True Detective has an unusual amount of theology for a cop show. The hero, Rustin Cohle, is a fervent atheist, who delivers soliloquies on the meaninglessness of existence as he and his partner drive to the next crime scene. Human consciousness is an ‘evolutionary misstep’, humans are ‘biological puppets’, religion is a consoling ‘fairy tale’ for morons.
Cohle has his own atheist fairy tales, however. He is drawn to Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Return, according to which time circles round and repeats itself. The baddies he is chasing happen to share this quirky cosmic theory. What are the chances! You can’t move for all the Nietzscheans in Louisiana.
Although it’s unusual for a TV cop show to be so overtly theological (or atheological), True Detective in fact comes from a long tradition of thinking theologically through detective fiction, which stretches back through PD James, Dorothy L. Sayers and Father Roland Knox all the way to GK Chesterton (or, if you want to go back further, to Daniel, the first sleuth in literature).
As crime writer Jason Webster recently argued, the detective is a sort of priest-figure for secular modernity. Crucially – and in accordance with the second of Father Knox’ ‘Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction’ – the detective does not rely on divine assistance to solve crimes. Instead, they try to solve the problem of evil and suffering using only their natural attributes of intelligence, empathy and scientific method.
They may also be assisted by the technocratic bureaucracy of the police force – the detective novel arose in the 19th century, side-by-side with the establishment of state police systems. However, detective fiction often shows a sort of Weberian ambivalence towards bureaucracy – it is corrupt or simply an annoying obstacle to the Nietzschean genius of the detective (think Dirty Harry).
Although the detective is a secular priest-substitute, they exhibit many of the features of their predecessor. The detective is often a ‘man of sorrows’, a solitary figure, isolated and driven to the brink of destruction by his passion for truth and justice. He or she has a burning sense that the universe must be intelligible, it must make sense. This transcendental longing is a religious impulse – why should we care so passionately about truth and justice, if the universe is a farrago of atoms?
The detective-priest follows the clues, uncover the crimes, and free the kidnapped victims like Jesus harrowing Hell. They reveal the hidden machinations of the Enemy. They can do this because, like a priest, they know the dark depths of the human heart. GK Chesterton’s Father Brown says a good detective must know the capacity for evil within themselves, within all of us. The detective’s ability to get a confession is also priest-like – although Cohle in True Detective tends to listen sympathetically before leaning over and whispering ‘you should probably kill yourself’.
Above all, as Chesterton wrote, the detective story gives us a religious sense that the landscape of modernity is filled with signs, clues, glimpses of a higher pattern. It becomes a landscape infused with meaning, redeemed from banality and meaninglessness. And yet the code we are deciphering is not God’s, but the murderer’s.
The murderer has taken the place of God. They have – particularly in recent crime dramas – become a sort of Nietzschean myth-maker, creating the legend of themselves, and using their victims as materials.
The pioneer of this idea of the serial killer as myth-maker is Thomas Harris – in Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer literally uses other people as material for his Nietzschean self-construction. Red Dragon has a similar idea of the serial killer authoring themselves, transforming themselves into something new through their acts of violence.
We also meet the serial killer as myth-maker in David Fincher’s films – John Doe in Se7en uses his victims as materials for his ‘masterpiece’. We see it in David Peace’s Red Riding books, where the murdering paedophiles give themselves mythical identities – the Wolf, the Swan, the King. True Detective clearly owes a lot to Red Riding – it has a similarly layered time structure and sense of the sediment of evil building up over time. And it also involves a paedophile ring with mythical pretensions, who wear animal masks and call themselves things like the Yellow King.
In all of these, the murderer is the artist, the detective a mere literary critic. To solve the crime, they go not to forensics or ballistics, but to the library to read Dante. The author of True Detective used to teach English in academia, and his hero even looks like an academic, with a corduroy jacket and a leather-bound journal.
This is the strange conclusion then – we are so starved of myths and of meaning in secular modernity, that we turn with something like relief to the work of serial killers, to pore over their mythical patterns, like the obsessive amateur sleuth played by Jake Gyllenhall in David Fincher’s Zodiac.
The murderer redeems our world from ennui and triviality. Violence redeems it. Mortality redeems it – think how, in the 24-hour frenzy of narcissism and triviality that is Twitter, each celebrity death, no matter how minor the celebrity, is greeted with awed and mawkish reverence.
Our continued fondness for detective fiction shows we have a nostalgia for evil. There is no such thing as evil in a strictly materialist world-view. There are only various medical pathologies – autism, personality disorder, psychopathology. TS Eliot said ‘all psychology ends either in glands or theology’. In psychiatry it ends in glands. As Nietszche foresaw, once God has died, one can quickly feel a terrible flatness and boredom. That ancient cosmic battle between Good and Evil is revealed to be a neurological puppet-show, nothing more.
We have lost the dignity of sin. Some morbid souls still long for that dignity. One of them was Baudelaire. As TS Eliot perceived, Baudelaire’s attraction to evil is a rejection of naturalism ‘in favour of Heaven and Hell’. Eliot wrote: ‘In…an age of bustle, programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism and revolutions which proved nothing, Baudelaire perceived that what really matters is Sin and Redemption…and the possibility of damnation’. Damnation becomes ‘a relief…a form of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living’.
Lars Von Trier is another morbid soul. The heroine of his new film, Nymphomaniac, insists that her nature is evil, even though she is not religious. Her interviewer asks her: ‘why would you hold onto the least sympathetic concept in religion – the idea of sin – while rejecting the rest of it’? The answer is because there is a pride and dignity in sin, which medical materialism takes away.