I was trying to explain a TV program to a couple of friends of mine. It goes like this:
“So there are two dudes… one’s clever with machines, one’s clever at hitting things. Every week they’re told that someone is going to do something – maybe kill, maybe be killed – whatever – and they have to work out why and how and, if possible, prevent it. Without using commas. Colons are acceptable: colons are terse. And while doing this they have to deal with the fact that mysterious Them are hunting them, one because he’s clever with machines, the other because he’s a Rogue Agent with Those Kind Of Capital Letters. And they’ve both got… a Past. Oh yeah.”
There was a bit of a pause, on concluding this. Then a friend piped up, “If he’s a rogue agent, how does he deal with utilities bills? Only, whenever I move house – and I’ve moved a lot – I’ve had to list all my previous addresses, and bring along utilities bills and that, but if you’re a Rogue Agent On The Run then how are you going to deal with things like the water company and getting registered with a GP?”
Another silence. This was not a question anyone had really expected.
Then a solution was offered: “Perhaps, instead of knowing someone mysterious in a basement who makes fake passports, he knows someone who makes fake Thames Water claims? Besides, they’re American, right? They don’t have GPs to be registered with.”
At this, the room relaxed. One of the great narrative problems of our time: solved.
I love detective dramas, but I must admit, look a little too closely and even the most thoroughly conceived dramas fall apart. In this day and age, detectives have to be… quirky. Or if they’re not quirky, they have to have alcohol problems. Or be traumatised from an operation that went wrong. Or have a dark and guilty secret. Or be sleeping with someone who has a dark and guilty secret. It is unacceptable – absolutely unacceptable – for any modern detectives to enjoy knitting and have a stable home life. Even something as bland as CSI – where the detectives tend to manifest about as much character as a catheter – insists on having highly trained scientists, skilled in such arts as blood analysis and fibre testing, go charging into dangerous situations with a gun in their hand and shockingly unreliable backup. A golden rule of criminal drama – if someone says ‘maybe we should wait for backup?’ then seriously, honest to god, you should wait for backup.
And now we, the viewing public, can pretty much list the cliched detective types without having to draw breath. Eccentric geniuses seem to be in fashion. (Did anyone else notice the copyright to the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle go public? I’m sure you did…) Your eccentric genius is both a challenge and a godsend to the tired crime-writer. A challenge because writing genius, in a way which makes it clear that this is genius, would seem to require, by definition, a bit of genius of your own. A godsend because, where life is bogged down by evidentary procedure, waiting for lab results and testing a smeer of blood, your eccentric genius can walk into a room and go, ‘ahha! I see the cat has not drunk it’s milk tonight and the left boot by the door has been worn by a man with six toes! I therefore conclude that the answer is inside the handcart – next!’ – and thus a lot of time is saved. If that’s not your cup of tea, then the computer genius is a modern narrative stalwart, famed for his/her ability to go, ‘I’m just gonna hack this hard drive… okay I’m in… and what do you know, he’s left his bank statements in a file marked ‘bank statements’ and has an email folder entitled ‘secret plans for world domination’! How handy!’
Then there’s the hard men of crime. Wounded by their pasts, sickened by the violence they see around them, they shuffle through life in dark clothes and broody expressions, waiting to be tempted only to turn, at the final moment, and do the right thing. Because they’re good men in a dirty world. Because even though it’ll cost them, the law is all that matters, and they’ve got the weight of a dead wife/daughter/comrade/favourite aunt still bearing down on them from their dark and dangerous pasts. The curious thing being, with such detectives, that somehow, on every single case they work, they seem to personally know the main suspect or the victim. And it hurts. But they carry on.
And finally, let us give honourable mention to Strong Female Detectives. These tough (yet frail) ladies of crime have worked their way up to the top through grit and backbone. They don’t take no nothing from no one; they’re mean, they’re kind, they’re intelligent; they’re gonna bring you down no matter how big and how tough you are. And if you’re lucky, they’ll be wearing a sexless wooly jumper and have a neat haircut while doing it…
Of course, where would the broody detective be without the plucky sidekick? The voice of conscience that brings them back to earth in a moment of rage. The helpful hacker who can find the one document that proves a brilliant hunch is correct. The solid support who stands by the genius’ side and keeps their madness tame. And of course, the reliable victim waiting to be taken hostage by a demented killer (for all killers who take main narrative characters hostage, tend to be demented…) … just in time for a stunning showdown in which souls are bared, truths revealed and dark mysteries unravelled on the end of the gun.
All of which – as we know – bears about as much resemblance to modern policing as flamingos to pigeons. But that’s not the point. Because bureaucracy, inefficiency, hard slog and the ever-grey question of what right really means – really actually means in real actual life – is something we can get at home. Whereas tales of black and white, of adventure, mystery and truth triumphant, are as ancient a part of human culture as Cain and Abel, and regardless of the form of it, the story at the heart still pulls us in.