True Detective and detective fictions

<em>True Detective</em> and detective fictions
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Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) in HBO’s True Detective, which premiered in the UK on Saturday. Photograph courtesy of HBO.

Why is film, TV and literature so obsessed with deduction? True Detective, which premiered on Saturday, might be the answer. Storytelling has a necessary but difficult relationship with the deductive process: all narrative is deduction, but there’s no way of describing it. Film can’t cope with deduction, but it is in love with deductive geniuses. Increasingly, over the last few years, it has found new ways of isolating those geniuses – developmental or mental health difficulties, implicit or explicit, usually – so that their deductions can be isolated, too. Sherlock Holmes in both recent adaptations, Hannibal‘s Will Graham, Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison: their genius is their madness, and vice versa.

True Detective makes it difficult not to make those comparisons; for one, both it and Hannibal begin with scenes of warped and stunning nature-channelling murder, deer’s antlers placed onto murdered girl’s bodies. It’s probably not a coincidence – both Hannibal and True Detective  are interested in poking around the edges of the human potential to make others suffer, and to explain that suffering. (Both are interested in doing so in especially aestheticised, almost beautiful, ways – which definitely works, but might not be comfortable.)

TV likes to think that these people would be good fun to hang around with, and it works: see the endless fawning Hannibal Tumblrs, the Sherlock slash fiction. But, of course, they wouldn’t be. It’s fun to be a nihilist; it’s not fun to hang out with one. “I consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms I’m a pessimist,” says McConaughey’s character, at one point.

Hart: “What’s that mean?”
Cohle: “It means I’m bad at parties.”
Hart: “You ain’t good outside of parties either.”

Ordinarily, it’d be McConaughey’s teenage, dull wit that would have won out, and the final line wouldn’t have happened. (This has been reblogged on Tumblr thousands of times – but often without that final line.) But True Detective is careful – so far – not to let that cynical, aloof genius be, truly, any of those things. Cohle doesn’t get the only claim on the real, or realism, because Hart is just as clever. Cynicism might be sexy, but it’s also boring.

This gif – found on and edited for Tumblr – removes the most interesting part of this conversation. After Cohle’s Jim Morrison-level reply, the focus switches to Hart as he turns back and shoots down the nonsense with one look. Again, the interesting bit has been taken out for Tumblr. Which, if one were being cruel, is precisely what one would expect to happen: the programme is interested in taking down precisely the kind of pseudo-philosophical ego-massage that Tumblr is so great at. This Tumblr is funny enough, yes, but it actually misses the point in that it’s entirely possible that the characters would actually have the conversations depicted – and they would probably be a lot more fun. (The startling and beautiful opening titles also have more than a bit of Tumblr-aesthetic to them, this time in a good way.)

These kinds of putdowns recur throughout the show. After Cohle has surveyed the first programme’s dead body, he reels forth a series of deductions, of the kind of staggering speed and magic that the TV detective genius is so heralded for. (We’re not given any visual representation of this, like Will Graham’s empathy-mode pendulum, or Sherlock’s HUD-like visualisations: which leaves the process alien to the viewer, since film can’t actually show that process in itself.) But Hart is more experienced, and advises him of the kind of warping that goes on if one puts together a narrative from that kind of minimal and deficient evidence; everything else will fit together to tell the story you want it to. It’s a worthwhile rebuke to the audience, and to those other programmes, too: it’s only, really, by luck that the other TV geniuses get everything right, and if they didn’t it would go very wrong.

Thomas Jones praised Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection in the LRB in part because the book is so interested in getting things wrong:

One of the dissatisfying things about a lot of classic crime fiction is that when it comes to the anagnorisis, we really only have the detective’s – and the author’s – word for who, how and whydunnit. In many cases it would take only a few tweaks here and there to turn any of the red herrings into the solution, and for Sherlock Holmes’s or Hercule Poirot’s ingenious but ultimately arbitrary explanation to be exposed as just another false trail. One of the many pleasing things about Jedediah Berry’s first novel is that the plot hinges on a famous detective’s most celebrated cases having been solved incorrectly.

Even if it’s only as a salve to the tedium of everyone getting everything right, there’s something attractive in the detective that gets things wrong. Getting things right gets very boring and actually makes no sense without it. (“The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery,” was the first of SS Van Dine’s Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories for the American Magazine; equally, the detective should have at least something like the same opportunity for not doing.)

And True Detective is far more interested in being wrong than its predecessors. Somehow, all of the troubles that afflict the other geniuses – Will Graham’s multitude of afflictions being the most clear – they are somehow bound up in their greatness; they are suffering for their genius. None of the characters’ sorrow is glorious – they may be great in other ways, but their suffering has the banality of real anguish. True Detective has the kind of beautiful rural noir of Hannibal, but there is more life and toughness in it. (“This place is like someone’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading,” says Cohle at one point.)

They are repeatedly forced into the kind of quotidian situations that show up the impossibility of being brilliantly troubled, all the time. At one point, McConaughey’s character is talked into going to Woody Harrelson’s for dinner. He – apparently an alcoholic – turns up drunk, and carrying flowers despite having been instructed to bring a bottle of wine (and refusing to do so to avoid drinking). The scene is pitiable – Harrelson mocks him in the interview cutaways that run throughout the programme: “It was as if he read somewhere that you should take flowers.”

McConaughey’s character may be a brilliant man, but he’s a failed one too. And what distinguishes him from those other geniuses/failures is that True Detective posits no connection between the two. Indeed, True Detective seems quite keen on making clear that all of its characters are failures, in some way and to some degree; that Hart may also be brilliant is irrelevant (and unconfirmed, anyway). The film cuts repeatedly away from the action of 1995 to the present day; Hart is not in a good way (and neither, it seems, is Cohle). Greatness may lead to suffering, suffering may lead to greatness – but neither really matters to the other. More importantly, suffering – in life and in True Detective – ravages people; it does not make them beautiful geniuses.

Andrew Griffin

About Andrew Griffin

Andrew Griffin is a UK-based writer, interested in books, music, film, tech, politics, and so on. He graduated from Cambridge in 2012 and has had work printed in the Mirror and the Independent.

Andrew Griffin is a UK-based writer, interested in books, music, film, tech, politics, and so on. He graduated from Cambridge in 2012 and has had work printed in the Mirror and the Independent.

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