (who just happens to have a gay best friend) is betrayed by — spoiler alert here — his own girlfriend. If memory serves, they’re actually in bed when it happens, which makes the hero all the more vulnerable.
This trend reaches its apogee in TV series like 24 where the heroes’ friends and families are constantly used against them. In a recent episode of MI-5, terrorists captured and threatened to execute the chief spy’s wife.
But the most obvious victim of the new vulnerability is 24’s Jack Bauer. Basically a campy killing-machine with issues, Jack must save the world and cuddle his family. In one particularly fatuous scene a couple of years back, Jack had to reassure his dim-witted daughter while battling bad guys in a parking lot. Scrambling under cars to avoid bullets, he alternated between shooting his gun and telling his daughter (via cell phone) that he loved her. And on the scene went – bang, bang then kiss, kiss. It was the weirdest mix of Oprah and action hero I’ve ever seen.
But that’s the new family reality – loving, confused, conflicted and threatened – and if you want to understand why, for example, a lot of people resist gay marriage, you could do worse than look at stories like 24.
A half century of massive social change — day care, divorce, working women, gay marriage — has left a lot of people feeling uneasy about the future of the family, and their anxieties are reflected in the “family-under-siege” theme so prevalent in the modern mystery.
It’s no accident that many of the stories noted above feature gay characters — witnesses and victims — all sympathetically portrayed. Much as we like to pretend that gay marriage affects no one but gays, it redefines the whole institution.
If even gays — long the very emblem of the atomized, alienated individual — can be admitted to the fold, what next? In a world of easy sexuality and even easier separation, what holds the family together?
You never saw Lord Peter Wimsey worrying about his domestic life. He didn’t have to. No matter how messy the murder at hand, his faithful butler looked after things. But today’s families don’t have that kind of support. And that’s pretty threatening for a lot of people. So threatening that the metaphors sometimes get violent.