In ordinary living, death comes as a shock, a nauseous insult and confusion. We confront it gradually, if at all, and often with silence or cliché, as a normal tone of voice seems offensive.

Art too may respond to death with silence and cliché. After Lear dies, the play closes with four couplets in which Albany offers the throne, Kent refuses it, and Edgar remarks, not profoundly, that the “oldest hath borne most” and that he himself will never live to see the like. This is, in effect, silence.

Containing death by means of cliché is the specialty of detective fiction. Of all its standard items, death is the least mysterious and intense. The corpse constrains the detective to do his work; but the work and the detective interest us, not the death and the deceased. Death is no more personal than a starting gun.

I have been thinking about detective stories for some time (see “Corpses, Clues, and the Truth,” August 30, 1974, and “The Pornography of Moral Indignation,” December 19, 1975), and the more I think the more complicated the form seems, until I fear I am running beyond my evidence.

Detective fiction offers an image of morality; the detective seeks to establish justice, to assign guilt and its proper remedies. But to see the form’s moral imagery chiefly in terms of its resolution—the moment when the evidence comes clear and explains the mystery—is to rationalize its morality into a kind of financial simplicity: debt and payment, liability and reward. But what of felt morality, the process of deciding, choosing, dreading, confronting, and escaping?

Few detective stories are complex enough to deal with this. Their characters are psychologically and thus morally simple. But the stories are needed and valued by real people, and the psychology of this is necessarily complex. Sometimes the primary motive in this psychology is social anxiety—a certain embattled class’s need to see its enemies, or a representative of them, insulted, degraded, and destroyed. This motive exaggerates and simplifies the villain; indeed, it dehumanizes him, so that he may be killed off without compunction.

That’s what the TV cop show does. It sees crime from the restricted viewpoint of a single class: suburban America, the imperiled middle. Evil comes from above or below, endangers essential securities, and is to be dealt with in extreme ways. The classic mystery, on the other hand, sees crime as growing up within the social complex; the criminal cannot be recognized by class markings or accent, and is dealt with firmly but with honor. Often, in fact, he has so thoroughly internalized the standards by which he is judged that he executes himself. Neither crime nor criminal seriously questions the common moral assumptions.

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As a result the classic detective can remain a social figure. He has moral symbolism; but he needs no special moral sanction, for the community’s approved morality approves and supports him. He defends, not a class, but a whole society.

The TV cop, in contrast, is driven by his audience’s fear, though on the surface he seems to have infinite Bogart cool. The fear is generated by threats to a security that may well be social or even financial in essence, but one that we see as moral because it reaches so deeply into our lives, and also because overt social prejudice offends our self-conscious egalitarianism. In the fictional detective, therefore, this fear issues in moral passion.

An interesting recent example of this is Serpico. (There is a real Serpico, and my comments on his fictional incarnation are not intended to reflect on him.) That he has become a symbol of outraged honesty as well as of embattled law enforcement makes the TV Serpico a complex and instructive image of the peculiar detective morality.

Serpico concerns himself with what fighting crime does to the integrity and emotional health of the crime fighter. His position is one of sympathy; appropriately, he is a sentimentalist. His moral authority is established by his feelings—by his taste for the sensitive arts, dance and music, by his compassion and vulnerability.

Of these, the aesthetic sense is window-dressing, the vulnerability essential. Serpico’s moral passion is a function of his basic passivity, and both are functions of his capacity to suffer. He embodies our odd modern belief that power is inherently bad, that to be itself virtue must be impotent. In this he differs from other TV cops who sneer and swagger and rough-house their suspects. They are the heirs of Bulldog Drummond. Serpico’s precedents go far deeper in our minds. In his justification by weakness he is a saint, a secular Francis, a debased Christ.

If his vulnerability is a moral credential, however, he does not prevail by suffering. His humility, unlike Christ’s, does not extend that far. Serpico “cares,” storms, weeps, and then beats the criminal senseless. His strength, we understand, is as the strength of ten, because his heart is pure.

The violence does not shock us because Serpico does not have to bear responsibility for it. If he is violent, it is only because he has been pushed beyond tolerance, beyond the point at which suffering patience can be a virtue. The criminal bears the guilt for Serpico’s violence as well as for his own.

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For his role in supporting the detective’s moral heroism, the criminal is simplified and brutalized. He is usually an extreme case; no confused kid, no business-like or elegant thief, but a sadist and pervert, a vendor of filth and cruelty—a Fu Manchu with all that Sax Rohmer only implied made nauseously explicit.

His use is clear. His evil raises the story’s temperature high enough to justify the violence of Serpico’s emotions and behavior. Without this the hero would sound exaggerated, over-blown, false, a vaunting knight with no pagan to kill. That he is a parody-saint would become too obvious without the pressure of a parody-villain.

I have argued before that this kind of moral passion—the kind that takes away the humanity of its object, as a way of freeing itself of responsibility for its own results—is sub-Christian, essentially unjust. In some cop shows, dehumanizing the villain licenses the detective to indulge himself in anger and violence. The same happens in Serpico; it is a common tactic. But here we meet a further development. Serpico’s anger is “moral,” not only in a symbolic sense but as it is permeated by his sentimental morality; and the story utilizes this special quality. His morality is his ultimate excuse for violence; he is going to war, and only moral passion can justify it.

