The short version is:
They’re more reasonable.
It is a question of two cultures. All the way down the line.
As is my habit, I will first reveal my prejudices. When it comes to preferred television viewing, “Number One”, for me, is the English murder mystery. On a recent Wednesday at nine, I was prepared to watch, as television viewing selections were once called, the “Least Objectionable Program”, which in this case was Modern Family, a series I enjoyed when it started, but found its quality and invention heading progressively southward.
I was ready to watch it anyway, because my alternative options were reading and bed. Then, I was informed that PBS was about to air a new episode of an English police drama entitled DCI (I believe that’s for Detective Chief Inspector) Banks.
It was no contest. I had gotten a reprieve. It was goodbye, three contemporary families fussing over trivialities, hello, England, and its meaty murder mysteries!
This programming preference is not new for me. In the past, there were favorites like Frost and Morse and Inspector Poirot. There is currently here – though broadcast earlier in England – New Tricks. Three retired detectives are brought back to apply their savvy and insider connections to unsolved “cold cases.”
A more layered affair is Foyle’s War, a small-town – Hastings – detective during World War II, whose policing efforts are seriously impeded, because, as he is continually told by the military “higher-ups”:
“That’s all well and good. But your murderer is the top German message decoder in the country.”
Foyle: “But he decapitated four people!”
Military Higher-Up: “Yes, that is unfortunate. Still, his message-decoding aptitude could save thousands!”
Ah, moral ambiguity. My favorite form of entertainment. I do not for the life of me know why porn outsells it.
The most recent arrival from that sceptered isle of breathtaking mansions and impeccable front lawns is the aforementioned DCI Banks, whose lead character seems constantly annoyed, and whose sidekick played the schoolteacher “love interest” in Doc Martin, itself not a murder mystery, but of inimitably English derivation, and a personal family favorite.
A recent episode on DCI Banks, referred to as “just another day at the office”, involved “an accountant with his head shot off.” (I know it’s disgusting but, for some reason, that incongruous descriptive left me endlessly entertained.)
It is not, however, the grisliness of the homicides that attracts me to these shows –American homicides are at least equally as grisly – it is the eminently sensible way in which the situations are handled, most particularly by the perpetrators themselves.
As I stated earlier, it’s a question of two cultures. Right from the start, British murders make reasonable sense. Rather than being random and arbitrary, English murderers murder only who they intend to murder. (And perhaps an accidental witness, or some poor sap who happens to bumble in to their shenanigans.) There’s a thoughtfulness to their mayhem. Their choice of victim is responsibly considered.
Also – though I do not want to get into “gun control” here – English TV killers’ “weapons of choice” are reassuringly unthreatening to the general populace. How often have you heard of a homicidal maniac wreaking multi-murderous havoc with an antique candlestick?
Let us look further at the contrast. American murderers lie. (Okay, English murderers lie too; but they do it with a generally charming inflection. And they almost never insult – or accuse – their interrogators. They lie politely.)
Feeling the hot breath of their pursuers, American murderers run. (Or drive away really fast. Or if they are sufficiently wealthy, climb into a helicopter.)
Once cornered, rather than surrendering, “never say die” American murderers cling to the remotest chances of freedom, grabbing a hostage, whom they threaten with a gun, or, more dramatically, a conveniently placed knife. Lacking weaponry, they will simply employ them as a shield. (Children are particularly felicitous in this regard – for the “Sympathy Factor” – though they do protect less of the murderer’s body.)
English murderers are above all that nonsense. Apprised of the mountain of evidence against them, British murderers immediately throw in the towel. Usually, gallantly:
English Murderer: “It appears then that the jig is up.”
Often adding, “It was only a matter of time, I suppose”, or something equally philosophical, their most aggressive response, a sarcastic jab at the substandard police work:
“Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t get here earlier.”7
Working Class murderers behave the same way, only in Cockney.
In short, English murderers, both high born and low, are gentlemen. Or gentle women, though the proportions as relates to gender skew substantially manward. English women, if involved at all, participate as secondary abettors, helping dispose of the body, or offering covering alibis.
“I luv ‘im, dun I. Wo' else cud oy do?”
Even with the most gruesome ones, there’s a comforting humanity to English murders, at least the “made up” ones. In contrast to, say, Law and Order SVU, English murder mysteries do not make you terrified to leave the house. English murderers kill whom they intend to kill, and allow the rest of us to go happily about our business.
Such are the type of murders I prefer.
And on television.
Note: The assumption is that the content of the programming is reflective of the culture providing it. If this is not, in fact, the case, I shall continue watching British murder mysteries.
But it won’t be the same.