English village life as seen through a TV crime series


I must admit to a fondness for the world that was created by the Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers books, that of murder mysteries set amidst English village life where the crimes are of the ‘by the bishop with the candlestick in the library’ variety rather than the fast-paced guns, car chases, and fist fights that are the norm in more modern crime dramas. I recently came across a long-running British TV series called Midsomer Murders that depicts just such a world, though the murders in this series are not solved by private investigators but by the police in the form of Chief Inspector Barnaby and his assistant Sergeant Troy, the latter playing the obligatory role of the sidekick who acts as a sounding board for the detective and jumps to the obvious but wrong conclusions and thus causes the sleuth’s deductive powers to shine even more brightly.

If one forms one’s opinion of English country life based on the series, then one comes to the conclusion that despite their pastoral appearance, these villages have a staggering homicide rate, since each episode features about four murders in rapid succession. The series creators have avoided the problem that at that rate any village would soon be seriously depleted of its population by making Barnaby and Troy based in the county seat and the scenes of the murders they investigate are rotated around the many villages that surround it, so one always has a fresh supply of characters and corpses to draw from.

As an aside, is such high murder rate really necessary for crime mysteries or is it (pardon the pun) overkill? To my mind, the more murders committed, the more it makes the plot implausible. I feel that one carefully committed and well-motivated murder that is methodically uncovered would provide a more engrossing story than the regular turning up of corpses. Given that the murders in these stories are committed by people who have lived otherwise homicide-free lives, it seems unlikely that they would suddenly go on a murder spree. Such a high rate is surely not necessary to maintain suspense. In the series Columbo for example, which is in the same vein, there was usually just one murder and even for that we knew from the get-go who was the guilty party. Many of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries also had at most one murder. Interest was maintained by watching how the detective figured out who the culprit was, the method, and the motivation.

Other features gleaned from the Midsomer series are that the streets in rural England are very narrow with very poor visibility around corners and yet people drive really fast. The villages also seem to be inhabited largely by old people, the majority of whom are elderly women who are widowed or divorced or otherwise single. Very few people seem to have real jobs other than being shopkeepers or manual workers. Despite the lack of signs of any economy, the villages seem prosperous with lots of open fields and farmyard animals, many fine houses, upscale restaurants, and charming well-kept cottages or mansions, all with beautifully maintained gardens.

People seem to have plenty of time to spy on their neighbors, hang about in the local pub and shops, and gossip. In fact, gossiping seems to be the main occupation and people snoop on others shamelessly. Given that, it is surprising that people seem to never lock their doors and even keep the door ajar, enabling anyone to walk in and look around and eavesdrop. Even the police seem to think nothing of searching houses by entering through an open door or window without a warrant. Given that everyone seems to be having affairs with everyone else (Peyton Place has nothing on these English villages when it comes to uncontrolled libidos), this lack of discretion is surprising and trysting couples are frequently found in flagrante delicto indulging in all manner of sexual practices. On the rare occasion that people do lock the door, they keep the key under a flowerpot next to the front door, a fact that seems to be known to everyone and thus makes the precaution pointless.

People also seem to be drinking tea all the time, by the gallon almost. Every visit to every home, by the police or anyone else, either finds people already drinking tea or is accompanied by an immediate offer to make it, which is usually accepted.

Surprisingly, given our impression of the UK as pretty much gun-free, there are plenty of guns around. They tend to be double-barrel shotguns used for hunting and rarely used in the murders, which are usually committed using knives, poisons, and assorted instruments like shovels, pitchforks, wrenches, and the like that are easily available in rural areas. The police also don’t seem to have guns and so far I have not seen the police draw a weapon.

In fact, the story usually ends with the police confronting the killer and, rather than try and escape in a blaze of gunfire or a mad car chase or call for a lawyer and refuse to talk, the latter pretty much gives up, says, “It’s a fair cop”, and confesses everything. A very obliging criminal class.

How true this is of English village life, I have no idea.

Comments

  1. sarah00 says

    Can I recommend Pie in the Sky? It’s got all the quaint British stuff you seem to like but it’s also got a low death rate so is slightly more realistic (or at least as realistic as you can be when you’ve got a police officer who’s trying to run his own restaurant at the same time!). Plus it’s got the late, great Richard Griffiths in it.

