“Glimpses of the Pattern: Thoughts on ‘True Detective’”


by Sam Buntz

[WARNING: If you’re not up-to-date with the show, there are a couple of spoilers.]

The Arabian Nights includes the first murder mystery ever written; with the innocuous title “The Three Apples”, I assumed the tale was going to involve home-spun folkloric hi-jinks, perhaps involving the theft of some apples (which it later does, as the story progresses).  But, being somewhat familiar with the Nights, I should’ve known better: it’s actually, primarily, about a Baghdad-area fisherman who pulls a locked chest out of the Tigris river, and delivers it to the Sultan, Harun al-Rashid.  Upon breaking open the chest, the Sultan discovers that it contains the dismembered corpse of a young woman.  Outraged, he gives his vizier Jafar (not to be confused with the malevolent character from Aladdin) three days to crack the case, after which, if unsuccessful, Jafar will be put to death… But to find out what happens, you’ll need to read the story (or, at least, a detailed summary of it like I did).  It’s not really much of a “detective” tale, since Jafar himself plays almost no conscious role in cracking the case, but it gets pretty shocking, nevertheless.

To get to the point, I’ve been watching the show True Detective recently, and—while utterly different in almost every other way—the HBO series still retains the same basic prompt as “The Three Apples”, the original whodunit: a young woman is graphically murdered in a ritualized manner, leading someone to initiate the counter-ritual of solving it and putting the culprit to death.  In making this observation, I’m slightly indebted to the Canadian literary magus, Northrop Frye, who claimed that every murder mystery is “a sacrificial ritual in a moral context”, meaning that it satisfies a weird, primal urge in us to witness a ritual death, coupled with the socially acceptable need to see the ancient sacrificial ritual transformed into a moral ritual by adding a second murder, the death of the killer— thus bringing the plot in line with the ancient Mosaic code’s prescription of “an eye for an eye.”  Imaginatively, we become like ancient Israelites, rooting for capital punishment against pagans who’ve been sacrificing babies to Moloch (or, in this case, sacrificing a young woman to another dark deity).

I’d say this is broadly true for the vast majority of detective stories, and obviously True Detective isn’t an exception.  But the show provides, in its particulars, a rich experience.  On the one hand, Woody Harrelson’s Marty and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust form a classic cop pairing:  Marty is, as he puts it, “just a regular guy with a big-ass dick”, and Rust, while a complex character not easily susceptible to stock-character generalizations, is “smart,” the Brain.  He’s got a stack of criminal justice and psychology textbooks sitting against the wall in his sparsely furnished home, and although he believes the universe is essentially a product of Chaos, he’s still moved to categorize and use “ten dollar words”—to try to fit the evidence he sees into a logical pattern.  He even possesses a nickname befitting such a counter-homicidal logician—“The Taxman,” inspired by the ledger-sized notebook in which he scribbles down clues.  As with so many cop duos, the ghost of Watson and Sherlock Holmes hovers—however distantly—overhead.

But McConaughey’s character is clearly a darker and more troubled figure than Sherlock Holmes ever was—to say the least.  Sherlock Holmes didn’t, after all, believe that human consciousness was accidental or that Chaos lay at the root of the cosmos (at least, I don’t believe he ever publicly articulated such beliefs).  But Rust, in Marty’s words, says “odd shit” like this pretty frequently.  His bleak worldview stems from the death of his two year-old daughter some years earlier, and the ensuing dissolution of his marriage.  Compound that with years as an undercover narc, forced by his profession to take numerous drugs in the line-of-duty—consequently leading to persistent hallucinations and flash-backs—and you have a character with a rather “unique” way of looking at things.  (McConaughey is extraordinarily good at conveying Rust’s tangled, tortured inner self—for one thing, he knows how to avoid eye contact with the other characters in a somehow very convincing way.)

Yet, despite the fact that Marty is the more “normal” one, the series thus far strongly implies that Rust manages to get closer to The Truth—perhaps because of his abnormalities.  The deranged level of existence Rust inhabited for so long—and still, mentally, inhabits—has taught him about the fundamental insanity of the world, giving him a quicker insight into the real nature of situations and characters.  On the other hand, Marty is ruining his family through his own infidelities, looking and acting ridiculously (like when he storms into his girlfriend’s apartment), despite his identity as the “regular guy” in the pair.

In a stray comment, Frye connects the excitement of detective stories with the excitement of playing cards or chess, stating that the logical pattern for which readers and players both search is “part of a haphazard chance chaos with fitful glimpses of pattern—runs of luck, etc.—running through it.”  This is spelled out symbolically on the show when Rust thinks he sees a flock of departing birds suddenly form the occult, spiral design that was tattooed on the back of the victim.  Frye’s observation plays directly into Rust’s philosophy as well—as a cop, he’s always on the look out for the logical pattern running through and arising from the fundamental Chaos that he believes constitutes reality.  Whereas Marty claims to believe in the basic order presented by his neighbors’ Christian worldview, his actions only immerse him in Chaos, whereas Rust consciously and intentionally immerses himself in the Chaos of biker gangs and the criminal underground for the purpose of discovering a hidden order.  These facts may or may not have entered Nic Pizzolato’s mind at the level of direct intention—but they’re definitely there.  (Pizzolato is the mystery writer who created the show and authored every episode.)

Yet, we can’t predict how True Detective will develop this dynamic between its characters.  In the “present day” part of the show, it seems Rust may be the suspect in the copycat killing based on the murder he and Marty investigated and apparently solved back in 1997—since the detectives interviewing Marty say that they’re particularly keen to understand how Rust proceeded in uncovering the case, in addition to asking him about Rust’s behavior outside of work.  It makes me think about a Swiss mystery novel I once read, where an old cop who works from his gut, using a deep experiential knowledge of human nature, is able to crack the murder case, while his partner, a young devotee of modern scientific detection, turns out to be the killer, who uses his up-to-date methods to frame someone else and obscure the dark desires that truly drive him.  So, there’s always the risk that the Logician is the real danger—more murderous than the Beast. (The Beast, incidentally, is a scary guy marching around in his yard wearing naught but a gas mask and white briefs at the end of Episode Three.)

Speaking of “The Beast”, Frye says that the goal of the detective story is usually to show “how the energy of moral evil can be outwitted by the logic of moral virtue.”   In this case, the Beast—Reggie Ledoux—is evil “energy”, which runs rampant by torturing and murdering young women, in addition to manufacturing meth and LSD.  Rust, on the other hand, represents good logic—though that might yet prove to be a screen masking greater reservoirs of evil “energy”.  The natural course for the show to follow would be for Rust to be accused of the copycat murders–then, he and Marty, now reunited as a team, would need to uncover the real killer.  (Of course, I expect the show will try to deviate from that expected path to some degree).

In a higher sense, that’s the core conflict of the detective story—good logic against wicked passion.  On the other hand, there are genres of narrative where good passion overwhelms wicked logic (The Matrix, to provide a contemporary example—though Christ’s “Passion” in overthrowing Satan, “The Prince of This World”, might be the archetypal version of this alternative pattern.)  But, aside from some intentionally contrarian examples like the Swiss mystery I mentioned—and “The Three Apples”, where the pattern is discovered through near-miraculous coincidences—this is the way the detective story usually tends to work…  At any rate, I look forward to seeing how Pizzolato manages to toy with these expectations.  I don’t think he’ll base the labyrinth’s layout on a prefab pattern.


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