Despite potential allusions to alienation under capitalism, Luther risks becoming a tired exploration of man vs evil, argues Sofie Mason
Sadly, Marx had very little to say about whodunnits. And I can see why. There is, of course, the small historical detail that there was very little crime fiction in his lifetime with Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins busy inventing the genre and the first Sherlock Holmes stories hitting the bookshops just one year before Marx died but, apart from that, I think Marx would have had a lot to say to the creators of Luther. And may well have elbowed them aside to re-cut the series and make far more of an opportunity missed.
We tell stories to make sense of the world but Luther - for all its excellent acting, compelling camera work, madcap momentum and intelligent quirky script - gives us a world we can do nothing with except be afraid, very afraid, of our fellow human beings. It is filled with perverts, psychopaths and greed-crazed monsters completely beyond redemption (Alice included) and asks us to watch and wait while a big strong hero (in a dashing charcoal coat and an old Volvo too small for him) figures it all out for us. And saves us. Well, doesn’t actually save that many of us as collateral damage follows his every move – but his mission is to save.
I do understand that whoddunits, whydunnits and howcatch’ems are all about deduction: setting us a puzzle, teasing us with clues, exercising the little grey cells to solve a crime hand in hand with a detective who we care about enough to want them to stay alive. So I shouldn’t expect too much in this orderly world of puzzles. And certainly not a Marxist analysis of class society followed by the overthrow of capitalism and the election of an accountable and recallable workers’ commune to investigate the murders. But, if it’s all about deduction in full knowledge that we will be rewarded with the crime being solved, whether we keep up or not, then crime drama must be as unlike life and as superficial as a math’s exercise.
Admittedly the genre has recently evolved into being increasingly about a search for self as much as a search for the killer (e.g. the detective battling with the whisky bottle, with relationships, with bureaucracy, with depressing Swedish weather or, in Luther’s case, with whether there is love in the world) but that doesn’t get us very far either if this three-dimensional individual is all at sea in a two-dimensional world.
Before Series 4 aired last week, I went back to Series 1. Luther is called away from a child-killer dangling from an iron girder by news of Alice, the attention seeking child genius who has murdered her parents. Then he solves the crimes of a disillusioned soldier manipulated by his abusive father, of a pompous Satanist with too many deep freezers for anyone’s liking, of an impotent man trying to prove his masculinity by kidnapping women in his black cab and finally of a plethora of very greedy maniacs involved in a diamond heist gone wrong including a bent copper, a colleague of Luther’s, who attempts to frame him. It ends on “Now what?” from Luther after a final whirlwind of twists and turns before all loose ends are duly tied up.
I admit I missed the interim two series since 2010 but this, possibly final, series features a world-weary London mobster who thinks Luther is implicated in his son’s disappearance and a psychotic surgeon - so violent and ghoulish that I rather wondered if the writer had run out of ‘normal’ nastiness and had lapsed accidentally into writing a slasher movie on a particularly bleary-eyed all-nighter.
Luther strides with impressive bulk, furrowed brow and grim determination through all of this, followed by loyal colleagues (who mostly get shot) and worried bosses (who mostly get outwitted) and his own capricious Moriarty – funny, furious, lethal Alice who wishes he would spend less time with his work and more time with her, debating whether there is love in the world or just inconsequential matter. If the universe is indifferent to humanity, Alice argues, then Luther should be too. “Your weakness is other people,” shouts the uncomprehending psychopath. But Luther is obsessed with saving people and, early on (before being shot, obvs) his ex-wife says “He would have been happier as a priest.”
So, true to genre, Luther works through the clues and the monsters are caught, one by one, through skilful deduction - even if he is exhausted by the maths, appalled by the unnecessary loss of life along the way and heart-broken by Alice falling to her death. The credits roll to Nina Simone’s haunting rendition of “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, oh Lord, don’t let me be misunderstood.” Luther’s intentions are good and often selfless, but the complexity of his character and the mess he makes of other people’s lives would only teach us something about the world we live in if he weren’t in a fairy tale chasing baddies.
Is Luther perhaps battling the dysfunctional human beings that emerge mangled by capitalism? Maybe. Crime dramas written by Marxists like Stieg Larsson, Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall often use the genre to explore Marx’s theory of alienation to great effect. This is, put broadly, the theory that describes the estrangement of people from aspects of their humanity as a consequence of living in a society divided into social classes. The alienation from the self is a consequence of being a mechanistic part of capitalism where the worker can only express labour—a fundamental social aspect of personal individuality—through a private system of industrial production in which each worker is an instrument, a thing and not a person. The result of this de-humanisation can twist us into madness and murder. But the baddies are such frenzied caricatures that it is not they who tell us of alienation but Luther himself. As he battles to take back agency, flout authority, make up his own rules and find some meaning to his labour in a world full of malignant narcissists, is he exposing the dehumanisation of capitalism or just reinforcing an age-old religious message to fight the evil in men’s souls? Flawed angel or flawed activist, there is no answer to who Luther is.
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