  2. Callinectes says

    The tea-drinking is close to spot on, no English viewer would wonder about that at all. Most visible employment opportunities are shops, pubs, schools, and farms, there are also builders yards (my family builds the white oast cowls that distinguish the south-east, in fact, if you Google “oast cowls” every picture with a person in it has someone I know and am related to). There are occasionally offices and say, graphics and advertising firms, but they’re not obvious if you don’t know they’re there. Although these are rural areas, you are rarely more than 30 minutes’ drive from several towns or cities.

    It is also where you will find the most guns, indeed, shotguns. They aren’t seen as weapons, they are tools, most often used on vermin. You are allowed one if you can demonstrate an application, but using it on a person would bring down the full might of the nearest armed response unit quite above and beyond what might be strictly necessary, and they will not stop until they figure out who did it (not usually difficult) and successfully arrest them. Which won’t take long, anyone who kills someone with a gun is not exactly a criminal genius. If you wanted to get away with murder, literally anything would be better than gunshot.

    The lack of weapons on the part of the police is accurate, or at least was. Now they tend to carry tasers and pepper spray, but still no guns. Whatever deaths you might hope to prevent with a fully-armed police force in Britain would be more than offset by the statistically expected rate of accidental and wrongful death facilitated by the flooding of the streets with unnecessary weapons. It’s safer for both civilians and police for all but the specialists to remain unarmed.

    People don’t tend hide their keys around their garden porch anymore, if they ever did. I expect that would be so that friends and family and neighbours can get in if necessary, but these days we just cut keys for such privileged individuals. Occasionally my family does when we go running, it keeps the keys from jangling in our pockets and lets the first one home get in.

    No one randomly breaks into homes through windows, especially not the police. I’d done it when I’m locked out of my own place, or when flood waters have rendered usual access impossible, but that will definitely get the attention of your neighbours, and may well end in a police visit to your own home to check up on things, You can’t eavesdrop through windows either, it’s too noisy. Birds, trees, wind, cars, dogs, children, trickling rivers, lawnmowers, and in my experience, tanks, demo gunfire and low-flying Lancaster Bombers all conspire to drown out voices that drift through windows.

    Murders are extremely rare, in the local news this week untimely deaths consist of accident, illness, and suicide.

  3. nichrome says

    The Simon Pegg & Nick Frost movie, “Hot Fuzz” pokes gently fun at this English Country Murder Mystery trope.

    “Inspector Morse” is great and more serious than “Midsomer Murders” – but what alway amuses me in the show is how characters that Morse comes to interview about a murder are so unperturbed by a visit from a Chief Inspector that they can barely be distracted from their gardening, painting, etc. I guess the filmmakers fell they need to have constant activity or “realism” or something.

    A another great, gritty English murder/mystery show is “Cracker” starring Robbie Coltrane.

  4. atheistblog says

    Join the party. I’ve seen all the 17 seasons of both Barnaby cousins. I only see English TV drams, including Midsomer Murders,Poirot, Inspector Morse , Inspector Lewis, The sweeney, A Touch of Frost, New Tricks , Endeavour , Agatha Christie’s Marple, Inspector George Gently, Waking the Dead, Kavanagh QC, Dalziel and Pascoe, etc..,

    BTW, all the reality shows of american TV sucks, even crime detectives of american shows totally sucks. I don’t watch any of them. Good for you watching those british shows.
    Forget about that TV should reflect reality, then you might end up believing american TV reality shows as real.

  5. says

    Two very good series that take the time to focus on one murderer are Broadchurch and The Fall. Broadchurch also examines more closely the small country town dynamic, while The Fall has excellent feminist messages.

  6. Pen says

    So… it is actually true that the rural English population is biased towards the elderly. Those younger people who do live there often commute long distances to work. It’s also true that those elderly people, prosperous or not, often invest a lot of energy in maintaining their gardens. The chickens and so on are due to the local farmers hanging on in there, trying to make a living by being twee.

    There is actually plenty of crime in English villages – for example the lead from the church roof in my parents’ village is systematically stolen, at which point the village atheists (just about everyone) organize a garden party to raise funds to buy it back. Also, there are quite a lot of burglaries. Murder of the kind you see in murder mysteries with proper motives and everything is practically unheard of, real murders have been known to happen but they are sordid affairs of the kind only Daily Mail readers would enjoy.

