Murder Most Bleak

I love British murder mysteries. As long as someone dies a gruesome death and the suspects use words like “posh” and “peckish,” I’m hooked. Ever since the day Netflix added to their library of macabre mysteries, I’ve been slipping away during the rinse cycle to watch 10-year-old episodes of a British detective series called Midsomer Murders.

Midsomer Murders is one of those shows that has been around forever, and while it’s never been a huge hit, it has maintained a loyal following (which I guess makes it the British equivalent of 7th Heaven). It follows the adventures of Police Detective Tom Barnaby as he solves murders in the idyllic, but fictional, English county of Midsomer. Like Cabot Cove in Murder, She Wrote, Midsomer is white-washed, picturesque, and quaint, but it also has a disproportionately high murder rate.

Watching all this murder and mayhem undiluted by having to wait a week between episodes has allowed the show’s worldview to really get inside my head and make itself comfortable. What I have found is a world that looks very much like Beatrix Potter’s England, but is permeated by an omnipresent hopelessness. Ironically, though, it also shares a view of sin that consistently demonstrates the consequences of making horrendously bad choices.

In Midsomer, everyone from the local beauty queen to the retiring vicar is having sex. And if they’re not, they’re complaining about the lack of it. For someone used to American TV, the sight of middle-aged people with love handles and bad teeth rolling around under the covers is a little weird, but I think that’s the point. Not only is the lasciviousness unpleasant to watch, but it is often what drives a person to kill. The usual sexual motivations for murder are all present — adultery, jealousy, betrayal — but occasionally someone also kills to keep an illicit love affair secret or to express their displeasure when they find out that the man they thought was their father turned out to be their uncle… or brother… or even sister. In Midsomer, sex is ubiquitous, but it’s also very, very dangerous.

In Midsomer, bygones are never bygones. Midsomer’s residents have lived their entire lives in isolated, close-knit communities. The local landowner and the local dustman often grew up together. They also often share a secret trauma from their youth (many of which, of course, involve sex). When Inspector Barnaby is at a standstill because there seems to be no motive for a murder, he invariably finds a faded photograph that links the victims. Then he hears a tragic story that explains everything. In one episode a women methodically kills off the local church bell ringers because her ancestor was killed by bell ringers 140 years ago! In Midsomer, the past is neither forgotten nor forgiven.

While the motive for murder in Midsomer is usually sex or some long-past trauma, the process of investigating a violent crime also invariably uncovers those “little” sins that are less dramatic, but somehow more disturbing. For example, the town gossip who enjoys watching people suffer; the local doctor who sees nothing wrong with trading prescription drugs for affection; the matron whose self-worth is based on the tidiness of her hedgerows. The townsfolk of Midsomer are so corrupt that even hobbies like gardening and photography can bring out the desire to bash the competition over the head with a blunt instrument. When Barnaby’s wife wants to move out of the city and into one of the local hamlets, the inspector is shocked. “Every time I go into some Midsomer village it’s always the same thing,” he protests. “Blackmail, sexual deviancy, suicide, and murder. How could you possibly expect me to go live in one of them!”

While Midsomer Murders probably isn’t any more violent than, for example, Law and Order: SVU, its worldview is bleaker. Almost every episode features the ubiquitous local vicarage, but there is little indication that anyone, including the vicar, has any belief in a transcendent God. On the rare occasion that an evangelical Christian shows up, he or she is invariably portrayed as an intolerant fanatic with a secret sexual fetish — or just plain crazy. And since faith is portrayed only as a crutch for the weak-minded or a weapon of psychological manipulation, any kind of real redemption is impossible. In the end, there is nothing else but what this life offers and the best a person can do is try to be pleasant, tidy, and kind — and not toss their neighbor into a well. God cannot redeem or forgive because God does not exist. Life in Midsomer is hopeless.

But while Midsomer Murders‘ view of life is unrelentingly bleak, it is also undergirded by an intuitive morality. Regardless of how depraved the local inhabitants are, Inspector Barnaby’s entire worldview is predicated on the assumption that life is better than death, order is better than chaos, and avoiding deviant secrets is the best way to preserve one’s sanity. The pathetic lives of Midsomer’s residents are a graphic illustration that living a life of surreptitious sin is its own punishment—a kind of life sentence in a white-washed prison that is rotting from the inside.

In his excellent book Televised Morality: The Case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gregory Stevenson asserts that there is a big difference between a television show’s portrayal of sin and its perspective on that sin. A TV series, film, or book can portray multiple sinful acts (and end up at the top of some conservative group’s “Don’t Watch” list) but it can also have a perspective that consistently communicates the negative consequences of those actions. It is possible for a family comedy to never utter a single profanity, yet insidiously promote materialism and selfishness, while a much more graphic crime drama can consistently demonstrate the idea that sin has consequences.

It is this perspective on morality that I find fascinating. It is the fact that even in a place like Midsomer — a place that denies transcendent truth and graphically portrays human depravity — some things are still true. Sex, unrestrained by decency and morality, can kill. The past can come back to haunt you. And sin is the natural trajectory of the human soul. These life lessons are the consequences of living in a fallen world. But while the culture-at-large can try to marginalize faith as a refuge for the weak-minded, there will always be some tiny piece of the imago dei that longs for justice and virtue. Even in Midsomer.

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