INSPECTOR LEWIS: Crime, Art, Imagination, and Fantasy

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When Wallace Stevens wrote, “We say God and the imagination are one,” he wasn’t talking about fantasy. Nor was William Blake when he identified imagination with Christ, his savior. They were both talking about a deeply serious human function, the most crucial of all human functions, they said, which either allies us to the godhead, or defines us as a part of the godhead. And they saw imagination as a far cry from what we do internally when we take time out from “serious life” to revel in fantasy.

I also take the imagination very seriously; and for that reason I am inspired to draw a deep theoretical line in the sand between works birthed by the sublimity of imagination and the fabrication of the leisure time frivolity of fantasizing. The latter is, as I understand it, the stuff of which the lion’s share of television series’ are made. But I also perceive a gray area. I certainly define as clear fantasy the British television series Inspector Lewis (2006-2015). But Lewis offers a particularly tasty occasion for using the clarity of theoretical distinctions in order to investigate practices where the line wiggles. This happens when the fantasy of Inspector Lewis finds itself encountering serious works of the imagination. Inevitably, some level of conflict ensues.

Dialogue between imagination and fantasy happens. It happens both in the mass media and in high culture, and, as might be expected, the home team has the advantage. When great works of the imagination explore fantasy, they express a high culture perspective on fantasy as intense and dangerous, likely to run amok, as for example in Blake’s epics, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the works of David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. When fantasy looks at art, it serves an opposing impulse, a low culture, leveling urge to cast itself as more genuine and delicious than what it points to as dry, high-fallutin’ art. For example in one of the otherwise glorious Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, Shall We Dance? (1937), Fred Astaire stars as a ballet dancer who learns the superior, sexier, more genuine merits of Broadway hoofing.

Inspector Lewis is also leveling. But it is more in love with the works of the imagination than is typical of fantasy storytelling, and I have come to enjoy pondering how its fantasy fuses the formulaic conventions of the policier, the detective story, and the cozy mystery with the dense history of art and science at Oxford University, the setting within which the show takes place. Because it is set in Oxford, and because the series is beguiled by the romance of its location, the fantasy narratives in Lewis offer almost a paramour’s perspective on works of the imagination.


The series’ breathless love of Oxford is built into the pleasures of its cinematography which places the daily grind of the (fictional) Thames Valley police within a palpable magical kingdom of beauty. There are endless montages of the buildings that constitute the University, constructed out of buttery Cotswold stone, rising in graceful spires, punctuated by architectural grace notes inspired by the Renaissance, and decorated with statuary influenced by ancient and medieval sculpture. We often see Oxford as if we had wings on which we are able to rise to heights that provide angle down panoramas of the sumptuous skyline and we frequently float around corners, savoring the magnificent iron work of the gates and windows. From an enchanted worm’s eye view, we savor the campus quadrangles and arches. The old statues built into gates and walls and the sculpture in private homes are often used as comic, and sometimes suspenseful comments on the action, when the editors cut to extreme close-ups of their stony eyes and mouths wide with amazement or sinister with forboding.

The show’s attraction to the Oxford arts is also built into the configuration of the crime fighting buddy pair at the center of the series, Detective Inspector Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately) and his detective sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). The Lewis and Hathaway partnership seeks to provide entertainment pleasure through its contrast between Lewis, an appealingly sweet natured detective who speaks in a lowly northern England accent when he negotiates the ordinary police mysteries with careful attention to detail and common sense, and Hathaway, a dashing detective who declaims with upscale enunciation about the august mysteries of art and the imagination. It takes pleasure in giving Robbie Lewis, the man of the people, a persistent edge over Hathaway. But it has a secret crush on Hathaway’s facility with the cultural refinement that characterizes the Oxford community, while it deflates his panache. This defines in a nutshell the zeitgeist of the series in which, episode after episode, Robbie Lewis takes the sublimity of Oxford’s abundance of art and science down a notch, at the same time that he thrives on its richness. An interesting oxymoron.


In sum, the Lewis episodes are a continuous collision between the efficacy of practical police work and the spirit of high culture, between the fantasy of Lewis’ implacable ability to bring a situation back to normality and the crisis of normality when crimes are devised by Oxford deviants whose minds and spirits are soaked in the grandeur of poetic and scientific imaginations. Intriguing. But ultimately a fantasy experience. A stellar example of how the Lewis fantasy both delights in and deflates art is available in The Point of Vanishing, 2.7, an episode that weaves together two works of high art and a collection of standard plot elements to create the required number of red herrings and distractions as Lewis and Hathaway work to solve the mystery of a particularly nasty death.

