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Why I love this desperately dull, sad area of British TV

I’m a young woman obsessed with murder mysteries and the comfort they bring – a respite for the dying, the despairing and the grieving

Why should a pleasure be “guilty” if we enjoy it? “Guilt Tripping” is a new series in which writers talk about why they love something – be it a film, book, drink, whatever – that the world makes them feel guilty for loving. For the third instalment of “Guilt Tripping”, writer Anna Leszkiewicz talks about murder mysteries and why someone might find comfort in something so twee and ephemeral.

In a 1945 essay once thought to be lost to time, Agatha Christie asks herself, “What kind of people read detective stories and why?” Her answer? “Invariably, I think, the busy people, the workers of the world”; “highly placed men in the scientific world”; people of “concentration”, “acumen” and “good reasoning powers”. Jump cut to me, in the year of our Lord 2017, sprawled on an ugly brown sofa in nothing but M&S full briefs, eating peanut butter straight from the jar, watching my seventh consecutive hour of the stunning Kevin Whately-led detective drama Lewis. I regret to say that this is not the behaviour of someone who would self-define as “busy” or a “worker of the world”, nor am I a prestigious man of science. And as for the detective stories, I’m not even reading them. Just injecting them straight into my eyeballs via ITV3.

Which leads us to an updated version of Christie’s question: what kind of person binge-watches twee murder mysteries, and why? Why, God, why? I have lots of vaguely embarrassing passions in my life that have despite their lack of edge, gained a sort of cultural nostalgia in recent years: One Direction music, Simpsons T-shirts, early episodes of Gilmore Girls. But fuzzy reruns of bad 90s murder mysteries are different. No one, not even once, has claimed that staying in to watch ITV3 is cool.

To qualify as a genuine, bona fide, certified, televised murder mystery, a show must, in my view, meet the following criteria. The identity of the murderer must be withheld from the audience for the majority of each episode. The show must have a recurring and probably brooding detective figure (may be an amateur, hot pathologist and/or hot vicar). Each episode should explore a new case. The murderer must be coaxed into revealing themselves by the detective, in a theatrical, spectacular way, preferably surrounded by shocked witnesses.

The show must be British, preferably set somewhere twee, and probably first aired on ITV. The deaths must be plentiful, and absurd. The plot must have enough implausible twists to give you whiplash. The acting must be hammier than David Cameron’s glistening, meaty face.

This means, of course, that I am not talking about the authenticity of Happy Valley, the unfolding personal tragedies of Broadchurch, the slick complexity of Scandi noir, the temporal experiments of Life on Mars, the self-satisfaction of Sherlock, nor even semi-gritty, London-centric detective shows like Luther and Ripper Street. No, when you want a real murder mystery only the best of the worst will do. Give me the warbling theramin notes of the Midsomer Murders theme, the abrupt literary shoehorning of Morse and its spin-offs Lewis and Endeavor, the ridiculous ecclesiastical sexiness of Grantchester. Give me the knowing arched eyebrow of Miss Marple, and the smug moustache of M. Poirot. You can even give me the paranormal gymnastics of Jonathan Creek and the tired class dynamics and sexual tension of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. I will eat it all up.

My lifelong addiction to bad murder mysteries means I have borne witness to some truly incredible scenes. I remember with particular fondness watching with my family as a child an episode of Midsomer Murders in which a man riding a motorcycle is suddenly decapitated by some cheese wire strung across the road (adjacent Midsomer Murder deaths include: Tim McInnery getting his head chopped off while riding a ghost train; Martine McCutcheon being bludgeoned to death by an actual wheel of cheese).  

I’ve subjected myself to an episode of Jonathan Creek in which the final murder is solved thanks to some cryptic eye movements. I’ve watched an episode of Endeavour that is a bizarre pastiche of The Great Gatsby (featuring the lead character “Joss Bixby”) – but with an added “evil twin” reveal, because we all read The Great Gatsby and thought, Yeah, it’s alright, but this Jay Gatsby character could really use a secret evil twin. I’ve watched another episode of Endeavor that climaxes with a showdown between the young Morse and a literal tiger – in a maze. The very premise of Grantchester is simply, beautifully, “hot vicar solves crimes”.

