They all think any minute I’m going to commit suicide. What a joke. The truth of course is the exact opposite: suicide is the only thing that keeps me alive. Whenever everything else fails, all I have to do is consider suicide and in two seconds I’m as cheerful as a nitwit. But if I could not kill myself–ah then, I would. I can do without nembutal or murder mysteries but not without suicide. – Walker Percy, The Moviegoer


The detective narrative has evolved drastically since Doyle’s unflinching genius, Sherlock Holmes, and his uncanny ability to solve the most baffling crimes with little to no existential scars from case to case. Crime, in Holmes’ world, could always be tamed by the righteous human mind; evil was just another cog in a rationally mapped out schematic. Case closed.

However, recent TV shows have challenged this conception of the cold, rational detective who remains existentially unaffected by the cases with which they come in contact. The first season of True Detective gave blunt vocalization to the language of the new detective show, echoing Nietzsche: “…if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” One cannot simply confront evil and come away unscathed. Holmes’ cases were easily solved because the cases were created by an author who believed all things could be rationally explained, even evil. There is an overwhelming amount of testimony to the contrary in the world of literature, film, and TV since Doyle.

I first recognized this new understanding of crime in the opening dialogue of 2008’s No Country For Old Men in which Tommy Lee Jones waxes philosophical about the nature of human evil:

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘O.K., I’ll be part of this world.’

This sums up the new detectives: people who push their chips forward and meet something they don’t understand. They are people who look defiantly into the abyss, even though it may change them into the monsters they are fighting. And, oftentimes, it’s that struggle that makes these detectives suffer the deep wounds of depression and anger.

Luther_is_back_on_the_hunt_in_the_first_trailer_for_series_fourThree exemplars of this archetype include John Luther, Kurt Wallander and John River, all detectives in BBC shows with their surnames as titles.

The camera makes known the internal, broiling rage and potential moral turpitude of John Luther from the very first moment of dialogue in the first episode of BBC’s Luther. As I have written about in previous articles, Luther is someone better suited to be a priest perhaps than a ‘copper.’ His presence forces the people around him to double down on the side of the moral line for which they vie even though every fiber of his being wants to release the bloodlust just beneath the surface. As Alice (perhaps his most loyal friend) puts it, his conscience has killed more people than she has–since she is a killer herself. He’s a good man who aims to enact justice and yet what he reaps is often the loss of those he loves.

Kurt Wallander, a solemn Swedish detective, finds himself on the other side of the depression spectrum. After each episode (which are often film-length), Wallander’s countenance becomes more pale and emotionless, his eyes glassy. The only times he smiles are when he’s in the presence of his daughter. With nine episodes to date, one gets the feeling that after so many interactions with evil his story will end at the bottom of several bottles of liquor or an emptied gun. It feels like each case may be the one that breaks him finally and that he won’t be able to return from the existential depression he so deeply feels.

wall depressed

And then there is John River who is literally haunted by the dead–whether it be by the victims harassing him to find their killers, or the darker side of his subconscious as represented by the 1800s Lambeth Poisoner, Thomas Neill Cream, who tempts him to give himself over to the worst of his human nature, or the one case he hasn’t been able to solve, the death of his partner, Stevie. Everyone around him finds him staring into space or talking to the air around him. The show is brilliantly ambiguous in characterizing him as either on the verge of psychotic breakdown or just so emotionally broken that he turns inward to cope.

Even though each of these detectives is unique in how they showcase their depression, they are all personally affected by the measure of evil they face. The abyss has gazed back. Sherlock Holmes had an on/off switch and could compartmentalize with little to no bleeding-over. Cold rationality was the name of his game. The modern detective, however, may still answer the “how” at the end of each episode, but it’s the question of “why” that pushes them into the deep end where they will forever be on the verge of drowning. The “why” is the thing that can’t be solved–the enduring, torturous question mark at the end of every “solved” case.

The more I re-watch these shows–which is an anomaly because I seldom re-watch shows–the more I find the true cost of justice, the true cost of those who “put [their] soul at hazard.” These characters’ reactions to the brokenness, evil, and chaos of the world makes a lot of sense to me as someone who, too, falls into periods of depression, frustration, and anger at the state of the world and the evil in it.

Another part of me thinks that their depression doesn’t just stem from the outward sight, but the inward eye. I think Luther, Wallander and River see the hairline fracture that separates them from those they are tracking down. They marvel with horror at the abyss secreted from the fatal wounds of their hearts. On some level, they look those criminals in the eyes and see nothing but a reflection of themselves.

1118full-river-screenshotI think that is the element of the new detective that feels hopeful, that feels fresh and relatable. They seek to understand their enemies by learning to understand themselves which is itself the most dangerous endeavor. It’s a type of death. To know thyself is to know the things that must be put to death, the things that connect us to those we hate, those who we consider our enemies. When we see those severe intersections of humanity, compassion flows forth freely. However, as Luther, Wallander and River have come to understand in their own ways, sometimes that means going to the dark places and trusting that there is someone outside of us who can bring us back from the ledge.

The cold rationality of Holmes only answers the how. It’s the why that agitates the souls of the new detective and leads them through the darkness of depression and anger to an understanding of grace and mercy towards those that least deserve it. The new detective answers in the affirmation of the new liturgy, saying O.K., I’ll be part of this world.