Are modern detectives the new priests?

The box set is the crack cocaine of viewing experiences. At 3am, having watched several episodes on the trot, that little voice in the head suggests just one more. Last one, you promise yourself, unconvincingly. And nothing is more addictive than HBO’s True Detective

Detectives Cohle and Hart are following a lead in their investigation of the ritualistic murder of young girls. It takes them to a revivalist preaching tent, set deep in the unsettling, exposed landscape of southern Louisiana, a creepy-looking environment of vast swamps and oil refineries, a place of closely guarded family secrets, a place set back in time, where human life seems to play a supporting role to the intensity of sinister nature.

Looking around the tent, and describing the people raising their hands above their heads in worship, Cohle’s now celebrated atheistic scorn breaks through: “I see a propensity for obesity, poverty, a yen for fairy tales. Folks putting what few bucks they do have into little wicker baskets being passed around. I think it’s safe to say that nobody here is going to be splitting the atom … If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother, that person is a piece of shit.”

True Detective is a work of genius, deserving of the multiple Emmy nominations it’s just received. Even better than Breaking Bad in my book. But one of the things that is often being said about it is that the nihilistic Cohle – “I think the honourable thing for our species to do is to walk hand in hand into extinction” – represents a particularly modern variant of the detective as atheist. I’m not so sure. For it’s arguable that the very genre of detective fiction is intimately bound up with collapse of religious faith.

The circumstantial evidence is that this literary genre took off around the same time that Darwin was publishing On the Origin of Species (1859) and Nietzsche was proclaiming the death of God. TS Eliot called Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) “the first and the best modern English detective novel”. Literary theorists often argue that the detective took over the role of the priest, seeking justice, trying to make sense of the mysterious, struggling to bring order out of chaos, facing evil. They are not just whodunnits, but whydunnits – journeys into the sort of human darkness that, for most of us, only exist in our nightmares.

For all his disdain for things religious, Cohle lives like an otherworldly monk – a violent, drug-taking monk, to be sure, but simply, with disdain for material possessions, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, dishevelled, existentially intense, not that interested in sex, obsessed with getting to the truth. Not unlike Sherlock Holmes, in fact.

The modern secular imagination prides itself on having got beyond the childish ways of historical theology. But our continued obsession with detective fiction suggests something remarkably adjacent to traditional theological concerns, and its lonely, world-weary hard-drinking advocates – think Luther – have become the priests and theologians of our day. Yes, there are obviously religious detectives – the BBC’s Father Brown, Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael character – but they can be seen as seeking (unconvincingly, perhaps) to reclaim something of this new priestly ministry for more traditional ideological purposes.

And even Cohle, again a little unconvincingly, slips into a version of Christian-speak at the very end of the series: “Well, once there was only dark. But if you ask me the light’s winning.” But theology is not just the intellectual arm of organised religion, full of bookish commissars tasked with apologetics. It is the exploration of how human life stands in relationship to that which is of ultimate concern. And as such, it will always find new ways of reinventing itself. – © Guardian News & Media

Follow Giles Fraser on Twitter @giles_fraser.

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Giles Fraser
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