For avid detective film fans, 2022 was a godsend. From Matt Reeve’s neo-noir iteration of Batman to the return of Daniel Craig in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the year saw entries into the genre offer nuanced critiques on gender, privilege and more. Other cinematic offerings included See How They Run and Death on the Nile, while this spring sees the long-awaited return of Idris Elba as the hardboiled copper John Luther in Luther: The Fallen Sun. Ranging from camp and comedic to sardonic and gothic, the detective story has never been so versatile, and if the influx of Benoit Blanc compilations currently flooding TikTok is any indication, the genre might just be more popular than ever before too.
This sudden detective renaissance is perhaps surprising, as the past few years have seen police abolitionist discourse has reached an all-time high. The death of George Floyd in May 2020 ignited vital conversations across the internet about police brutality and the rife issue of systemic racism among officers. Although Black activists have spent decades fighting the structural racism embedded in the American policing system, Floyd’s death brought unprecedented attention to the topic like never before. This isn’t just an issue limited to the US – police brutality and racial profiling are problems in Britain as well.
Less than a year after Floyd’s death, in March 2021, the murder of Sarah Everard committed by an off-duty London Metropolitan police officer turned many cop-sceptics into full-blown ACAB proponents. It was advised that those who were now concerned about the legitimacy of plainclothes officers should wave ‘a bus down’, woefully overlooking the fact that Everard’s rapist and murderer presented himself as an officer in order to kidnap her, and was already widely known ‘the rapist’ at work. My own trust in the police has wavered after seeing too many victims let down by the very people who are supposed to protect us. While many officers sign up with the intention of serving the public, it’s hard not to feel disillusioned when countless others stand by corruption, either unwilling or legally unable to do anything about it. How is it, then, that the detective genre has garnered such widespread popularity, including with those who normally hold staunchly police-critical views?
I first asked myself this while watching the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (2018). A profoundly dark mystery, the miniseries follows journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) returning to her Missouri hometown to cover the death of two local girls. Camille quickly forms a romance with Chris Messina’s Detective Richard Willis, who offers her intel on the case as she divulges the secrets of the town and its inhabitants to him. Camille reveals she was gang-raped by a teenager – something suggested to be the norm in a place like Wind Gap where archaic ideas about gender and sex are espoused as tradition. Yet, for a story that so acutely portrays the kinds of sexual violence young women experience, the culmination of Flynn’s mystery fails to embolden any sort of critical ideas on policing or the systemic failure to comprehensively investigate rape.
Like Sharp Objects, my love of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is unwavering but requires an element of cognitive dissonance to properly enjoy. Craig’s performance as Blanc is charming, but surpassing his playful Southern drawl are his ineffably timely monologues. A testament to the political polarity of the Trump era, Knives Out uses conversations about race, radicalism, migrants, and class to construct a well-crafted mystery where justice is served not only through catching the killer but also by watching the downfall of the uber-wealthy. The police are not the heroes here, as it’s ultimately Blanc the private investigator who solves Harlan Thrombey’s murder, while Lakeith Stanfield’s Detective Lieutenant Elliot and Noah Segan’s Trooper Wagner primarily serve as comic relief in their minimal screen time. But for all of Knives Out’s commentary on hardline Republican policies on immigration, the role that the police play in upholding them doesn’t merit a mention.
Many detective stories, such as the aforementioned, forgo reflecting on the state of the police force altogether. Perhaps there isn’t space within a film’s two-hour run time to do the topic justice, or the grim reality of policing is too morbid a note for a whodunnit caper to carry. Meanwhile, the topic of police corruption is at the very centre of The Batman and the BBC’s hugely popular police procedural Line of Duty, but like many recent entries into the detective genre, both narratives offer an unsatisfactory message of #NotAllCops.
In Jeffrey Wright’s gruff portrayal of Commissioner Jim Gordon we see a character who is emphatically ‘good’, despite the rife moral debasement of his fellow officers. As Christina Newland suggests, The Batman ‘never does go far enough to suggest – as in many of the truly great film noirs it borrows from – that the entire institutional edifice of cops and politicians might be beyond redemption.’
While discussing the ethics of crime films with friends and acquaintances, there was a mutual agreement that the enjoyment we get from watching them requires a sort of suspension of belief. But I’ve realised that it’s never the hero cop or the rookie police officer that draws me to the detective genre; it’s the promise of a compelling mystery and satisfying resolution. While these stories are largely intertwined with the institution of the police, it’s not a necessity for an enjoyable detective story.
It’s here that the future of the detective genre lies. The unpredictable quality of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story has seen many viewers lose interest in the anthology series over the course of its 11-year tenure, but many fans (myself included) were pleasantly surprised by the latest season, which focuses on a series of murders of gay men in the 1980s. The series’ subversive mystery is solved in spite of the cops, most of whom are homophobes symptomatic of attitudes towards New York’s LGBTQ+ community in the early ‘80s. Unlike earlier series of American Horror Story, the horror element of the show is grounded in reality, found in the apathy of police and the violence against queer folk.
Although Glass Onion’s conclusion is far less fulfilling than Knives Out, it avoids the pitfalls of the first film as no police are involved in solving the mystery. After the ruthless Miles (Edward Norton) burns the napkin linking him to Andi’s murder (Janelle Monáe), her twin Helen (also Monáe) is left defeated when Blanc tells her that he must answer to ‘the police, the courts, the system’. With this, Helen knows that if her sister’s death was left up to the law, then she will likely never find the justice that she longs for. In an act of vengeance, Helen destroys Miles’ house and all that’s in it – including the Mona Lisa. While Glass Onion fails to deliver legal justice for its’ heroine, it’s certainly gratifying watching a billionaire see his home, fortune, business, and reputation set aflame.
With mysteries like AHS: NYC and Knives Out offering refreshing takes on the whodunnit, I’m holding out hope that the future of the detective story is bright. While the enduring popularity of police-affiliated detectives like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes will probably live on, new characters such as Benoit Blanc promise a much-needed revival of the genre for the abolitionist epoch.
Published 6 Jan 2023