This takes us back to the psychology of the audience. On the crudest level, the standard popular detective story uses moral corruption, and violence both “good” and “bad” (the cop’s and the crook’s, ours and theirs), as sensation; it is pornographic, bypassing our minds and consciences, appealing to our nerves.

In a somewhat deeper sense, it feeds our social anxiety through a rough comanchero justice; it offers us the vision of anti-social elements brutalized (as we believe them to be in actual experience) and destroyed (as we wish they were).

But have Serpico’s tender moral feelings any place in this pattern? How does the addition of self-conscious moralizing intensify the effect of this sensationalism? Why is there no conflict?

The reason, it seems to me, must be found in religious psychology—specifically, in whatever faint Christian pulse remains alive in our post-Christian culture. All the TV detectives—in particular, however, Serpico, the moral hero—offers us an image of moral warfare. The hero’s rightness is not only an excuse for sensational violence, though it is that; it is not only a rationalization of his social utility. We enjoy it because we have an ingrown response to the warfare of light against darkness, and, distorted as it is, the detective’s image is of this warfare.

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According to Christian belief, human beings are made for war—the universal war of good against evil. Historically, Christian writers have drawn on the Scriptures’ military metaphors to express our duty in this war, as in “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

This spiritual militarism can be distorted, like any image, and the Prince of Peace made into General Jesus. But then, as Dorothy L. Sayers said, we normally “trim the claws of the Lion of Judah” and come up with “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” This is comforting. But if the truth is partly otherwise, and we are made in some sense to fight, then it follows that we have been given a penchant for battle. Every minor moral struggle braces and prepares us for a greater. Every skirmish has in it something of the Last Battle, and to that our spirits respond.

It is doubtful that many TV viewers—church members or not—actually take a conscious part in the war with principalities and powers, with social and moral corruption. We are nonetheless made for it, though in fear and sloth we avoid it. This tension our TV fantasies help to resolve. What we see in Serpico is a debased version of our own vocation.

One often hears TV praised for its immediacy. Marshall McLuhan’s thesis, that the medium is a direct extension of eye and ear, is familiar. But TV also creates distances. Like the radio scanner with which we listen in on police calls, like the news program that shows us war footage scarcely hours old—the dead are not buried before we watch them eviscerated in our living rooms—TV cop shows let us confront evil and death played out in explicit terms before us, but veiled by the blue screen. We examine them in the approach-avoidance techniques of flirtation. We are meant to oppose evil and prevail. Instead we watch, silently, as our fictional surrogate opposes fictional horrors and wins fictitious victory. We are voyeurs of the moral war.

Our pleasure in Serpico’s tirade, therefore, is deeper than the pleasure of seeing the good guy win, the bad guy lose. It is more subtle than social reassurance. Lacking moral passion ourselves, we enjoy its Active expression. Our “participation”—the little thrills of assent we feel as he preaches, our approval of his exaggerated vulnerability and his automatic violence—makes us feel that, for a moment, we are involved, though at no cost and without real effect.

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Or has it no effect? There is a danger, at least, that we will come to believe that moral warfare is indistinguishable from social conflict—a kind of inverted bourgeois Marxism—and that it can be won by “legitimate” violence. We enjoy violence, of course, but then everyone always has. But will we come to believe also that violence is itself a morality, that intensity of feeling justifies its own fruits, provided it is on the side of superficial order?

There have been, and are, modern societies that have believed that violence is a morality. The obvious example is Nazism. Yet the Nazi’s opponents—from Allied firebombers to the purveyors of “holocaust chic”—have managed to believe almost the same thing regarding the Nazi himself: anything to exterminate the horror. We merely carry this one step further, putting the same attitude on TV for family consumption. But this is a malign step. For we are not serious about it; the wildly askew moral universe in which Serpico hunts his enemy is what we call fun. Like the Walrus, he weeps and sympathizes, and sorts out his prey; like the Carpenter, we applaud and join in.

Beneath the rational simplification of life into good guys and bad; beneath the rationalization of social fear; beneath the use we make of detective fantasy, the fictional trick of reducing death to cliché—beneath this, I think, there may be a moral impulse. It is to save ourselves the cost of actual moral life, with its complexity and confusion. Some escape may be necessary, for we cannot always be agonizing. Art gives us breathing space—especially the popular arts, the ones that do not replace life with occasions of even greater complexity. The problem is that we misuse our privileges.

The comprehensive social matters lying behind my thesis are too broad for this column. Detective stories are only a shred of evidence, a scrap of our consciousness. But any leaf responds to any wind, and will tell its direction. We are no longer a Christian culture, even in superficial ways. One evidence of this is that we take archetypal moral experiences for games, and are satisfied to substitute the game for the experience. To do this with social fact was the genius of the classic detective story. To do it with moral fact gives us a bigger kick: it is also more dangerous.

Lionel Basney is associate professor of English at Houghton College, Houghton, New York.

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