    It’s not at all implausible to imagine one cop covering multiple villages, what’s surprising is that the funds stretched to providing him with a sidekick. Naturally, the cops don’t have guns, what an idea! Equally naturally, one does not commit murder with a gun. It just isn’t the done thing, old chap, don’t you know? I mean there’s sordid, and there’s sordid.

  7. WhiteHatLurker says

    Also: The Last Detective with former Dr Who star Peter Davison.

    Hot Fuzz was bang on as a parody.

    At our house, we are wary of “fêtes”, because someone is inevitably killed during them in Midsomer Murders.

  8. fentex says

    The lack of weapons on the part of the police is accurate, or at least was.

    A little while ago a foreign correspondent asked a NZ Police Superintendent if they thought NZ police should carry firearms.

    His reply was no because carrying firearms causes, not solves, problems. An officers concern becomes protecting his weapon rather than engaging with the situation and fear of the weapons presence escalates almost all situations where tempers are raised.

    Besides which NZ, and I suspect UK police aren’t as unarmed as they appear. In NZ at least if you see a cop car at night, in the country or driven by a lone officer it almost certainly has secured firearms within.

  9. Excluded Layman says

    If one forms one’s opinion of English country life based on the series, then one comes to the conclusion that despite their pastoral appearance, these villages have a staggering homicide rate, since each episode features about four murders in rapid succession.

    Barnaby actually made that observation in an episode, swearing to never move out of the city because of all the depravity hidden behind the idyllic scenery.

  10. Lofty says

    My wife and I used to watch Misdomer Murders mainly for the traditional red brick architecture of the English Village. We had to give up as the plot in subsequent series went from bad to worse. She watches Agatha Christie’s mysteries instead now, I bought a boxed set of 12 Miss Marple DVDs for her recently. I also remember enjoying the Pie In the Sky series.

  11. says

    As an aside, is such high murder rate really necessary for crime mysteries or is it (pardon the pun) overkill? […] Many of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries also had at most one murder.

    Or none at all. Why does it always have to be murder? Some writers’ detective stories investigated thefts, which could be just as interesting. “The Red-Headed League” was about a bank heist. In the Tintin story, “The Castafiore Emerald”, the crime ghearq bhg gb or ab pevzr ng nyy, n oveq fgbyr vg. (Use ROT13 to see the spoiler.)

  12. says

    “How true this is of English village life, I have no idea”

    Although I pay more than half of my post tax income to live in a cramped flat in one of the large English cities that subsidises rural England, I cant really answer the question as they don’t like my sort.

    Maybe once a summer they will allow us an afternoons visit, just enough time to buy and ice cream and a souvenir tea towel before the gimlet eyed stare of the retired major forces us to board our coach and fuck off back to where we came from.

    When country dwellers complain about the death of local rural community services, while stamping on any attempt to alleviate the housing crisis by vetoing planning applications, I fill another bath with their tears.

  13. flex says

    Maybe you’ve already found these, but I enjoyed the BBC’s Johnathan Creek series quite a bit.

    There is usually only one murder per episode, and they are all ‘locked-room’ murders. Of course, writing locked-room mysteries is difficult, so there aren’t all that many episodes.

    For what it’s worth, I really enjoy the D.I. Frost books by Wingfield, but the BBC series is a bit different. Both are police procedurals rather than deductive mysteries. The books follow a fascinating structure which is rare for novels. D.I. Frost is dedicated to his job, but greatly overworked. So every novel starts with a murder, and then 5-6 unrelated events start to pile onto the inspector. The original murder may be solved early in the book, but by that time there is another murder or two to get resolved. The structure is an intricate tapestry of plot threads which all get resolved by the end of the book, but are never completed in any order.

    I like them, but I would never recommend them to my mother who loves the ‘cosy’ mysteries but dislikes procedurals.

    The BBC show is very different and in the first few seasons separated out the multiple plots threads from the books and used each thread as individual episodes. I understand why it was necessary to do that, but it makes for a very different presentation.

  14. Trebuchet says

    Village life in Doc Martin is much the same, except with the murders replaced by exotic illnesses.

  15. Sleeper (from Sci-Blogs) says

    A Touch of Frost was made by Yorkshire TV then later ITV Studios for broadcast by ITV. The BBC had nothing to do with it.

