Midsomer Murders: Metaphors for the Puzzlement of Why Life is Such a Mystery

by Ann Pederson

Mystery is not a matter of ignorance, not a matter of not knowing enough. Mystery is a matter of richness and texture.” Philip Hefner, Our Bodies Are Selves (143)

Mystery is not the same as a puzzle. A puzzle can be solved—the more we learn about it and think about it, the closer we come to its solution. Richness and texture characterize the mystery. As we dig into it ever more deeply, we come upon ever richer and profounder dimensions of meaning. This endless depth of meaning is not something to be ‘solved’; it is inexhaustible.” (Hefner, 144)

When I was talking with my husband about topics for the blog, I expressed a certain level of frustration about not knowing what to write about this time. My mind hasn’t been idle. I’m thinking about a great many things, but they all seem so morbid. What occupies my time and thoughts these days has more to do with my age than probably anything else: mortality—so many of our friends are facing serious health issues, trauma—how its embedded in the memories of those who try to heal but find no respite, and a sense of loss—at the moments that pass so swiftly in the short, dark, cold days of winter.

My husband laughed and said, “Maybe you should write about Midsomer Murders since we seem to watch one of these each evening.” In each of these British television mysteries, set in bucolic villages, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and his sidekick, Detective Sergeant Jones, usually manage to solve the cases that pose the inevitable puzzles about murder and mayhem. The scene of a vicious murder is often followed by one with the Inspector and his wife, Joyce, enjoying a nice cup of tea or a glass of sherry. I suppose one reason that I enjoy the show is that most of the time it provides the escape from the daily problems I don’t want to face and I get to be satisfied that at least in these stories, puzzles are posed and solved. But last night’s episode didn’t end in quite the usual way. The puzzle of the murder was solved, but the mystery wasn’t.

The episode opens with Joyce Barnaby (Tom’s wife) returning home from a concert on the dark, narrow road. All of a sudden, she swerves her car to avoid hitting a ghost-like figure she sees passing in front of her on the road. The car crashes and her husband comes to investigate the accident. Through most of the episode, the rational Chief Inspector Barnaby insists that it was either a “real” person that she saw or that the figure was just a passing figment of her active late night imagination. However, he explains, it couldn’t be a ghost; they don’t exist. As the plot unfolds in the setting of a former asylum for tuberculosis patients, it is revealed that a young nurse jumped from the staircase in the asylum to her death. As the years pass, people claim to have seen her ghost. Barnaby, of course, denies that such things can happen. That is, until, in the last scene when he is driving home, and Joyce is following in her car behind him. Suddenly, as they drive near the asylum, a ghostly figure of a woman in a long dress appears in front of his car. He stops suddenly, gets out of his car to see where she had gone. The woman has vanished, and he is left with the strange feeling that maybe his wife wasn’t so wrong in the first place. He simply couldn’t explain what he saw. Joyce smiles to herself. She knows. They get in their cars and drive home.

Most of the time, for Barnaby, mysteries are more like puzzles—something with pieces that eventually get put together to reveal the bigger picture. And they get solved. But in this last episode, the puzzle led to a deeper mystery that challenges Barnaby’s notion of what is real and about how life unfolds between the past and present. Midsomer Murders and its Detective Chief Inspector work best when the story is more than a puzzle to be solved, but instead the plot yields itself into the profounder, richer dimensions of life’s mysteries.

No wonder I have been frustrated as of late. I have been thinking about things in the wrong order. The questions that have bothered me as of late about mortality, finitude, suffering, and trauma are not puzzles that can be solved. But that’s so often what I want—to turn the plot toward a satisfying solution so that I can go on to the next episode. But that hasn’t been the way life has worked. I think about my great grand-nephew who endures multiple surgeries in the PICU, or the close friend who waits to hear about frightening news about her health, and I so want to take away their pain, to solve their problems. But it doesn’t work that way. The pain is real, the waiting for results can be agonizing, and the limit to what people can endure day after day is tenuous. So, to return to the frustration of finding a topic for this blog, I realize that I have been preoccupied with seeing life’s deep mysteries as puzzles, as something to be solved. Instead, like Barnaby, I’ve come to a place in the road, where I must stop and watch the mystery. I must let it pass across my path and take it in so that when I meet with those whose lives reveal the richness and texture of mystery, I can offer them the grace of meeting them in that place.