Detective Stories and Objective Truth

Murder mysteries are a strange place to go looking for stories that point out the sacred, but in reading The Last Policeman series I was reminded of the British period drama Foyle’s War we had watched and enjoyed several years ago. Although both stories center around a lone male detective, most similarities end there: one is the story of American Henry Palace in the world’s final days, the other the career of Englishman Christopher Foyle in the shadow of World War II.

Though both men cling to the mores of a dying world, challenged by those who find their allegiance to duty futile under the circumstances, neither detective is simply a bureaucratic ritualist adhering to mindless rules at the cost of his humanity. Instead, both Palace and Foyle highlight a strength of the murder mystery: its affirmation of the vital importance of morality even in the face of dire circumstances. If death matters, life mattered and still matters. In following a detective and delving into the lives of strangers, we are reminded life is deeper and richer than we assume from the outside — and often sadder.

In The Last Policeman trilogy, we have a date with destiny: an asteroid is headed toward Earth and the whole of civilization is in a hot hurry to self-destruct before impact. Detective Henry Palace is checking out a routine suicide — these are growing more common as impact approaches — when something about the death strikes him as suspicious. It’s easy to say none of it matters, as the rest of Palace’s world insists — if everything’s ending, why worry about one unloved person? Everyone he encounters tries to discourage his dogged pursuit of the truth:

“Can I tell you something? You can follow this case forever, and you can discover all its secrets, you can build this man’s timeline all the way back to his birth, and the birth of his father and his father’s father. The world is still going to end.”

But Henry is unable to discount the humanity of a murder victim. Almost against his better judgement he can’t shake his conviction that each life is unique and meaningful.

“I’m looking at him, at it, and I’m thinking how sad it is, because however he died, whether he killed himself or not, he’s dead. I’m thinking the dumb and obvious thought that here was a person, and now he’s gone and he’s never coming back.”

It may be a “dumb and obvious thought,” but the unique value of a human life is by no means a given in Henry’s world — or ours.

There’s an agency in human life, too, that cannot be eradicated even by apocalypse. In the second book in the series, Countdown City, Palace argues:

“Respectfully, sir, the asteroid did not make you leave her. The asteroid is not making anyone do anything. It’s just a big piece of rock floating through space. Anything anyone does remains their own decision.”

This sort of affirmation of human free will crops up in Foyle’s War as well. Christopher Foyle’s England is torn apart by war. It’s easy for a viewer, looking back nostalgically, to see nothing but lovely red lipstick and wartime adventure, easy to lose sight that to many of the people experiencing 1940s England, it really must have felt like the world was ending. And in the face of apocalypse, what does a coward or a sympathizer matter?

Most of the people around Foyle are quick to justify evildoing by blaming the war, but in an unusually fiery speech to a murderer escaping justice because he’s bankrolling the war effort in episode 2.1, Foyle argues:

Paige: You know what the French say? C’est la guerre.

Foyle: Precisely, Mr. Paige. It’s the war. And no war has lasted forever and neither will this one. A year, maybe ten, but it will end. And when it does, Mr. Paige, you will still be a thief, a liar, a murderer, and I will not have forgotten.

Because of their dedication to an outdated moral code in the practice of a beleaguered profession, each detective retains his humanity in a world gone mad. Each insists, with quiet, unyielding conviction: Evil cannot be rationalized by dire circumstances. In the series pilot, Foyle offers this explanation, equal parts unfussy and brave:

Foyle: I’m a policeman. I’m here to do a job. It’s as simple as that. If I start bending the rules, I might as well pack it in.

Stewart: Yes, but…she was a German.

Foyle: Well, that doesn’t make any difference at all. She’s a human being, and she was murdered. Murder is murder.

Foyle’s War (Image via)

The Last Policeman (Image via)

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