Midsomer Murders takes on atheism

As long time readers know, I am a fan of TV detective stories, especially the genteel type of story set in quiet settings where the villain is unmasked at the end. The British police procedurals are a significant sub-genre and one of the most venerable is the series Midsomer Murders that began in 1997 and is now in its 24th season. Set in a fictitious rural county in England, it follows a set formula and that very familiarity is part of its appeal.

I have seen all 22 seasons and noticed that over time it has developed a certain campy quality as the writers seem to be trying to introduce ever more bizarre ways of having the murderer kill their victims. You would think that any reasonably competent murderer would try to make it quick and clean in order to avoid getting caught. But these murderers seems to be artists who want to make a statement and thus seem to spend a lot of time creating increasingly exotic ways of staging victims, even in places where they are likely to be found doing so. The campiness has reached a point where the discovery of the victims makes me laugh out loud.

In season 22, in one episode a village is having a scarecrow festival in which residents compete to design them and to see who comes up with the most imaginative one, with the scarecrows set up all over the village. (The villages seem to have all kinds of picturesque festivals all the time.) In this story, each of the murder victims is dressed up as a scarecrow and tied up to a pole, even though there is no reason at all that the murderer should take all that trouble to have the killings conform to the festival theme.

I wrote earlier about how in the early days of this show, the cast was entirely white and when asked about it, the show’s creator said that he wanted to make the series quintessentially English. As one might have expected, that did not go down well. The creator later apologized but was edged out anyway. Since then there have been plenty of people of color in the shows so that this part of rural England seems to have become one of the most diverse places on the planet. Initially, none of the people of color were the murderers and one can understand why, since people might have complained that after being kept out for so long, people of color were now brought in to just serve as baddies. So when watching the show, I would immediately eliminate the people of color as the potential murderer. But now that too has changed and the murderer could be anyone.

(Spoiler alert! In the paragraphs below, I reveal the entire plot of Season 22, Episode 6: The Witches of Angel’s Rise)

While supernatural and superstitious themes are introduced, the main characters of the two detectives and the forensic pathologist are hard-headed realists who are skeptical of all manner of supernatural and psychic claims and do not seem to have religious beliefs or attend places of worship. But in Season 22, Episode 6: The Witches of Angel’s Rise that deals with yet another festival, this time of witches, psychics, Tarot card readers, and so on, the writers seem to have gone overboard to compensate for any charge that they might be favoring skepticism by making the murderer an outspoken atheist scientist who thinks that all of that supernatural stuff is nonsense.

There is nothing wrong with an atheist scientist being the murderer. Atheists and scientists have no particular claim to higher levels of ethics and morality or conscience and can be as villainous as anyone else. What was problematic was that the writers seemed to want to make atheism itself the motivating factor that made him commit murder and that was where things went off the rails, because there is nothing intrinsic to atheism (or science for that matter) that advocates murdering people. So the writers really had to stretch and the best they could come up with was the atheist scientist’s girlfriend had died in an accident. The girl’s friend and a Tarot card reader kept telling him his late girl friend was sending him messages from the dead. Being an atheist scientist, he thought all this psychic stuff was bunk and was so angered by these efforts to drag him into that world that he bumped them both off in the grotesque ways that has become the show’s trademark. Really.

The show is the television equivalent of comfort food. Not everyone will like it but for those who do, it is pleasurable because you know exactly what you are going to get with no surprises, other than the revelation of the murderer.


  1. says

    “I have seen all 22 seasons and noticed that over time it has developed a certain campy quality as the writers seem to be trying to introduce ever more bizarre ways of having the murderer kill their victims.”

    That’s one of the problems with long-running series and the need to keep them interesting and novel.Ideally, most should last between three to six seasons, and some should be strong single seasons wonders with a definitive finale at the end (I’m looking at you in particular, Under The Dome). I feel one of the reasons some shows that people think were prematurely cancelled are still so fondly remembered is that they didn’t get a chance to start churning out lower and lower quality episodes.

  2. lanir says

    Have to agree with Tabby. If most people knew where to end a story writing classes and editors wouldn’t be a thing. Not that either is only concerned with the ending but finding the right place to end a tale requires successfully using a lot of other skills.

  3. Katydid says

    @Tabby Lavalamp, regarding Under the Dome: Stephen King’s strengths do not lie in actually finishing a story, either. 🙂 He was really popular in the 1980s, and we all passed the books around. Read 3 or 4 in a row, and you realize King struggled with how to end them.

    Regarding Midsommer Murders: the death rate in those small villages must top 150%. No wonder there’ Escape to the Country; they need to repopulate by bringing people into the rural counties. Could you imagine a crossover episode: Escape to Midsommer? “Come through to the reception area, and see the lovely wooden staircase…oh no! The husband’s hanging from the bannister!”

  4. morsgotha says

    As a satire of quaint english villages with a dark under belly of murder, you may also like the movie “Hot Fuzz”.

  5. seachange says

    The original stories that the series was based off of, and the first two seasons explain the artistry. These murders weren’t second degree murders. They were first degree murders with malice aforethought and full-on emotion and often great intelligence. As a result of this there was much cleverness and yes, artistry, behind the murder(s, usually a -lot- of them).

    If they are still doing that they are being true to the source material, to my mind.

  6. Katydid says

    @morsgotha: yes, Hot Fuzz is hilarious!

    My local PBS station only ever seems to show the same 4 or 5 Midsummer episodes, and they’re all seemingly supernatural (in the end it’s proved they’re not): the headless horseman and the fortune teller who rightly predicts death are two.

  7. Mano Singham says

    morsgotha @#6,

    Yes, I liked Hot Fuzz. The more familiar you are with the genre being satirized, the funnier it is.

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