Real Detective

Police work is harrowing.

It’s not just finding the bodies and examining the remains. It’s also the emotional stress of reporting the deaths to the surviving family. It’s the pressure of trying to find a killer that may have more victims in sight. It’s the emotional drain of spending time with terrifyingly violent people.

Police work is hard. Real Detective, a Canadian series that focuses on grisly crimes committed south of the border, helps us see what that life is like from the inside. Each episode is a docudrama focusing on a different detective who describes one of his or her most memorable cases. They are rarely memorable for any happy reasons.

Interviews with the detective are inter-cut with reconstructions of the investigation that they perform along with (thankfully) non-gratuitous reconstructions of the crime. The trailer below makes it look a lot more violent than it really is:

Unlike TV whodunits, in most cases, it’s painfully obvious who committed the crime in each case. The problem for the police is proving it to such a degree that they can secure a conviction. Set twenty or so years in the past, DNA testing is still in its infancy, so each case requires painstaking work in piecing together the events that led up to the crime.

The best way of achieving a conviction is a confession, but that requires an almost incontestable amount of circumstantial evidence. Furthermore, the detective must get close to the suspect to worm their way into his or her confidence, and then wait for the inevitable slip. In missing person cases, this close contact may be essential just to find a body so that a murder investigation can begin.

Spending time with a psychopath clearly takes an emotional toll on the investigators, as they come up against some extremely cunning and manipulative people. Others are just crazy-violent, however, which makes the investigation no less difficult. Juries want to see a motive, and sometimes this is little more than an insane impulse on the part of the perpetrator.

The detective’s work is not helped by working in milieus where violent crime is rampant. Several times, more than one murder happens almost simultaneously. In one extraordinary example, two workers from the same circus are shot dead in the same week, but the killers and motives are completely different! That’s certainly not a workplace that you want to spend a lot of time in.

Real Detective, available now on Netflix, has left me with enormous respect for these law enforcement officials. They confront society’s darkest side on a daily basis, and yet keep on going, often because they are determined to attain justice for the victims. Among many of the lessons that I have learned from this series is how innocent most of these victims are, just unfortunate people who fell into the orbit of seriously dangerous individuals.

As one of the detectives says, “I believe in evil”.