A man whose name is thought to be Stephen Mullen (Danny Midwinter) is murdered before our eyes as he is forcefully drowned in a bathtub of boiling hot water. The clues lead quickly to an august Oxford family, the Rattenburys, whose daughter Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond) was crippled by Mullen four years previously. Jessica’s mother, an upper class ice queen, Cecile Rattenbury (Jenny Seagrove), class conscious, and over-protective, has a murderous grudge against Mullen, but also against her own upper class husband, Tom Rattenbury (Julian Wadham), a distinguished Oxford academic whose public atheistic positions had incited Mullen, a religious zealot, to try to kill him by ramming his truck into Rattenbury’s car. Alas, Mullen mistakenly crippled Jessica instead because she was driving the car at the time. Into the mix come several other relationships. The Rattenbury son, Daniel (Ben Aldridge), is engaged to an American exchange student, Hope Ransome (Zoe Boyle), daughter of the American Secretary of State. Daniel is engaged in a vendetta against a friend of the family, Manfred Cantor (Michael Simkins), another don, who flirts shamelessly with Hope. There is also Stephen Mullen’s roommate, Alex Hadley (Dougal Irvine), and his adulterous relationship with his boss’ wife. Many threads, 90 minutes to make a tapestry.

At first, the big question seems to be, “Who killed Stephen Mullen?” But other questions muddy the waters. Stephen Mullen actually isn’t dead—yet. The body in the bathtub is actually Alex Hadley’s. Roommates Mullen and Hadley had switched names. Why? Moreover, Daniel Rattenbury’s rage at Cantor is not what it seems initially. It is actually born of his discovery of Manfred Cantor’s secret dalliance with his mother, not Cantor’s plainly visible flirtation with Hope. And then, Stephen Mullen is killed as he wanders through a maze outside of the stately home Cecile has rented to throw Jessica a very prestigious, elegant 21st birthday party. What now?

There’s a lot of mundane police work needed to unearth answers and to eliminate the red herrings. But there are also a 15th century painting, and a 16th century sonnet on a postcard Alex Hadley shoves into his jacket pocket just before he is boiled alive. The postcard, on which the solution to the mystery hinges, is unsigned, bears no salutation, and is only belatedly understood to have been sent to Mullen, although it was found in Hadley’s jacket. Lewis and Hathaway must traverse the figurative landscapes of art to sort out the various relationships. Such clues are frequent in Lewis and, in other episodes, they range from signs and codes provided by the plays of Euripides, to those implied by The Merchant of Venice, the myth of the god Bacchus, the legacy of Percy Shelley, and a mixed media exhibition created by a psychology student, to name only a few. Makes art sound important. But, primarily, the opposite is true, as we shall see.

In The Point of Vanishing, the objets d’art are a painting called The Hunt, by Paolo Uccello, which is on the front of the enigmatic postcard, and a single sentence written on the back of the card, “It was no dream,” quoted from a sonnet by Thomas Wyatt. Hathaway explains Wyatt to Lewis, but the writers pull a cute reversal, when Hathaway mistakenly identifies the The Hunt as early Venetian and Lewis brings him up short. “Florentine.” “How do you know?” asks the astonished Hathaway. “Got this at home on a set of coasters,” replies Lewis. Ah, the adorable blessings of low culture.

The image sends Lewis and Hathaway to Oxford’s glorious Ashmolean Museum, as “The Hunt” is part of its collection. And we are treated to scenes set in this beautiful repository of art and to the panning of a camera across the surface of “The Hunt’s” lushly intense metaphorical terrain, in which the servants of some anonymous lord on horses and on foot, and their dogs, mill about in a dark forest converging as if by magnetic attraction toward a vanishing point in the depths of the frame. Later a stanza of Wyatt’s sonnet, “They flee From me,” is intoned for us by Hathaway, in his deep, seductive, cultured voice:

    It was no dream; I lay broad waking
    But all is turned thorough my gentleness
    Into a strange fashion of forsaking

We are also treated to a museum docent’s expert interpretation of the painting as a courtly love icon of the power relations between the hunter and the hunted in amorous adventures; the invisible woman somewhere in the dark who may be the helpless prey or an attractive obsession leading her lover deeper into danger. The line of poetry suggests that the lady to whom the poem was written is both the passive object of the writer’s lust and an active danger, as she is the king’s mistress. Class rears its ugly head, threatening desire.

Ultimately, the episode tantalizingly blends both the conundrum of the British class system with the enigmas of desire invoked by the painting and the poem. But this veers into fantasy and out of the realm of imagination when Lewis and Hathaway, unlike the relentless, inconclusive imaginative experience provided by poem and painting alike, find explanations for virtually everything.