But no mystery has captured my heart quite like Lewis. I never was a Morse addict, but Lewis is perhaps the only murder mystery I’ve seen every single episode of, often repeatedly. I loved it first as a student who, overwhelmed with crushing anxiety, found an hour or two of comfort in watching familiar, daunting university buildings chopped and spliced into theatrical sets for deeply silly murders. I loved Kevin Whately’s warm, down-to-earth Robbie Lewis, who seemed every week to be saying, “God, these university types are all a bit ridiculous, aren’t they. I hate Latin and pretentious old men.”

At my lowest, I felt like academia was a matter of life and death. Lewis illustrated, in glorious, corny melodrama, how stupid that idea was: as professors and students histrionically killed themselves and each other over rare leather-bound books. If you’re a particularly gifted stalker, you can find online not one, but two heart-strewn collages of Robbie Lewis’s face I’ve clumsily photoshopped out of nothing but genuine fondness.

The popular consensus might be that these programmes are deeply embarrassing, but I’m clearly not alone in my affection: the endless spinoffs, entire TV channels devoted to their broadcast, and general persistence of the format demonstrates that. But I’m in notably good company, too. In her memoir M TrainPatti Smith outs herself as a murder mystery fanatic. When a flight from Berlin to New York was delayed, Smith was seized with a spontaneous desire and soon found herself taking a flight to London, purely “to watch ITV3 mystery dramas, one after another late into the night.” So, she bunkered down, “giving myself over to the likes of Morse, Lewis, Frost, Wycliffe, and Whitechapel.” The thought of Patti Smith chucking at Lewis and Hathaway’s homosocial banter between adverts for Viking River Cruises gives me immense pleasure.

“Murder mysteries are often a respite for the dying, the despairing, and the grieving, not in spite of, but because of their paradoxical relationship with death. They show us silly, unbelievable, preposterous death, the kind that could never happen to us”

Jenny Diski, too, sought comfort, right at the very end of her life, in a murder mystery binge watch. “It’s like peeping over the edge of the world while remembering you’ve left your spectacles on the kitchen table,” she wrote of her experience of terminal cancer in the London Review of Books. “Or more accurately, like eating ice cream while watching endless hours of Inspector Morse in the hope that your chemo brain will have wiped at least one episode from your memory bank.” My own granddad, as he deteriorated, re-read murder mysteries, their plots long forgotten, for hours and hours each day, until his eyes gave out. We realised it was time to move him out of the home he brought his children up in when he, long after he was no longer able to, attempted to cycle to the local library to get a new book, and fell off his bike.

Murder mysteries are often a respite for the dying, the despairing, and the grieving, not in spite of, but because of their paradoxical relationship with death. They show us silly, unbelievable, preposterous death, the kind that could never happen to us, with falling cheese wheels and poisoned antiques. But it’s not a coincidence that so many of these leading detectives are struggling with mortality in a more personal sense: be it Inspector Morse, who we learn was suicidal in his youth, or widowed Inspectors Lewis and Lynley. These shows allow us to peek at mortality while leaving our glasses on the kitchen table: death looks softer and fuzzier. Sometimes, it’s impossible to look these things directly in the eye.

In the year 2000, Inspector Morse died. The years of barely-concealed, jokingly-dismissed alcoholism had taken their toll, and he collapsed, alone, in the quad of his alma mater, Exeter College. After thirteen years of the show, it occurred in the much-anticipated final ever episode of Morse, a year after the final ever Morse novel was published and press conferences were held with both the author Colin Dexter and the actor John Thaw to warn the viewing public of what was to come.

In that final episode, Morse and Lewis share one of their last conversations, over a drink looking towards the river, as the sun sets both literally, and figuratively on their relationship. Morse, the unadulterated nerd that he is, tells Lewis he “should really persevere with Wagner”. “It’s about important things,” he muses. “Life and death, and regret.” It might be grandiose to compare Morse to Wagner, but it’s a sweet little nod from the writers to the comforts their own audience have found in the show. “Cheer up, Sir,” Lewis replies. “It’s a lovely evening. Look at that sunset.”

Lead illustration by Owain Anderson