Films to Love: Melancholy and the Detective



a. Sadness, dejection, esp. of a pensive nature; gloominess; pensiveness or introspection; an inclination or tendency to this. Also: † perturbation (obs.).
b. A cause of sadness; an annoyance, anxiety, or vexation. Usually in pl. Now rare (chiefly U.S.). 
c. A mood, state, or episode of sadness, dejection, or introspection. Formerly frequently in pl.
d. Tender, sentimental, or reflective sadness; sadness giving rise to or considered as a subject
    for poetry, sentimental reflection, etc., or as a source of aesthetic pleasure.

Kind of a gloomy word to begin a post with, don’t you think? However, as I’ve been on a murder mystery jag here at Whiskers, I think this word has some pertinence to the topic at hand. 

Murder is melancholy business— at least for the men and woman who are called on time and again to solve these dastardly, unnatural deeds. While there are plentiful detectives to showcase— Sherlock, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Fisher, Jessica Fletcher, Inspector Lynley, D.S. Havers, et. al.— today I’m focusing on tortured souls.

Tortured souls belong to men and women who quest after the ideals of truth and justice, yet encounter the worst malice and injustice in the world. They hope for the illumination that comes with the light, but exist in a world crippled by darkness. They are defenders of justice, embodied in police, private investigators, detectives, and sometimes unrelated professions such as doctors or writers. These men and women shoulder the burden of crime, facing the horrors of premeditated murder, and still hold fast to the belief that there is good in the world and that it is worth fighting for. 

Like Hercule (see post here), their greatest tragedy is their finest asset. They see the imbalance, and because they are purists, it is in that imbalance where they are able to solve crimes. 

Those well-versed in murder seem to be, almost by necessity, of a melancholy nature. Looking at the detectives (P.I.s, sheriffs, psychics, etc.) from the murder mystery film series I enjoy,  I realized that they are usually misfits. Our general understanding of the word misfit is someone who is ill-suited to his/her environment because of anti-social tendencies or behavior. However, the more obscure definition of this word is a garment that does not fit the person for whom it is intended. When I use the term misfit, I am talking about a person whose gifting is to uncover injustice and ferret out the truth, yet, the customary avenues for them to do so don’t fit them quite right. They operate outside of the box, and because they do, they are outcast by their colleagues. 


One prime example of such a detective is D.C. Endeavour Morse from the PBS Masterpiece series Endeavour. This series is the newest on my radar. However, if any of you, dear readers, are familiar with the long running series Inspector Morse, then you’re familiar with the character, only later in his life. This younger incantation follows Morse through the infancy of his police career in the 1960s as he struggles with being excluded by his colleagues because of his Oxford education and epicurean tastes - poetry, opera, and the like— and his desire to truly advance in his career. He’s got intuition and a gut instinct you could bet the farm on. However, his is a lonely existence— even with his superior Inspector Thrusday’s admiration and support. In essence, his is a tortured soul. Perhaps that is why he can so expertly deduce the Machiavellian crimes he investigates. I think it is because he cannot rest until evil is vanquished, and in the world he lives in, that’s an unending quest. Therein is rooted his melancholy. As the Dr. Max Bryn says to Morse in the pilot episode: 

You won’t make much of a detective unless you’re prepared to look death in the eye.

My favorite episode— so far; I’m only one season in— is Fugue, the 2nd episode of the 1st season. The series of murders that transpire in this episode are linked with operas; each death mimics a death from an opera, be it Tosca, Aida, The Snow Maiden, or Lakmé. Being a devotee of opera, Morse is brought on as a specialist for this case as he’s the only one who can sniff out the parallels. I have to applaud the use of datur leaves as a weapon (didn’t Agatha say, poison has a certain appeal…), especially how they were introduced and whose demise they brought about. Brilliant way to tie in Lakmé. Not only is this episode meticulously laid out, the music is superb. If you want an intro to some of the greatest opera arias ever, this is the episode to watch. 

Another 1960s crime drama I highly recommend is George Gently starring Martin Shaw. He’s a detective that exemplifies the melancholic contemplation I believe is intrinsic in such a career. And, I may be mistaken, but I believe he has exquisite taste in music as well. 

jesse stone.jpg

And when it comes to beautiful music and melancholy detectives, I have to highlight Police Chief Jesse Stone of Paradise, MA of the long standing movie series. Jesse Stone’s dolefulness stems from his divorce and is further perpetuated by his drinking problem. Couple those two travesties with the fact that he’s had to make a cross-country move from California to Massachusetts with only his dog, Boomer, as companion, and you have the recipe for the perfect melancholy detective. (Not to mention that his dog has to be put down shortly after arriving in Paradise. Jesse can’t seem to catch a break.) You see, Paradise is Jesse’s last shot at keeping his police career. Intoxication on the job got him fired in California. Now low man on the totem, he’s got to shape-up or ship out. Jesse uses Brahms to quell his desire for Johnny Walker Red Label, and, for the most part, it works. Yet, even with his inner demons, Jesse is extremely intuitive and forthright. His mind will not stop turning over and over clues like a panhandler until it sifts out the nugget of gold necessary to solve the murder. He’s relentless in his pursuit for justice, and the longer the series goes on, the more he realizes that he needs to keep his mind active on things that really matter— like truth and justice— or it will circle around the failure of his life and nudge him off the cliff of despair, which usually ends at the bottom of a bottle. 

With it’s location being a sleepy New England town, this modern day series is quiescent, almost delicate and fragile at times, peopled with characters who are wells of sorrow, tethered together in their understanding of each others’ needs. Combine that with excellent scoring and filming— not to mention a general stillness that subsumes every episode— and you’ll find this one my shelf of favorite murder mystery series. Oh, and did I mention, it stars Tom Selleck and his famously handsome moustache? (see post here).


Another modern day detective you’ll find on heavy rotation in my home is Longmire. Sheriff Walt Longmire is a perfect melding of the straight shooting, no nonsense transparency of John Wayne and the well-read erudition and sophistication of Clint Eastwood. Protector of Absaroka County, Wyoming, Walt comes face to face with murder most foul in the killing of his wife. Yet, the conspiracy to cover up her murder is so insidious, it takes him six seasons to peel back the layers and uncover the noxious truth. Given that, I think it’s pretty obvious where Walt’s melancholy comes from. However, where Endeavour and Jesse’s melancholy continues without succor, Walt faces his demons one by one, and by the conclusion of the series, conquers most of them. Of course, that’s not without the help of his close friends and family— in particular his Cheyenne right hand, his Boswell if you will, Henry Standing Bear. 

For me, it’s not really the music in this series that captivates— although Walt does play a mean jazz piano— it’s the scenery. Watching it, I can almost hear Rosemary Clooney crooning, Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above… That’s Longmire— the poet cowboy who plays a great jazz piano, quotes John Donne, possesses tender sentiment, and has a streak of integrity a mile wide. 

You could say that each of these men is obsessed with justice. It consumes them to the point that even those around them struggle to understand their drive. It makes for a lonely existence for them, at times, too. They may appear tough and hardened by life, but they possess tender souls which yearn for justice to be fulfilled. They want to protect and shield, and when they have to investigate a new murder, they take that loss of life as a point against themselves. It is their overly heightened sense of responsibility. Therein lies the source of their melancholy. Yet, the hope derived from each of their series and their characters is that they never give up. They quest for justice and truth regardless of the consequence to themselves. They are committed to a greatness outside of themselves, and if it is their undoing, so be it. I admire that quiet heroism.

Are there any particular series that you enjoy?