No more daft detectives!


Over a decade ago ago, I wrote a post titled No more daft women! about one of my pet peeves when watching police procedural shows. While I like the detective and suspense story genre in general, one thing that annoys me is the use of a common trope and that is to have a female character, despite being expressly warned to be careful, do something unbelievably stupid that puts her life and the lives of others in danger. The ‘daft women’ phrase was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock asking “Is the woman daft?” to a screenwriter who was describing just such a development when they were working on The Birds.

But what is worse is when detectives, who should definitely know better, do something similar. I noticed this in two shows that I watched recently. In the first, two detectives investigating multiple missing persons whom they suspect were victims of a serial killer, stumble across a trapdoor covered by earth and leaves in the woods and upon lifting open the heavy lid, discover steps leading down and an awful stench emanating, suggesting the presence of decomposing bodies. So what do they do? Do they call for backup? Does one detective stay on guard outside while the other goes down? After all, the killer might be lurking nearby. No, they both climb down into the hole. If the killer had been around, all they would have had to do was simply close the lid, cover it up, and the two detectives would have joined the list of missing persons. Daft detectives.

The other story had something similar where a detective is investigating a serial killer and discovers a hidden trapdoor in the garage of a suspect. Since this takes place in a big city, it would not have taken much time to get backup there to guard the place while he goes down to investigate. But no, he goes down alone and sure enough, he gets ambushed and the trapdoor closed on him. Daft detective.

Both stories also had daft women but the one in the second story was a real doozy. A young woman is told that she might be the next victim of the serial killer and so the police put her and her child in a house with a detective to guard them. At some point in the night, the detective’s car alarm goes off and he goes to check what happened but does not return. So what does the woman do? Lock and bolt the door and call her police contacts and say that something is amiss and to send backup, as any normal person would do? Of course not, because that would be far too sensible. Instead, she leaves her sleeping child and goes outside into the night to investigate, walking into an isolated wooded area, calling out for the detective. This does not end well. Daft woman.

I understand the need for writers of these stories to create suspense. This is especially so in the case of mini-series where they like to end each episode with a cliffhanger. But can’t they do better than this? This is not creating suspense, it is just annoying. My reaction to such plot points is not to sit on the edge of my seat but to lean back and think “Oh, come on! Really?”

While I am venting, I have another peeve and that is the use of gratuitous graphic imagery. In the first story, the killer uses a knife to slash the victim’s throats. Do we really need to be shown the blood-spattered corpses with wide gashes in their necks and blood all over the place? In the second story, the killer dismembers the hands and feet of the victims. We could simply be told that. Do we really need to be repeatedly shown the bloodied stumps and the bloodied dismembered parts? Given the popularity of slasher and zombie and other forms of horror films, there are clearly people whose viewing experience is enhanced by seeing such things. But it is not clear to me that the kind of people who watch police procedurals fall into that category. They may enjoy the more cerebral aspects of the genre, the solving of the crime, rather than the visceral.

Comments

  1. Who Cares says

    I have my version of this peeve. It is stupid abuse of technology.

    Something like “Oh no the evil hacker is using this computer to hack the pentagon firewall, lets shoot the monitor to stop it”.

  2. Jazzlet says

    My peeve is the proportion of women victims in these shows, and that the camera lingers over the “dead” body -- all of it. One of the reasons I liked Unforgotten is that they have male vitims as well as female victims.

  3. Allison says

    My peeve is the proportion of women victims in these shows, and that the camera lingers over the “dead” body — all of it.

    TV Tropes calls it women in refrigerators.

    Maybe it’s too obvious to say, but this is due to sexism — the attitude that women aren’t really persons the way men are, they’re just props in men’s lives, so their murder is perhaps “tragic,” but not so awful as to threaten the (presumed male) viewer’s worldview.

