L. Neil Smith Reviews “Midsomer Murders”

By L. Neil Smith <mailtolneil
Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Note: I rejoice at Neil’s recovery from what I feared was a terminal illness. That he is up and about again, and writing, shows what the human spirit can do – supported by the wonders of modern medicine. Now to Neil’s question. I enjoy denouncing our police as Pigs in Blue, and my occasional reading of the newspapers always manages to take in some act of grossness by them. On the other hand, my dealings with the Kent Constabulary have been disappointingly polite. The only time I have had a police officer in my house was when a neighbour’s window was smashed in the night. The officer accepted a cup of tea and took notes while I gave what evidence I could. My last dealing with a policeman was when he caught me at 3am doing 90mph on the M2. He explained the effects of a crash at that speed and sent me on my way. Outside the big cities, large areas of this country are still recognisably England, and I am glad that Neil has forced this to my attention. SIG

TWO YEARS AGO, last June 28th, 2014, I think my sanity may have been saved by a British television series, Midsomer Murders. Unbelievably, I had suffered a stroke. My left leg and left arm were paralyzed, and I had difficulty speaking clearly. I was in a local hospital, trapped inside a body that had betrayed me, and it was extremely hard sometimes to get to sleep.

The television series was and is ongoing. Happily, I had and still have a little LG tablet, on which I meant to read Kindle books. But it’s also “connected” to my family’s Netflix account, and although the phrase “binge-watch” hadn’t been coined yet, that’s exactly what I did with the English detective series, propping the tablet up on my bedside tray, and letting it run all night. Some of the hospital staff thought that I was very strange. Others understood perfectly. Having the murmur of the little science-fictiony TV to get me through the endless night was extremely comforting, somehow.

The series is about Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, accompanied by various sidekicks over the years — starting with an eager but bumbling newbie, working with numerous others until he finds a competent and capable young Welsh constable to back him up — going about their business much like Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner, Frank Smith back in the 1950s, investigating crimes, chiefly murders, in the fictional county (in Britain, counties are like states) of Midsomer, a mostly rural area, dotted with dozens of small towns. It is written consistently with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s observation that the countryside is full of hideous crimes because potential villains have privacy enough to do their evil there without being observed and stopped. Ironically, that’s much the way I feel about big cities.

You may find the series too densely English at first. I don’t know. My ex-wife attended high school and college there, and I learned a lot about the culture in the six years I was marred to her.

What attracted me to Midsomer Murders in the first place, was the situation. When I wrote The Probability Broach, starting in 1977, the detective/hero was a balding, badly aging fundamentally good man whose life was close to failing. His wife had been in the process of divorcing him when she was killed in a highway accident and he could never figure out if he was widowed or divorced, A lot of detective-novel cops fit this mold. Endeavour Morse is a lonely alcoholic. Robbie Lewis is also widowed and took his wife’s death especially hard. Nero Wolfe is a 58-year old acrophobic recluse from the hills of Montenegro. Archie Goodwin is what was once called a “ladies’ man”, still single at 35.

Midsomer Murders’ hero, Tom Barnaby, is the exception, in vigorous middle age, happily married to an attractive lady (Joyce Barnaby, played by Jane Wymark) for 25 years, with a charming and pretty daughter, Cully, an aspiring actress played by Laura Howard). He has a respectable record for solving cases, often by sideways thinking, and a succession of bright assistants.

The series is low-key enough to fall asleep to. but interesting enough to retain attention. We get to see a good bit of English country life circa 1990 or so. In time (about the 14 or 15th season, Tom retires and is replaced by his cousin John (Neil Dudgeon), formerly of Brighton, who brings along a rather unpleasant psychiatrist-wife (Fiona Dolman). Unfortunately, the series is never quite the same again, but it’s complex enough to watch the earlier episodes over and over and keep noticing new things

The prettiest episode occurs in Wales, the birthplace of Detective Inspector Ben Jones, Barnaby’s last and best assistant. The views of rugged scenery, seen from a helicopter Barnaby commandeers, are spectacular. There are also a lot of idyllic rivers and lakes in the entire series, and an endless supply of beer.

English cops are not tough-guys — or they may be the toughest guys there are. They get their jobs done without guns (although there is often an armed squad they can call on) and leave the handcuffing to somebody else . Equipped only with a cell-phone, they investigate mostly by interviewing people and accepting the tea they’re inevitably offered by the gallon — or litre. A lot of truth apparently gets told over a “cuppa”; it’s fun to imagine rough-and-ready New York detective Danny Reagan from Blue Bloods (another series I’m enamored of) politely balancing a cup and saucer on his knees.

The series is truthful enough to show the possibly lethal drawbacks to being unarmed.

What has retained my interest in Midsomer Murders is the nearly fanatical regard the characters show in remaining ethical and trying to weigh the individual rights of everyone they encounter against the need to find and remove dangerous perpetrators from their society. It’s the topic of many conversations, and it hangs in the background like a stage curtain. I suppose someone like our English friend Dr. Sean Gabb could tell us if it’s for real or not. I do know the image of Canadian cops being unusually kindly and civilized is largely false. On Blue Bloods, under the leadership of NYPD Police Commissioner Frank Reagan (magnificently played by Tom Selleck) there is constant talk about the right thing to do, but they don’t try to whitewash the police establishment’s many shortcomings.

An aside: since when did my contemporaries (Selleck is only a year older than me) start playing “old guy” roles? Batman’s friend Gotham City Police Commissoner Gordon was definitely no spring chicken. Oh, well.

I suppose I should mention Midsomer Murders’ theme music. The pleasant waltz melody is carried mostly by a theramin, that 1950s science-fictiony electronic instrument played by moving your hands around a couple of antennas. They use that music a lot, in the interior of episodes whenever there are village recitals and bands. Another episode, as spectacular in its own way as the one about Wales, is about a young composer who has died in a disgraceful and scandalous manner, and the effort to untangle her complicated relationships and the rights to her famous symphony. Somebody named Jim Parker composed a moving piece of music to represent the symphony. Quite a stretch for a weekly TV show.

Midsomer Murders is available on various streaming services. I hope you check jt out and enjoy it as much as I do.My daughter thinks it’s boring. Mainly, I wanted to write this as a thank-you to the cast and others associated with the series for helping me get past the roughest patch in my life.

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