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Going out on a limb with DSI Jane Tennison


Helen Mirren plays DSI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, The Final Act
for Masterpiece Theatre

Author Lynda La Plante 's Prime Suspect has held viewers "on both sides of the Atlantic" since 1992. The final episode aired last night. As DSI Tennison, about to retire and struggling with alcoholism, Mirren continues to enthrall, so much so that watching her sometimes seems more satisfying than solving the crime.

This is often the case with British detectives – a lot of people like being with them, and someone could probably write (or perhaps has already written) an interesting thesis on the strength and eccentricity of character revealed by Lord Peter Whimsey, Sherlock Holmes, Adam Dalgliesh, Brother Cadfael, and Miss Jane Marple. Really, they are more interesting than any murderer.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't want to read about them if they were not solving mysteries, which leads me to why so many British authors have written whodunits. I am sure you can think of far better reasons, but I am going out on a limb with DSI Jane Tennison and give you my theory.

DSI Tennison has a logical, methodical mind, rarely swamped by emotion (though it was in her last case). Like all the detectives mentioned above, she enjoys solving mysteries using reason. Is it unusual that a nation whose Ingenious Timeline shows an embarrassing number of rational achievements and whose freedoms and just laws are rational and practical has so many authors writing mysteries that must be solved using the "little grey cells"? I put it to you this is most natural.

Further (admittedly this is the frosting on the cake, but what is a cake without frosting) the Brits had created a criminal justice system that regularly brought murderers to justice according to precise rules of evidence. Without a fair and workable system of justice, it is doubtful we would be reading and watching mysteries.

I hope I have made my slightly whimsical case.