Sin Redefined in the PBS Detective Series Unforgotten

Moral relativism is so widespread that it is even beginning to ruin murder mysteries. The sin of cold-blooded murder, one of the last sins left standing in liberalism, is disappearing before our eyes from where one would think it could not disappear, namely, a genre owing everything to the blatant violation of the fifth commandment. More and more, I have noticed, the villain turns out to not be the murderer, but the society, or the condition, or the family that made him a murderer—anything, other than him and his own freely willed choice for evil. And the suspects, who, according to W.H. Auden, usually also have sins they wish to hide, likewise possess wills too damaged to be free, and are therefore absolved of responsibility as well.

Auden’s classic analysis of murder mysteries, “The Guilty Vicarage,” a 1948 Harper’s essay, makes the traditional whodunnit partially isomorphic with the Christian story: a closed society (e.g., garden or drawing room) in a state of grace, is invaded by “a rebel who claims the right to be omnipotent”; after his “demonic pride” has been revealed, his execution is “an act of atonement”; the detective-type (a Christ figure) is a champion of truth (like Holmes), sacrificing for humanity (like the yeoman Inspector French), while caring for souls (like Father Brown). Auden doesn’t need to say, for it is beyond obvious, that sin is undeniable in murder mysteries.

Nowhere has the loss of the sense of sin at the heart of murder struck me more than in the recent otherwise excellently done and superbly acted PBS series Unforgotten, imported from England.

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The premise of this series contains a deep but short-lived moral promise. A murder from decades ago is unearthed and prompts a new investigation. Detective Chief Inspector Cassie Stuart, played as a persistent but compassionate divorced detective by Nicola Walker, asks in the first moments whether a crime stops being wrong merely because it took place long ago. In that preliminary instinct, she upholds traditional moral thought and conscience’s constant call for justice, but the series won’t stay morally traditional for long. The statute of limitations never runs out on murder perhaps, but her judgment regarding sin follows today’s standards, not timeless ones. The victim was a teenage male prostitute, innocent because indigence forced him into this business; according to this story, a second victim is more spotless still: he hangs out at gay bars having sex with strangers, not daring to speak his condition’s name in the homophobic 1970s. All the violence considered illicit nowadays in these riotous environs comes from “gay-haters.”

As Auden predicted, many of the series’ prime suspects have sins to hide,especially those condoned or excused by society today, which eventually are cancelled or overshadowed by even deadlier so-called “sins” of contemporary culture: hypocrisy, verbal abuse, narcissism, sexual abuse, clerical abuse, white nationalism, patriarchy, postpartum depression, and the unjust distribution of wealth—all graver, in this contemporary evaluation, than fornication, drunkenness, lying, sodomy, divorce, adultery, abortion, murder, and conspiracy to murder.

Sir Philip Cross, a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet, turns out to have a past as a henchman for a crime family, “to get out of a house with no running water.” He has a man burned alive in his house, for example, so that his son and daughter won’t have to suffer poverty: “All that I’ve done,” he tells them while in jail, “has been so that you wouldn’t have to do what I’ve done.” The moral vision of this series has him admit his crime when he doesn’t need to, and then hang himself in prison as  absolution after his confession. Suicide is not shown as a further sin but as a just sentence—self-administered euthanasia. Elizabeth Wilton, once a skinhead and drug addict because she was abused by her father, is now married to a black coach of an underprivileged soccer team to compensate for having committed a nameless hate crime.

Vicar Robert Greaves’s “sins”—insensitivity to the needs of his wife and family, narcissism, not sharing a dark secret, and the sexual abuse of a minor by a clergyman—drown out the adultery and intended abortion that are passed over by this contemporary moral theology. He has also been dipping into the collection plate for years in order to give the daughter he had planned to abort the good things of the bourgeoisie. However, she pummels him upon learning of the shame brought to family respectability. Finally, this accomplice to murder gains the Chief Inspector’s sympathy enough to have charges dropped because he “liked men” in a time difficult for gay men; as it turns out, he was a self-hating gay, and nearly beat another gay man to death, which (of course) he wouldn’t have done had he been able to live out his inclination openly and without self-hatred.

His wife, who herself hated gays enough to hammer two to death and help her husband bury the bodies (one in her backyard), murdered in each case as a—are you ready?—side-effect of post-partum depression not covered at the time by the National Health Service due to the prevailing misogynistic attitudes. She is off the hook now, “unfit to plead,” because of dementia, and meets with “justice” through what formerly would have been another sin: a son who lays hands on her for having embarrassed the family. The “guilty” parties, you see, were the homophobic, patriarchal societies of the past and post-partum depression, being none other than nature’s vengeance on a homophobic society that required people to marry in spite of their inclinations. The moral somersaults are so twisted and disconnected from the Western moral tradition that anyone brought up according to the precepts of the perennial natural moral law will be light-headed, confounded, and stumped.

