Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Inspector Lewis

(Coffee Beans post)



I watched, the other night, on the new PBS series "Masterpiece Mystery", the first episode of "Inspector Lewis", a spin-off from the British detective drama Inspector Morse, set in Oxford. Kevin Whately resurrects his character, Robbie Lewis, who had been Morse's sidekick in the original series, now promoted and the boss of DS James Hathaway.


I used to love Inspector Morse, and mourned him when he died as Morse and even more when the actor John Thaw, his screen interpreter, died some time later. Morse was the very anti-thesis of the flamboyant detective: highly intelligent and feisty, he is often wrong; inclined to high culture and romantic, he is an avowed beer-drinker and cynical. His lack of sex-appeal is simply heart breaking. At the times when he tries to connect with some reluctant woman, it is always a disaster. An introverted snob whose sense of justice is nonetheless sharp, principled, unforgiving. In the original series, his somewhat bumpy friendship with the easy-going Lewis is one of the attractions in the stories told. Lewis is down-to-earth, fun-loving, smart and observant in ways that Morse, often befuddled by his literary knowledge and classical education, cannot quite appreciate until it is almost too late. Lewis and Morse develop some sort of a difficult camaraderie. Now that Morse is dead, Lewis takes over the senior role. His is a different style of sleuthing, different ethos. I'll explain in a minute.

The episode I watched Sunday night was entitled: Whom the Gods Would Destroy. Lewis and Hathaway investigate a murder involving a group called the Sons of the Twice Born. The name is derived from an epithet for Dionysus relating to his birth. The group's activities are arcanely shrouded in Greek myths, quotes from Nietzsche and a Dionysian fondness for drugs. The title is part of a quotation from Euripides - the full quotation is "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."

Murders most foul follow in succession as Lewis tries to sort out past sins from present crimes. The mastermind of the group, now a wheelchair-bound, middle aged, aristocratic grouch, hooked on drugs, is married to a young and beautiful woman, who seems to take his unrestrained abuse with great equanimity.

(Spoiler alert)

By the end of the episode we realize, along with Lewis, that this person is responsible for the cold and calculated murder of a young woman many years ago. His wife is that woman's daughter. She unleashed a bunch of brutal dogs upon him, as soon as she gets him to confess to his crime. The only other member of the group is then tried for premeditated murder.

And here is my problem: At the very last scene, Lewis and Hathaway have a conversation. Hathaway asks him why he did not arrest the wife. Wasn't she guilty of pre-meditated murder, just like her husband, just like his co-conspirators?

Lewis answers: No. Not in my book. And walks away.

This is an extraordinary judgment, from a law enforcement agent. He decided that the daughter's motive - revenge for her innocent mother's murder - was a just one, which exonerated her from any accusation of murder. Revenge, in law and order societies, is never acceptable as a motive for murder. It is not alibi. And certainly Morse, Lewis's mentor, would never have let her go free, with such an easy conscience.

Now this might be a great leap in my reasoning here, but I do wonder if Lewis's decision does not reflect the new British ethos, the one we have seen oozing out of the tight seams of British iron control over their emotions (in itself something of a myth, but still..) ever since Princess Diana's death. Away with the stiff-upper-lip tradition, the "fair play" principle. Emotions take over the phenomenal coldness and restraint of the British people. And emotions are expressed in raw justice, that is, revenge as an acceptable and legitimate response to injustice inflicted upon you.

It is very different from P.D. James's "Original Sin", in which an inspector allows a murderer to get away, to commit suicide, because he understood that his revenge motive "an eye for an eye", made a certain sense to him. Adam Dalglish, the poet-prince of all detectives, releases the inspector responsible for this from all duties right away.

There can be no mixing of pity and judgment of a wrong doing. A killing, thought out carefully, set up in advance and executed, is still a first-degree murder. There is no question of self-defence, either pre-emptive and reactive, in these stories.

I shall follow up on the subsequent episodes on "Inspector Lewis". I wonder if this deeply troubling moral question will be kept up and scrutinized as he faces other challenges. And whether Morse's stalwart ethics will be seen to prevail.

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