Good cops

mankell-wallander-10-luftslottet_572In matters of criminal justice, in contrast to all my hippie, crunchy, rec-room-Bolshevik tendencies, I lean towards an Old Testament posture. I relish revenge, not excluding associated righteous violence. This is purely on a fantasy level. Governments in the U.S. are too racist and incompetent to administer something as serious and irreversible as capital punishment.

I’m always amused by moral condemnation of capital punishment from revolutionaries. Do they not know what happens in a real revolution, not to mention afterwards?

So my prejudice is not necessarily inconsistent with hard-left philosophical sentiments. There could be deeper psychological roots which we will not be going into here. In college I did a course in “revenger tragedies” from the times of Shakespeare and Marlowe, so the impulse obviously has an ancient lineage. (The course was as dull as everything else about Shakespeare.)

After all the violence porn of the homicidal Kojak, Dirty Harry, and their legions of imitators, it is a pleasure to see a completely different approach to police work in the Wallander series, based on novels by Henning Mankell.

There are actually three different Wallanders. One is the original Swedish character, played by Rolf Lassgård, which I’ve never seen. Two is the successor, played by Krister Henriksson, in the second and third seasons. I’m presently working my way through the third, final season. I will regret not having more to watch. Third is a BBC/British version, starring Kenneth Branagh. I’ve seen three of four episodes with KB. Lots of these are available on Netflix.

In Sweden everything is better, including the police. (Well, I doubt the food and music are better. Plus it’s really expensive. And cold.) But that aside, the Swedish police imagined in the series are a model for their trigger-happy American counterparts to envy.

First and foremost, they don’t rack up nearly the same body count as U.S. television cops. Second, they treat suspects with a respect that looks positively outlandish. This is a little overstated, because the sort of criminals they deal with, on average, are not nearly as savage as what we find in our own fictions. Third, they are a model of competence, including the SWAT teams. This latter I think is partly a facility in story-telling. If you need people to keep doing stupid things to move a story along, you’re not telling a good story. The same goes for incredible turns of luck or coincidences.

The lead Wallander in the second series noted above is a model of all three qualities. This is best illustrated in his low-key interrogation technique, as well as his nearly overwrought efforts to avoid shooting somebody who is resisting capture and really deserves to be shot. It’s a really humane performance.

I’m not crazy about Branagh’s Wallander. He’s too weepy. Overcome by his personal problems, and overwhelmed when he actually has to shoot somebody, he needs to keep his shit together more. Henriksson usually keeps his cool.

Why in U.S. cop shows are the criminals always more amoral, the cops more incompetent and unprofessional, the stories less intelligent? British cop and spy stories, which I consume avidly, are much better in these respects as well. In this sense the Dragon Tattoo films, which are all great, are more American, though some of their impact derives from a more civilized background against which evil looks even more evil.

Two current U.S. exceptions are Longmire, which has been cancelled, and Justified, entering its final season. Longmire is a sheriff in Wyoming. He doesn’t act tough, he just is tough. With bad guys he is firm but not blustery.

Justified is about a U.S. Marshal in Harlan County, KY. He racks up a very high body count indeed, but he is always . . . justified. The novel difference is he goes out of his way to respectfully explain to bad guys why they should surrender. They often prove too stupid or bull-headed to acknowledge their disadvantageous position, at which point the quick-drawing, crack shot marshal is obliged to shoot them dead, which he does with stunning accuracy and efficiency.

Walton Goggins

Walton Goggins

Both shows are rich in local color and forego stereotypical images. Most of the bad guys are white. Some are rich and some are poor. The recurring bad guy in Justified — Walton Goggins — is far and away the most interesting character in the story. Minority characters (African-American and Native American) are resourceful, intelligent, ethical, and flawed. Like white people. Both shows are one long story as well as modular short ones. Justified in particular wants to be seen from the beginning.

See also Louis Proyect on Marxist crime stories.


Good cops — 7 Comments

  1. Thanks for the suggestions, Max. I’ve been deep into cops myself lately, would love to continue with Justified as soon as I finish Happy Valley (Britcops). I also loved The Killing, Top of the Lake, and The Fall. Apparently I’m really into female cops at the moment.

  2. Which British cop stories do you recommend? Dsquared’s been recommending Line of Duty but I’ve yet to see it.

  3. I like Dalziel & Pascoe, Hustle and New Tricks from that list. D&P comes from a series of Reginald Hill books and is reasonably well described in the list. Hustle is kind of a British Leverage (well, Leverage is an American Hustle). New Tricks is again pretty well described in the list.

    All are pretty good mysteries with a reasonable amount of humor

  4. A couple of suggestions from England, and all re-runs: George Gently; Scott and Baily, two women with their own flaws, but well executed, and a female Director; Foyle’s War.

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