The series has one other feature which may be at first bewildering to a Catholic. All the suspects and murderers have the gravest “sin” in contemporary morality in common, which might even demonstrate discretion: they have hid their dark pasts from their families. The suspects are accused of hypocrisy, and yet they are not, to my eyes, hypocrites. They aren’t leading double lives, i.e., actively engaged in evil-doing while pretending to be paragons of social commitment, rather, they have once done evil, put it away, and are even presently engaged in good works for others: their constituency, their students, their flock—and, in the vicar’s case, his illegitimate daughter. (The vicar’s decades-long dipping into the collection basket is reduced to a peccadillo too trivial to pursue in law!) Why should prudential discretion in avoiding scandal always and without question be overridden by the public need to know? Does no one acknowledge that scandal is a stumbling block to virtue and an invitation to sin?

Instead, what causes so much grief is that these wrongdoers have once done evil and not confessed it to their families or, in the cabinet minister’s case, to the public at large. In other words, they have been “inauthentic,” i.e., inconsistent with their former selves. This great abomination of existentialism has zero inkling of the sin of scandal. Is public confession so necessary in the Anglo-American secularized Protestant culture because the practice of sacramental confession made privately to a priest is nearly unknown while the instinctive call for confession yet remains? The series raises moral concerns far deeper than the ones it cares about.

The second series provides an even more extreme moral exculpation. Three murder victims turn out to have committed sexual abuse, and their murderers, who were victimized by them, have met at a psychiatric hospital and hatched a plot to finish off each other’s abusers. In the case of one of the murderers, his crime is further excused because it would interfere with his—and his husband’s—“right” to adopt a girl. “You have no right to judge me,” he tells Chief Inspector Cassie and the audience, “unless you’ve had it done to you.” She agrees, and decides to drop all three cases. Thus murder is not only forgivable; it is now forgettable. A third series is planned. Four males will be under suspicion for the murder of a teenage girl whose case went cold at the turn of the millennium. Call me cynical if I predict that some of the principals will commit the crime of patriarchy and religion.

Alistair MacIntyre has written about the “catastrophe” that has visited contemporary moral discourse because of, among other things (like emotivism and the Enlightenment’s hyper-rationalism), the “conceptual incommensurability of rival arguments.” As a society, we no longer agree that abortion is murder or that goods may fall into a hierarchy, and so, as one consequence of the lack of consensus, we shout interminably. It is more and more difficult, at least for an orthodox Catholic, to find sufficient moral bearing to understand contemporary literature, to be moved and satisfied by the outcome, and relieved of pity and fear in the right places, even in a genre that once functioned precisely, according to Auden, to satisfy our primal longing for justice. But in life as in literature, sin of old has not disappeared but, instead, is transformed into something new. The life of the unborn is now less important than finishing a degree on schedule; a feeling of being unloved justifies adultery and incest justifies cold-blooded murder; revenge shapes justice; hypocrisy cries out for calumny; disapproval becomes verbal abuse; a glare requires a restraining order and a bodyguard; crude flirting conflates with rape; distinctions fade and we are indifferent.

Even close to the sanctuary of Holy Mother Church, being welcoming overrides sin, tolerance waives belief, mediocrity buries merit, and society’s conscience establishes dictatorship. With no shared standard, goodness declares war on itself. I knew then that the days were long gone when Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hard-bitten private eye who couldn’t be bought, hissed at a homosexual or when a noir film vilified an abortionist in the shadows. But I wasn’t expecting murder to be excused because of inadequate health insurance.

Of course, being also a lover of Sophocles and Shakespeare and Tolstoy, I certainly can face ambiguity and tragic complexity, and am even capable of sympathy for an Oedipus, Macbeth, or Anna Karenina, so long as the empathic author and I have synched our moral compasses. In his first soliloquy, Macbeth names eight goods destroyed by regicide (i.e., kinship, sovereignty, civic virtue, humility, order, hospitality, salvation, and psychic peace), and yet he throws away his soul, an “immortal jewel,” for “vaulting ambition.” Shakespeare and I are on the same page of the natural moral law; his devil is more aware of evil than today’s officers of the court. But a new paradigm, more moralistic than moral, and trendy rather than timeless, threatens not only a classic moral genre, but even the compass itself.


  • Kenneth Colston

    Kenneth Colston’s articles and reviews have appeared in The New Criterion; LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; First Things; New Oxford Review; St. Austin’s Review, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He is a retired teacher who lives in St. Louis.

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