On ‘True Detective’, ‘The Pledge’ & the passing of time

Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing. You have to be careful what you get good at.

This is primarily a blog about books, but I feel compelled to say a few words about the TV series True Detective. Thanks to my local library (they don’t do just books, you know…), I’ve just worked my way through all eight episodes – and it’s fair to say I was gripped throughout, by the novelistic depth of both the characterisation and the story. This is ambitious television, evidenced in particular by the way the narrative unfolds over an extended period of time. The action is True Detective is spread over 17 years, with different strands taking place in 1995, 2002 and 2012. The two main characters are Louisiana state detectives Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) – as they investigate a chilling series of murders they find themselves drawn towards a dark secret, and their relationship (uneasy from the start) is tested to its extremes.

true detectiveWatching True Detective was especially timely given that I’d recently read Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence, a novel about a child murder that extends over more than 20 years. In Barry Forshaw’s Euro Noir, Wagner says ‘I’m intrigued by the way in which justice can be done, even when the timescale involved is longer than we might like it to be… I try to allow the books to take precisely the time that is required to tell the tales.‘ In the interview, Wagner also refers to one of the main inspirations for Silence, Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1958 novella The Pledge (Das Versprechen), a book that was regularly in my thoughts whilst watching True Detective.

So much of the character of Rustin Cohle – the loner, the obsessive policeman, often ill at ease with his fellow detectives – seems to mirror Durrenmatt’s Inspector Matthai, who in The Pledge cannot leave a case alone, even after retiring from the police force. As True Detective continues, we learn more about Cohle’s background, and find out just what price he has paid for being a detective. And yet despite that, he cannot leave it alone. As much as it costs him, the job gives Cohle’s life meaning, which perhaps explains why he is so obsessed by it.

In Episode 7 Hart and Cohle meet again for the first time in ten years. Cohle asks his former partner for help; given their history Hart is reluctant, and mystified at Cohle’s inability to let the past go. But Cohle is resolute – ‘I won’t avert my eyes,‘ he says. ‘Not again.’ Watching this scene, my mind went to a similar line in The Pledge. Matthai is the only one of the detectives able to look at the body of the dead girl; and the only one willing to break the dreadful news about her murder to her parents. He sums up his sense of duty in one telling phrase: ‘A policeman never looks away.

And when Matthai says never, he means it – even though the investigation might take many years and (like Cohle) cost him a great deal. Whilst The Pledge does end with a resolution, it is only partial, and lacks much of the satisfaction common to mystery stories. Similarly, in True Detective the ending is somewhat downbeat, and not as triumphant as one might expect from other examples of the genre. Arguably, it’s one of the least interesting things about the series, as True Detective is not a story about resolution – as Rustin Cohle says, ‘nothing is ever over’ – but rather the ways in which people try to give their lives meaning – whether through family, sex, drugs or work, or a myriad of other pursuits.

I can’t recommend True Detective highly enough. The series’ vision is dark, but gripping; and the protagonists are compelling and ultimately very human, with flaws which throw their commitment to the pursuit of justice into sharp relief. If television is not your bag then you could do worse than seek out show-runner Nic Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston, which displays a similar sympathetic understanding of its characters lives – however unsympathetic they might at first appear. Being able to perform this kind of storytelling alchemy – turning base motives into gold – is no easy feat, and is surely one of the key reasons why these stories remain so resonant.


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