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David Bouchier: A Safe Space

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Now that the election is over we can return to more traditional and less stressful forms of entertainment, like murder. When the evenings draw in and the temperature falls with the leaves, there’s nothing as comforting as a good murder. The actual homicide rate in America has been going down for a long time, but in movies and on television it has gone the other way. Movies were always violent, ever since the earliest cowboy epics. Now they are more violent by far. By the age of 18, according to Mr. Google, the average citizen has watched 40,000 murders on the small screen.

Fortunately, some TV producers have discovered ways to make murder more fun, if not for the victim then at least for those who enjoy it at second hand. Most of these good-humored murder stories come from Britain, Australia or Canada, perhaps because the chance of actually being murdered in those countries is very low indeed, so that the event can be watched without anxiety. Such jolly murders are typically set in a reassuringly stylish and civilized past, and in delightfully picturesque places. If you believe these tales, every charming English village is a war zone with a murder once a week. I’m talking about popular and endlessly repeated Public Television series like Midsomer Murders, Father Brown, Poirot, Miss Marple and a dozen others.

What makes them funny, and not grim and gruesome like real violence, is the invariable formula that, as it were, sanitizes the killing, and provides an ending in which the culprit is revealed and justice is served. The formula calls for a detective, professional or amateur, with a comical or incompetent sidekick, a disagreeable police chief, and a medical examiner who, unlike most real medical examiners, is often female and beautiful. There is a love interest, and a plot that almost always involves a vast inheritance, romantic jealousy or some betrayal in the distant past. Nobody seems to have a regular job, so they can devote all their time entirely to constructing ludicrously complicated plots that would baffle Mr. Holmes himself.

Even more comforting than these lighthearted TV mysteries are the classic detective novels on which they are often based. In the golden age of the murder mystery, the 20th century, mostly female authors like Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Patricia Highsmith and P.D. James crafted a formula that never fails. The crime happens in a closed world that is almost cozy, and certainly more understandable than the chaotic world outside. The cast of characters is limited and quite predictable. The fatal blow is regularly found to be struck by a left-handed assassin, the blackmail note is almost always typed on a machine with a distinctive damaged letter “e”, and the detective is always struggling with a hidden weakness or a secret sorrow. The absence of cell phones and computers means that the detective has to work much harder to fathom the mystery, and so does the reader. There is always a surprise at the end, but not enough to give you a heart attack.

The worst that can happen while reading a good detective story is that you can’t put it down and get a stiff neck. Real life rarely provides so much dramatic action with so little risk, or with such satisfying dénouements. A good old-fashioned murder now and then makes life worth living.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.