The icy Cecile is the architect of the murders, which are physically committed by Manfred Cantor on her command. Cantor, man of the middle class, yearning for the unattainable Cecile kills both Hadley (by mistake) and Mullen (as a correction to his mistake) dreaming in vain that these trophy deaths will make the high born lady his. Cecile, wielding the weapons of class strikes through her bourgeois pawn, because she has discovered that Mullen has not only maimed Jessica but threatens to breech the ramparts of the class system. Jessica has fallen in love with the proletarian Mullen, now a reformed ex-religious zealot. Cecile mounts a second attack on upstarts everywhere when she tries to deflect attention from herself by lying to her husband and telling him that son Daniel killed Hadley and Mullen, correctly expecting her husband to take the blame himself to protect his child. A ruthless way for her to protect her use of the lower classes to execute her revenge tragedy. Tom Rattenbury surpasses Cecile’s expectations by killing himself and leaving a false confession in his suicide note. Hope Ransom’s engagement to Daniel, and Hadley’s adulterous affair both turn out to be red herrings, once Lewis and Hathaway correctly read the message encoded via art into the postcard.

The fantasy plot of The Point of Vanishing depends on the painting and poem, but their importance lies in their use to Lewis as clues. Consequently, Lewis reduces the painting from a moment of eternity to a crime fighting code. After the museum docent reveals that Jessica, in her wheelchair, and Mullen came often to the Ashmolean to see The Hunt, the solution to the mystery clicks into place. “Out there in the darkness!” Lewis exclaims. “She didn’t know who he was!” Jessica too initially thought Mullen was Hadley. A eureka moment! Lewis has made The Hunt and the poem relevant. Hathaway, with his public school and Cambridge education validates his senior officer’s “Aha!” And did I forget to tell you that the entire Stephen Mullen bloodbath is framed by a story about Hathaway’s refusal to acknowledge his own desire for a woman who has been promoted above him in the police force? Lewis takes care of that too. Hathaway’s “hunt in the darkness” is fully resolved when Lewis, inspired by the painting to avoid all the ambiguity it conveys, bullies him into forgetting class, as it were, and visiting his lady in the night. Wow! Complex art is really, really not as sexy as fantasy.


Most of the audience will be directed away from the disturbing imaginative visions in The Hunt and They Flee From Me and toward the consoling fantasy of Lewis and Hathaway. With respect to the painting, the episode briefly stands in awe before it as a privileged communication of the unspeakable nature of love, when the camera entertains its magnificent colors shining magically in the darkness of a forest in which animals and men alike run wildly caught up by desire. But the insoluble imaginative mysteries of life revealed by art are back burnered in favor of the fantasy of Lewis and Hathaway’s ability to take control and solve much less troubling mysteries. Art then isn’t a value in itself in the series. It becomes valuable as a fantasy key to a lock when it opens our way to finding killers and exposing England’s nasty traditions, for which Lewis and Hathaway, also find a cure.

At the same time. Did I say the importance of art is erased in this fantasy story? Well, no I didn’t. If it were that simple, I wouldn’t be very interested. Art endures here, even if the plot seems to point away from its never ending imaginative complications. And I am less beguiled by the consoling leveling inherent in the Lewis/Hathaway story, than by the way the show, perhaps alone of its entertainment category, inadvertently embodies the impossibility of erasing the inherent power of the imaginative experience. The very presence of great art, regardless of how it is domesticated within the parameters of the plot, changes the nature of the Lewis fantasy universe. The cosmic enigma of art is always co-present along with the lesser cultural mysteries of greed and passion as it is not in any detective series you can name. Paintings on the walls of the characters in American fantasy policers only signify economic prosperity. Even in Inspector Morse, the British series of which Lewis is a spinoff, Morse’s passion for high culture music only vaguely imports art and imagination into the detective fantasy. Here The Hunt and the sonnet testify to a context in which the characters’ psyches—and the audience’s?– are formed by art as well as by class and greed.

And so I have a desire to write about Inspector Lewis because I cannot reduce the series purely to fantasy once the sublimity of art and imagination are introduced. That Uccello image is seared onto my corneas. The Wyatt line reverberates in my inner ear. And I find it impossible to believe that I am alone in experiencing a rip in the fantasy text. Arguably, somehow, whether other viewers are conscious of it or not, their subconscious receptors too have been penetrated by the vision of an imagination that seriously rises beyond the boundaries of Inspector Lewis’ fantastic, tidy world of clean edges and unserious rectifications.

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