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In the recent trilogy of Swedish movies beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a rather unpleasant fantasy plays out for the viewer. A young, misfit girl (Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander) is sexually abused, and, as the films drive towards their conclusion, revenges herself upon her immediate tormentors, and then ultimately upon the more distant cause of her misfortunes. Of course, the harm done to her is not presented as a misfortune: as in every crime story, it is presented as an avoidable harm for which responsibility must be determined and compensation exacted. This particular installment of the crime genre plays out as a fantasy of collective guilt and as a fantasy of empowerment, and we democrats win both ways: since government is of and by “the people,” crime is our fault, especially when the perpetrators act under the aegis of democratic authority, and we thus get to feel responsible both for violating and for protecting the law.

Things seem to be settled equitably, even liberally, by the conclusion of the trilogy: the malefactors are variously punished by death, imprisonment, embarrassment; the victims become rich, notable, and revenged. But why are we watching this particular adventure of the spirit at the present time?

Scandinavian crime fiction is a hot genre right now, and I admit to being a consumer of the novels of Henning Mankell (Sweden), Jo Nesbø and Karin Fossum (Norway), and Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland). Plodding back through time, it is worthwhile to discover Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö’s considerably less lurid and more Simenon-like stories featuring the detective Martin Beck. What I like best about Mankell’s novels is his protagonist, Kurt Wallander, who works too hard, drinks too much, and gets the job done. I like the way Wallander’s father is portrayed in semi-ethical repetition, painting the same landscape, either with or without a grouse in the foreground. Nesbø’s Harry Hole, in contrast, feels like a superhero. But, regardless of my enjoyment of the procedural quality of these books—which are admittedly, not exactly Holmes-ish in their emphasis on deduction—the appeal is negative, and has a lot to do with fear.

Fear is a great theme of modern political philosophy. To cite a notable example, the antithesis between useful fear and dangerous, personal vanity is made into the fundamental theme of political philosophy by Thomas Hobbes. The liberal project relies, somewhat ironically, on domesticating fear as the building-block of social order. Fear gives us prospective glasses to see how to relieve our estate, and fear stops men from making the characteristic claim that they are superior to others. In Jeremy Bentham’s Principles of the Penal Code, for example, he discusses the affect that alarm should have on the criminalization and punishment of offenses. For the most part, Bentham writes, a highwayman is much more frightening than a derelict or even a dangerous government official, because the former threatens all society, whereas the latter has his little fiefdom in which he exerts undue control. (The Soup Nazi in television’s Seinfeld bears out Bentham’s point.) Bentham continues:

However, there is one important exception. If the delinquent is clothed with great powers; if he envelops in his sphere of action a great number of persons; his situation, though peculiar, increases the circuit of alarm instead of diminishing it. Let a judge undertake to rob, to kill, to tyrannize; let a military officer make it his business to plunder, to vex, to shed blood; the alarm they will excite, being proportioned to the extent of their powers, may surpass that of their most atrocious robberies.

In Bentham’s analysis of the state as imagined by Hobbes, mighty and frightening, we see the explanation for at least some of the Salander trilogy’s power, from which we may infer the following: the bigger and more powerful the government, the more citizens will be provoked to fear it. So, how can you, following Bentham’s analysis, alleviate your fear of governmental power when the offending officer is an unaccountable part of the vast social welfare state? Won’t the punishment of the individual malefactor remain unsatisfying, with so many other functionaries to fear?

In the Millenium films, the judicial system and the free media turn out to be sufficient safeguards of the people’s security and liberty, if under much duress and after the fact. Thus, we are invited to focus not on the multitude of potential criminals within the government, but instead upon the plurality of possible friends we have within civil society. The films leave us with a strong sense that what legitimizes government is not its regular workings, including the electoral exchange of offices and separation of powers, but the irregular surveillance over government activities that is accomplished by heroic individuals. This same spirit animates Hollywood’s often-critical portrayals of governmental activity, whether one has in mind the myriad superhero franchises (Batman, Superman, Ironman) or dystopian fantasies like Salt. The hero stands outside and even against the popularly-elected government, as well as above it. They give a jolt to the constitutional system, removing the cause of the fear that plagues citizens.

