For whatever reason, there are few people who can do a murder mystery like the British. (Yes, yes, everyone knows Edgar Allen Poe invented the mystery story. The British do them better.) They’ve produced smashing successes in print and TV, and I would presume in film and over radio waves. In fact, the quintessential reasoning detective is Sherlock Holmes, a British detective created by a British author. And let’s not get started on Dame Agatha. Given my love of mysteries and Great Britain’s outstanding presence in the field and it’s no surprise that many of my favorite detectives are British. I’ve already mentioned Peter Grant. Today’s specimen is a little more ordinary than PC Grant, though.
Detective Inspector (DI) Robert Lewis, former Sergeant to DI Endeavor Morse. Like many police detectives, and unlike many private detectives who tend to move around, the kinds of mayhem and death that make up a large part of DI Lewis’ day to day are defined by the place he lives. For Lewis, that means Oxford.
To us American rubes, Oxford is synonymous with higher education and the University of Oxford. There’s more to the city than that – for starters Oxford University is not the only institution of higher learning in town – but when Robbie Lewis gets called out you can be almost certain some kind of brainy, professorial type involved, if only so they can drive him nuts. It also serves the dual purpose of driving home one of the prime messages of the series: Education does not make you a better person. It just means you know things.
People in Oxford can do a lot of damage to themselves and others with the things they know.
The worst part is most of these brainy types are equipped with large amounts of esoteric knowledge and a passion for advertising it, even (especially) when committing murder. So, when it comes time to interview yet another suspect who knows too much about not enough, DI Lewis drags out his own Sergeant, DS James Hathaway, who attended university in that other place (Cambridge) and is more than willing to digest all the scholastic details of the case into something his boss can handle. His career path, from scholar pursuing a career in the clergy to Sergeant who gets little respect from the same kinds of academics who once praised his work, is a stark contrast to Lewis’ long career and clear satisfaction with his job.
In addition to being an excellent foil to Lewis, Hathaway serves to ask the philosophical questions. Does finding and punishing murderers really make anything better? Is it worthwhile? And when then pieces are all in place and the investigation is complete, who picks up the pieces of the lives that have been ruined?
While mystery series are about finding who’s done it, you won’t want to tune in week after week, or pick up title after title from the library or book store, unless you love the people who are solving them. Alone, Lewis’ brusque manner and direct approach to problems could make him a little too abrasive to be truly likable. Alone, Hathaway’s intellectualism and philosophizing could make him a little to cold or wishy-washy to assure us of his commitment. Together, they make a perfect team.
As for the mysteries themselves, Lewis is a police procedural, not to be confused with a detective story. While both of those categories will probably have their day in the Genrely Speaking segment, for now suffice it to say that the emphasis is on watching Lewis and Hathaway tromp around gathering miscellaneous testimony, expert opinion and trace evidence than overly convoluted murder scenarios or brilliant leaps of logic. Rarely will our heroes put all the pieces together before we do. In fact, the scripts are usually designed to have viewer and detective arrive at the solution at once. The entertainment is less about the puzzle and more about the fun in watching it solved.
And since the puzzles are put together by people from Oxford, you’ll even gain a greater appreciation for culture thrown in! Unless you’re like Inspector Lewis, in which case you can just shake your head and wonder how anyone managed to build Western Civilization when they had scholars like this around. It’s a mystery in and of itself, isn’t it?
Of course, we already know the answer to that. After all, where would we be without men like Lewis?