Watching the (Flawed) Detectives

Some viewers like their television detectives to be close to infallible: Perhaps a dashing Sherlock Holmes, in all his variants, or a fastidious Hercule Poiroit who can stride into a room and suss out the killer by using only a few cigarette butts and a train timetable. I’ll admit that there is a definite fascination in watching a well-oiled intellect spring into action and I’ve enjoyed series with a super sleuth at the center, but in the end I find these characters a bit off-putting. Maybe I’m intimidated by their ability to figure things out so much better than me (admittedly not a major accomplishment). Ultimately, though, I think it is their ‘small details are everything’ attitude to fictional crime detection that tends to irk me. This approach suggests a world that is well-ordered and rational. Evidence points to the contrary I’m afraid.

Instead, I tend to prefer a television detective who views the world with a more jaundiced eye. In the world they inhabit, solutions are hard to find and justice can be elusive. Also a world-weary attitude and a tortured past are a plus. Luckily, there are plenty of shows with characters that share these attributes. Here are a few television series I’ve come across that just might be of interest if you also have a weakness for flawed detectives.

broadchurchDetective Inspector Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant) has plenty of issues. Reassigned to the small town of Broadchurch, after a high-profile botched investigation for which he was blamed, he not only takes the job promised to Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (played by Olivia Colman) but is also dealing with an illness that he has to keep hidden in order to maintain his position. Things go from bad to worse when a boy’s corpse is found on the beach and he has to find the killer in this tight-knit, and closed mouthed, community. This entire series revolves around the one investigation, which allows for a lot of complex character development of not just the inspector but all of those involved.

veraSet in the gorgeous, yet a tad desolate, North East of England this series centers around DCI Vera Stanhope (played by Brenda Blethyn). While Vera is in comfortable middle age, you would be making a grave mistake to consider her the motherly type. With a fondness for living alone, alcohol, and self-destructive behavior, she could most kindly be called a curmudgeon. She is a master at using others’ false perceptions of her age and status when it comes to interrogations however. Another nice twist in this series is having her second in command be a youthful family man, Joe Ashworth (played by David Leon), who tries to offer up some opposing viewpoints. Good luck with that.

wallanderThere are several television adaptations that feature this famous Swedish detective, but in the BBC production Kenneth Branagh plays the role in a subdued and humane way. Each episode would not be out of place in an Ingmar Bergman film, with the silences and landscape shots adding to the sense of existential ennui. While Wallander does try to rise above it all, most of the time it feels like an exercise in seeing how much emotional damage a character can take and still remain standing. If you are up for it, it is great stuff. The relationship he has with his father, played by David Warner, a painter who is slowly succumbing to dementia is particularly strong.

JustifiedDue to some rather unorthodox ideas concerning the proper use of lethal force, U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant) finds himself transferred from Miami to rural Eastern Kentucky where he was raised. While Raylan at first resembles a classic American lawman, his character and those around him become more complex with the show evolving into a character study of the people in hardscrabble Harlan County, with story arcs lasting a season or more. Raylan himself has plenty of skeletons in his closet including his relationships with his estranged father, his  former ‘friend’ Boyd Crowder, and his ex-wife among many others. The writing is a standout as well with rapid fire banter and a fun sense of false civility.

So if you don’t mind your fictional crimes investigated by detectives that are a bit dysfunctional, definitely check out a series or two. Just don’t expect the perpetrator to be Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick.



Recently I’ve noticed that television detectives’ detection skills have been replaced by technology. Between cell phones, email, tracking devices and the multitude of cameras that cover every nook and cranny of the earth, it’s nearly impossible for a modern TV criminal to operate in anonymity. This is a strange and drastic change from Dragnet days when phone dialing, ledger collation, footwork and thinking were involved in any arrest.

The YardThe Yard by Alex Grecian
What fascinates me is that, before modern techniques and technologies were created, police could catch criminals at all! In the novel The Yard author Alex Grecian portrays a squalid, horrifying London of 1890 where five-year-old children work dangerous jobs, living conditions for many are abysmal, and human life is held in little regard. Scotland Yard’s murder squad consists of 12 detectives who have roughly 400 murders per year to crack, and after the unsolved Jack the Ripper killings of 1888 public opinion of the police force’s skills is extremely low. Then the unthinkable occurs. A member of the murder squad, one of the men attempting to keep London safe, is brutally slaughtered. The team’s newest member is put in charge of the investigation, but there seems no hope in unearthing the crime’s perpetrator. Even after the Ripper murders, the idea of killing for pleasure is foreign to the detectives and they don’t know where to begin to find this new type of killer. But with the aid of Dr. Kingsley, the Yard’s first forensic pathologist (and somewhat of a Sherlockian figure) the squad makes slow progress, although the murders do continue. This is crime solving at its most basic – follow paltry clues, cogitate, and find a killer.


These 1890’s were a time when it was relatively simple to be a successful murderer. Police had few tools-of-the-trade and criminals were able to easily disappear in obscurity. Here are a few titles that examine various aspects of the infancy of crime fighting.

Devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
While examining the amazing feats that went into constructing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Erik Larson also describes the activities of H.H. Holmes, a Chicago serial killer who used the draw of the World’s Fair to murder somewhere between 27 and 200 people in relative anonymity. In fact, it wasn’t until he left Chicago, continuing to commit homicides and other crimes, that Holmes was finally arrested in Boston a year later. His Chicago killings, however, remained unknown until the custodian of Holmes’s Chicago murder castle (you’ll have to read the book for those details) tipped off the police and Holmes’s murder victims were found. This true story shows how easy it was to operate as an invisible killer in the days before advanced technologies.

Great Pearl HeistThe Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace by Molly Caldwell Crosby
This non-fiction account of an early 20th-century jewel heist details both the plans of the thieves and the methods used by Scotland Yard to catch them. In addition to being an engaging read, Crosby’s book highlights the importance of this case to the future of British crime fighting.

Poisoner's handbookThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
This entertaining book looks at the careers of New York’s first medical examiner and toxicologist. Surprisingly, these positions didn’t even exist until after World War I. Blum makes a potentially dull topic intriguing and understandable.

police corruption

As police forces moved into the 20th-century, corruption came to be accepted as a normal facet of law enforcement.

Breaking blueBreaking Blue by Timothy Egan
In 1935, during the dust bowl years, a spate of dairy robberies in the Spokane area resulted in the shooting death of Marshal George Conniff. Decades later, Sheriff Tony Bamonte of Pend Oreille County tried to shed light on the robberies and Conniff’s death. Author Timothy Egan paints a vivid picture of Spokane’s dirty underbelly and the role that law enforcement played in these crimes.

LA ConfidentialL.A. Confidential
This Oscar-winning movie portrays a shady LA police force that is rife with injustice and brutality. At a time when Hollywood was king, justice was elusive (put that on your movie poster!) and criminals often dwelt on both sides of the law.

victorian police

Certainly TV policing has little in common with reality, but then again, reality is far more interesting. So set aside your new-fangled DVDs and give an old-timey police investigatory book a try. At the very least, you’ll gain an appreciation for the accomplishments that were made with minimal means in less-than-hospitable conditions.

It’s a mystery! Wait, it’s a whole herd of mysteries!

It’s a mystery why I’ve been in the mood to read mysteries lately. Here are some of the titles that stand above the rest of the herd.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley  

This mystery, penned in 1929, employs a classic premise: members of an amateur sleuthing club attempt to solve a murder mystery. Ah, but there is a twist that sets this story apart. The club meets every day for a week with a single member presenting his or her solution to the murder case each day. After exhibiting wholly convincing evidence and unassailable deductions, each solution is then demolished by other club members who have information unknown to the presenter. In reality, Mr. Berkeley is giving the reader a tutorial in the art of misdirection, demonstrating how mystery writers lead their audiences to believe certain assertions and ignore salient points by employing a fine coating of verbal sleight-of-hand. He presents us with a wholly enjoyable story which is ultimately a primer in mystery writing.

The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith

Set mostly in the Chinatown of 1893 San Francisco, this mystery finds brothers Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer, former cowboys but current private eye wannabes, in the midst of murder and mayhem. Between the police, thugs, Chinese tongs and a hard spot, the detective duo struggles to find a friend’s murderer, save a young woman from a seedy and immoral life, and stay alive. Hockensmith’s prose – this series of books is narrated by brother Otto in his inimitable speech patterns – and evocation of late 19th century San Francisco make for a fun and thoughtful read.

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

Who knew that the progenitor of Winnie the Pooh had a great mystery, in addition to a plucky Piglet, in his fertile mind? In the charming foreword to this book, Milne expounds on the elements that make up a good mystery. Then he writes that mystery. The reader is transported to a typically English setting where Mark Ablett, master of the Red House, an elegant country manor, has disappeared and is presumed to be either murdered or a murderer. A passing stranger arrives just as gun shots ring out from inside the manor. The stranger, who has come to visit a friend staying at the Red House, decides to put his exceptional observational powers to the ultimate test of finding a murderer, with a little help from his Watsonian friend.

 The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

In a world where nursery rhymes are real events, Inspector Jack Spratt of the Reading Police Nursery Crime Division is called upon to solve the apparent murder of Humpty Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III. Spratt faces the difficulties of being overshadowed by golden-boy detective Friedland Chymes (who writes exquisite tales that exhibit his unparalleled crime-solving abilities), of working in an under-funded soon-to-be-shutdown department, and of having a new partner (Mary Mary) who is none too happy to be working with him.  Amongst the difficulties, sinister goings-on, and spine-curling plot twists, Pratt must overcome adversity and catch his … man?

 American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood by Howard Blum

This true story relates a tragic tale of terrorism on American soil: the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, which resulted in 21 deaths. Detective William J. Burns, America’s non-fictitious answer to Sherlock Holmes, is called in to unearth the truth. By employing a series of fascinating sleuthing techniques Burns slowly unravels threads of truth that bring him ever-closer to the mystery’s solution. Clarence Darrow and D.W. Griffith, two larger-than-life historical giants, contribute significantly to the story’s outcome.

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, a police division that investigates bizarre crimes no one else wants to touch, is run by two elderly and brilliant detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May. In Full Dark House, the author creates an intriguing juxtaposition between the end of this odd couple’s partnership and the beginning of their career together. As May looks into Bryant’s death it becomes clear that their first case, solved some fifty years earlier, is somehow related to the current investigation. A Gothic phantom-of-the-opera-esque mood prevails as May attempts to make sense out of a senseless situation.


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