In Mankell’s novels, the protagonist works both in and outside the law. Mankell’s worry about the fabric of Swedish society, strained by the influx of immigrants, speaks from the same place as Angela Merkel and David Cameron do in their 2010 and 2011 speeches on radicalism, foreigners, and the failure of multicultural society. Mankell speaks in Faceless Killers with the strained hope that Euro-model cosmopolitanism will still work. In The Return of the Dancing Master, the story unfolds in defense of Sweden against racist visions of purity and excellence. (Mankell’s own controversial support of Palestine and his expressed contempt for Israel bears further examination in this context). Detective fiction, with its emphasis on chains of reasoning, is quite well-suited to social commentary. They activity of the detective underlines our rational fear, and does not cancel out fear from the outside or by the opportune intervention of a super-heroic man.

But the detective novel and film also raises bigger questions. When fear is not cabined into CSI-ish questions about murders, procedures, and evidence, does it open out into bigger fears concerning meaning and justice that are much more difficult to resolve? For “mere” genre art, this is a grave question to ask. Nevertheless, it is at the heart of detective fiction, of which the Swedish novels are exemplary. One example of reason-defying fear is the fear that there is no god to administer punishment and reward for our actions. In the modern death-of-god, or rather death-as-god world that existentialists, detectives, and other seekers inhabit, it is accepted that there is no natural or permanent repository of righteous opinion and righteous punishment. Modern political philosophy has done its best to marginalize these questions and the fears attendant upon them by empowering the state to wield the sword and either to interpret doctrine, as in the Hobbesian state, or to be wholly separated from doctrine, as in the Lockean state. In Chapter Fifteen of Leviathan, for example, Thomas Hobbes argues that we have no natural knowledge of man’s estate after death; what evidence we have to support these fears is hearsay and superstition. James Crimmins has persuasively argued that Bentham mounts a similarly Hobbesian campaign to euthanize the church and its theologically-inspired hopes and fears. At the heart of this project is the need to control and tame the imagination, which produces imaginary fears and offenses based on transgressions of the laws whose only author(s) are “powers invisible.” Modern philosophy should tame the imagination, which imagination can then be excited, strategically, for harmless entertainment in film and novels.

The clear-sighted detective is able to maneuver in an environment that calls the ultimate source and solidity of moral order into question. Other characters trip into self-approving vanity, like Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, in The Maltese Falcon. Other characters stumble backwards into self-denying ignorance, claiming, as Llewelyn Moss’s wife does at the end of No Country for Old Men, that the killer is “crazy,” presuming that she, in contrast, is sane and innocent. What distinguishes the good detective novel or film from genres that duck real moral questions, as even philosophy does at times, is that the detective story is about questions, probably insoluble ones, and not solely about promises of redressing victimization, though some authors overly exercised by questions of moral order drift into these eddies and pools. (Good—or bad—examples are John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener and Henning Mankell’s Kennedy’s Brain. It seems that some authors just cannot handle Africa as a moral question.) This genre is about our moral order, and whether it is discovered or imposed, and, if imposed, by whose justice? There are variations on this theme. Walter Mosley’s books are about the moral order and disorder as it is shaped by race in America. The novels of Elmore Leonard are about the highly contested order that is imposed as well as threatened by manliness.

Novels and films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fail their task because, in the spirit of modernity, they try to impose a resolution of the philosophical question of justice. There is a “happy ending”—humans are able to achieve reasonable control over the social environment and to explain suffering. The pained conscience of the victim-protagonist is healed by the workings of the same society that caused her pain, and no other question—or suffering—is left over to torment us. In contrast, the best detective fiction raises questions—think of the lacerating chain of reasoning offered by Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade to Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy at the end of The Maltese Falcon; or, in Steven Lenzner’s stunning interpretation of Miller’s Crossing, the self-questioning (“What did I want?”) of Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Regan; or Jeff Goldblum’s question in 80s pop-culture noir Into the Night (“Why can’t I sleep?”). The best movies and novels present control as a fantasy, one that animates crook as well as copper. By imposing justice on a world where we aren’t special and where our loves aren’t permanent, and then lingering to question whether we were wise to impose the particular order that we did—the ambiguous detective story proves to be the genre for a liberal age.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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