The Use and Abuse of Grief in Detective Series

The Use and Abuse of Grief in Detective Series

by Emily S. Mendel and SCA Schulman

The Use and Abuse of Grief in TV Detective Series: Monk, NCIS, Inspector Lewis, CSI NY, Leverage and The Mentalist

  The Mentalist 
Patrick Jane, The Mentalist

Detective stories are one of life’s small pleasures. Unlike sci-fi and vampire tales, which are based in another reality, investigators work in our cold hard world. Detectives and private investigators, whether amateur or professional, are analytical and rational, unlike characters in romantic fiction. Real detectives can’t look into the future or see dead people. They use only their insight, curiosity and powers of observation.

Sleuths are typically strangers to the murder victims and suspects. We believe that they describe their experiences objectively; we take them at their word. Although fiction, the P.I.’s experience is presented as fact. But whereas fiction often meanders, mysteries use no spare words. And at the end of the account, the investigator (and sometimes the reader as well) solves the mystery, discovers “who-done-it,” and sets the world on its rightful course once more.

However, as the detective story transitioned from 19th century novels to 21st century television, the personality and life history of the detective has changed greatly. Unlike the unsullied and gentlemanlike private investigator with few intimate relations, current television investigators are often saddled with a back-story of grief over a loved one’s death.

Neither Sherlock Holmes (created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot (both created by Dame Agatha Christie), Nero Wolfe (created by Rex Stout), nor Inspector Endeavour Morse (created by Colin Dexter) ever married or had children. In fact, not one even had a long-term romantic relationship. They may have had the occasional infatuation, but they were married to their work.

Their single status makes these detectives outsiders, while at the same time allowing for greater development of their characters and idiosyncrasies; it also eliminated the need for messy subplots. With the absence of the sleuth’s personal life, the reader concentrates on these investigators’ mysteries, mind and method — and that seems to be enough.

Poirot and Holmes could travel at will, keep odd hours and risk danger. Their constant companions and foils, Watson and Hastings, never inhibited or interfered with crime solving as a worried spouse might. We are assuming that the “couples” are not sexual partners, although we know those contrary theories are out there.

What has changed now? Why is the current crop of male television detectives mourning murdered wives and children?

It is instructive to compare the television character, Inspector Morse (acted by the sorely missed John Thaw) with Morse’s subordinate, Sergeant Robbie Lewis (played by Kevin Whately).

Morse is old school. He drinks early and often; he’s equal parts brilliance and irascibility; he neglects his health; he’s a melancholy loner. Morse just misses being a pure classic detective because he does occasionally make mistakes. Nevertheless, Morse is nearly a tragic figure, with his erudition competing with his undermining flaws and loneliness.

Lewis, on the other hand, is Morse’s more modern counter-part, a stable family man who lacks Morse’s angst, intelligence and education.
In the recent television series, Inspector Lewis, (still played by Kevin Whately),, the action takes place several years after Morse’s death. Lewis has been promoted to Inspector. As the new show begins, we learn that Lewis’ wife has been killed by a hit-and-run driver in the intervening years.

Why was his wife killed off in this recent series but not the former one? To carry the lead in the Inspector Lewis series, Lewis needed to have a back-story that would instantly imbue him with gravitas and maturity. Without those traits, the audience may not have found him complex or sympathetic. Plus, no messy subplots.
Why so many dead wives and children of TV detectives these days? Television moves quickly; character development is often accomplished in a few minutes. The deaths they endured quickly signal to the audience that these investigators have a past of some joy but great despair.

Their past misfortunes humanize these investigators. Their heartaches allow them to empathize with the victims they encounter, without being considered sissies. Their tragedies give them a free pass to be more in touch with their “feminine” side. Their “femininity” leads to kindness and intuition, typically seen as female traits.
Although not being entangled in romantic relationships might be considered unconventional for prime time television, it is homage to the classic loner sleuth.

Let’s review a list of recent television detectives (including police and con artists) with murdered wives, relatives and/or children. This list is by no means complete. The authors don’t watch that much television.

Adrian Monk (Tony Shalub, Monk, USA) Wife murdered in a car bombing.

Senior Inspector Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon, NCIS, CBS) First wife and child murdered by a Mexican drug dealer.

Patrick Jane (Simon Baker, The Mentalist, CBS) Wife and child murdered by a serial killer.

Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton, Leverage, TNT) Child died because of the greed of Ford’s health insurance company.

Head Investigator Mac Taylor (Gary Sinise, CSI: NY, CBS) Wife killed in the 9/11 attacks.

Inspector Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately, Inspector Lewis, PBS) Wife killed in a hit and run car accident.

There is a subtle movement afoot to imbue female detectives with the anguish of a murdered relative. For example, the mother of the hard-boiled Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic, Castle, ABC) was murdered by a hit man.

So, as brokenhearted male investigators are becoming more “feminine,” grief stricken female investigators may be becoming especially tough and casehardened — more traditionally “masculine” qualities.

Oh – one more thing, Lieutenant Columbo (Peter Falk, Columbo, NBC) doesn’t fit the pattern, since he was happily married. Even though she was never seen on screen, Mrs. Columbo was always in the Lieutenant’s thoughts.

Emily S Mendel and SCA Schulman
© Emily S. Mendel 2010

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for