  16. says

    Well, if you’re on Netflix, enjoy a good murder mystery series, and would welcome one not in the USA or the UK (but has a lot in common with the British ones), I’d like to recommend Australia’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. It’s set in the 20s and despite being set in Melbourne still feels like one of those English village mysteries while still feeling very modern (and wonderfully, refreshingly feminist).

  17. sosw says

    Jonathan Creek was also mentioned; good. He co-stars in QI with Stephen Fry, which is…while often sadly inaccurate…an interesting show. If nothing else it can introduce you to a variety of British shows. Panel shows like WILTY often feel like so much fun, although often a bit non-PC by US standards.

  18. sosw says

    All of what I mentioned are more-or-less comedy shows, but there are some decent murder-mystery-ones that aren’t British as well, e.g. US-version of the Danish The Killing is good. If you want something different, very much so.

    And for serious crime drama, I’ll totally second/third Broadchurch and The Fall.

  19. NitricAcid says

    I enjoyed Midsomer Murders for quite a while, until I grew bored with them (it didn’t help that I always watched them with my now-ex-wife). I was surprised to learn that the director was deliberately keeping people with recent Asian and African ancestors out of the cast, because he didn’t think they looked English enough.

  20. Mano Singham says

    NitricAcid,

    Yes, I saw that report about the creator’s comment for which he had been rebuked.. It may well be true that many English villages have few people of color but to use that strategy deliberately in this day and age seems very strange.

    I t seems by season four that the plots are becoming a little absurd and I feel less inclined to watch them and feel the need to switch to the other series that have been recommended. That’s the problem when series run on for too long. They lose their initial appeal.

    Inspector Morse seems like fun.

  21. says

    someone above mentioned the US version of the Killing, why not umm you know think radically and watch the Danish version.

    The Bridge (Danish/Norwegian co-production) is absolutely superb. Particularly with the main female character appearing to be an autistic spectrum person, although this is never actually confirmed. The first series is way better than the second, and the second is not exactly shoddy.

    Salamander (Belgian) was a reasonable police murder mystery/ conspiracy theory (so right up your street Mano) that slow burned to an almost Fredrick Forsythian conclusion.

    The Cordon (Belgian) I’m half way through and although it started slow, its starting to warm up now that some of the main characters are starting to get the sniffles.

    The Belgian dramas are particularly interesting in the way the characters switch between French and Flemish depending on their relationship with the people they are talking to.

    And just to make me sad , I’ll mention Borgen because they only made 3 series. Apparently there will be an attempt at an American remake, but I cherish the memories too much to watch it.

  22. brucegee1962 says

    Hey, for all those who like Masterpiece Mystery, I have a board game coming out in September that’s licensed with them and uses the Gorey art. I wouldn’t say it’s based on the show, because it was developed independently, but it still should be fun for fans of the genre.

  23. guthriestewart says

    Yes, Sayers and Christie are worth reading, the former being far better in literary terms. The thing you note about lots of murders is perhaps due to Christie and other pulpy thriller writers of the period between the wars – many of her murders are solved after the murderer kills a second or third time to cover their tracks, but instead leaves even more evidence, a kind of cross bearing, on the original murder. Also, if you are having trouble sustaining the novel (And lets face it the characterisation and setting of your average Christie book doesn’t lend itself to great length) it’s easiest to murder someone else. I third or fourth the call to watch “Hot Fuzz”.

  24. Milton says

    Well if we’re going all cosmopolitan in our recommendations, I’ll throw Spiral (Éngrenage) into the mix. It’s police/crime drama rather than who-done-it, but I found it gripping for a number of reasons (despite needing the English subtitles). One thing in particular was the very different legal system in France. It might only be a fictionalised version, and my knowledge of my own country’s legal system comes too often from similar sources, but seeing a different set of systems, institutions and cultural norms can give one a fresh perspective on more familiar territory I think.

  25. says

    I don’t know where your commenting from Milton, but for me at least its not a case of being cosmopolitan but having easy access to BBC4, who seemed to have made a point of searching out some of the best dramas world wide.*

    I’ll admit the subtitles can be a bit of a bummer, its not like I’m a first language Flemish speaker 😉

    And for those who didn’t have the good taste to be born in the British Isles or dependent territories, the BBC iplayer can be finangled by something I believe the youth call a “proxy”.

    *And if you are in the UK and understand the politics around the BBC at the moment, you can see why BBC4 have opted for this approach rather than commissioning themselves.

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