  4. StonedRanger says

    My wife loves cop shows and she watches them all. Everyday, all day. My peeve is the television cops have to be the worst shots in the world. 3-5 guys get in a shoot out with a group of “detectives”. All are armed with automatic submachine guns. The shoot out lasts minutes and no one gets hit on either side and the shoot out is brought to an end by one cop (or bad guy) sneaking around and getting the drop on the others. The only one who ever gets shot is one bad guy (or cop) who fails to surrender and tries to outdraw someone who already has them at gun point. Dumbest shit ever.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Since people asked, the two shows I was referring to are Stay Close (with the two detectives going into the hole) and the other was The Chestnut Man.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Jazzlet @#4,

    Unforgotten was an excellent show that managed to be absorbing while avoiding all the things that I mentioned that I hate.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Fie on Unforgotten. The ending was unforgivable (edited to minimize spoilage). Protagonist slays dragons then slips on a banana peel. Fuck it. And for anyone who says “well, that’s life”, if I want “life” I’ll watch the bloody news.

  8. Callinectes says

    It should be a rule for writers that no plot may be advanced by handing an otherwise intelligent character the Idiot Ball.

  9. lorn says

    Mostly, I blame the writers. Unrealistically stupid people are used to advance the plot. If you can’t figure out a realistic way to put people in danger you have someone do something daft. It is a lazy plot device.

    It is also, possibly, included to form a reassuring disconnect between the audience and the terror. Smart people being smart, and still ending up violently murdered would be disconcerting. An idiot killed as the result of their stupidity allows the reassuring thought that ‘no way I have to worry; I’m not that stupid’.

    The ‘I’m special’ aspect of that should give everyone pause. Because, you aren’t right up until you are.

  10. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Isn’t that what ancient Greeks called “daft ex machina”?

    BTW, Stan Laurel said that the sure way to get a laugh from an audience is to pretend to be stupider than them. But he was a comedian.

  11. Don Cates says

    CSI types who shed hair (loose hair) and mucus (uncovered face) all over the crime scene. Then put on gloves and immediately touch something they shouldn’t (hair, glasses, etc)

  12. mnb0 says

    I totally agree. Just one remark:

    “Do we really need to be repeatedly shown the bloodied stumps and the bloodied dismembered parts?”
    Depends who you have in mind with “we”. If it’s just you and me, no, not at all. If it’s the general audience, yes, we do. Gore sells.

  13. Trickster Goddess says

    While we are on peeves about detective shows, one of mine is how when the suspect is finally caught they will always give an uncoerced full confession to the police without a lawyer present. It’s another form of daftness. I know the writers want to tie up all the loose ends, but this always seems such a lazy and unrealistic way to do it.

  14. says

    I used to feel the same way about horror movies, particularly zombie films, but the past couple of years have taught me that yes, real people would be making these ridiculous choices.

  15. Jörg says

    There seems to be a rule that when Bad Guy threatens a (female) hostage, the chasing daft detectives have to lay down their guns to give more power to Bad Guy.

  16. Jazzlet says

    Alison @#5
    Yes, the sexism is why I hate it. Especially as, in the UK at least, when you are looking at the late teens early twenties more males are killed than females, and the males kill each other, while the females are usually killed by a partner or ex-partner; neither would make the kind of TV most detective series are aiming at.

  17. birgerjohansson says

    A good script writer would get around these problems.
    This is also a problem with Science fiction- a team of clever 15-year-olds would not only spot the plot holes, but be able to come up with better solutions. Humans in Matrix used as batteries? Lucy (2014) getting her powers by using a larger part of her brain? (a fallacy going back to Hugo Gernsback in the 1940s)
    There should be a tax on bad plot devices.

  18. fentex says

    What is this ‘Unforgotten’ written of? I thought at first it referred to the UK drama [https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4192812/] (in which each series follows one coldcase) which is excellent -- and included superb performances the include portraying how the job effects the officers studying the crimes.

    But Rob Grigjanis’ reference to an ending (slayed the dragon then tripped on a banana) doesn’t sound applicable to that -- so I now wonder what the Unforgotten referred to was?

  19. fentex says

    By the way for another detective mystery series that does not incude typical shoot out or car chase action nonsense I recommend McDonal and Dobbs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonald_%26_Dodds) -- of which there aren’t very many episodes.

    It tends to be made in fewer but longer (episodic movies sort of) parts, and not very often compared to longer, more popular series.

  20. fentex says

    re: birgerjohansson @# 19;

    Yeah, so much could be improved by paying a knowledgable SF fan to critique a SF plot -- to remove the common nonsense, because it’s quite likely the makers can have the plot they want but better with fairly minor tweaks to the story just to make it credible.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    fentex @20: The dragons and banana peel are metaphors. Did you watch the whole thing (there were four series)?

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