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Death in Paradise, Violence in the Colonies
What justice means in a colonial cozy, and what it doesn't.
Death in Paradise is a completely unremarkable British detective series set in the Caribbean. Its first episode is a typically breezy nothing—except that, almost by the way, it directly confronts the series’ mostly ignored colonial dynamics. That confrontation isn’t particularly honest or insightful. But its very lack of honesty and insight serves as a kind of unintentional critique of the mechanics of colonial policing, and of what kind of perpetrator can be brought to justice.
The episode, “Arriving in Paradise,” starts (as these things do) with the murder. Charlie Hulme (Hugo Speer), the detective inspector of the fictional island of Saint Marie, is found dead in a locked safe room. A new detective inspector, Richard Poole (Ben Miller), is sent to pursue the investigation. There is much made of his uptight British fish-out-of-waterness, but he’s shepherded about ably by Sgt Lily Thompson (Lenora Crichlow). And are those hints of a budding romance between Richard and Lily?
Since the episode is 12 years old, I’ll just go ahead and answer that question; there is no budding romance. In fact, Lily is the murderer. She is involved in an ugly human trafficking ring; Charlie found out, and she killed him. When Richard asks her why such an able intelligent officer has turned to crime, she explains that she was motivated by career frustration borne of colonial logics. She is, as Richard acknowledges, excellent at her job, and far more knowledgeable about her home than he is. Yet, her ambitions are narrowly circumscribed; no matter how talented she is, she will never be allowed to fill the role of Detective Inspector. She is doomed, instead, to play helpful native assistant to one hapless white Brit after another. The Charlies and Richards troop through, solving cases with her aid, while she gets neither glory, nor income, nor top billing.
The series’ first episode, in short, includes a withering critique of the series’ high concept. Why isn’t Lily the hero? Why can’t you have a series about a Black woman solving crimes in her Caribbean island home? Why do we need to drag in Richard, who doesn’t want to be there anyway? Why does he get to be the hero?
Again, the critique is voiced. And it is never answered. Neither Richard nor anyone else provides a defense of the island status quo; no one argues that it is right and good and proper for the island’s police force to be governed by an outsider. Instead, everyone just shrugs, and Lily is taken to prison, never to be seen again, while Richard prepares to star in several seasons of cute cozies.
The show doesn’t need to provide a response to Lily because she’s the bad guy; her own corruption and violence shows that she is unfit to lead the police department. The response to anticolonial critique is plot contrivance. You don’t need to debate the colonized when you control the narrative and can simply frame them as violent and villainous.
The narrative control exists in part because this is just a television series; it’s not real, so you can shove Lily (and Richard for that matter) into any role you want. The colonizer tells the story, and the colonized has to follow their direction.
More, the colonizers determine what kind of violence is visible, and what kind of violence is eligible for justice. In this case, the conventions of detective fiction frame crime in terms of colonial law, and in terms of violation of that law.
The colonial legal system within which Saint Marie exists, like the cozy genre itself, sanctions murder and corruption; the genre (and the system) are bent towards revealing and punishing those acts. Structural injustices, in contrast—the subjugation of colonized people, the limits on their ambitions, their legal, permanent second-class status—have no place in the plot. They cannot be investigated; they cannot be the point of the narrative. Even when those injustices are voiced, they cannot be acknowledged or addressed; the genre, and the legal system, cannot accommodate them. Lily’s critique is not refuted because she is evil; it is not refuted at all. It is simply ignored, because within the context of a colonial cozy dedicated to the comfortable reiteration of cozy colonial justice, the critique isn’t even coherent enough to be nonsensical. The subaltern may speak, but she cannot be understood.
I think it’s probably clear enough at this point why I’ve been thinking of this particular episode again this week. Lily is a murderer and a human trafficker; she’s not a hero. Justice in her case is warranted. Her critique is also just though—but it’s not a justice that the series can acknowledge, or act on, or care about. The colonized are not all good or just; they may be cruel, irresponsible, violent. Nor are all colonizers—like Charlie—evil or deserving of death. The fundamental imbalance of colonial logic, though, is that the injustice inflicted by the colonized is legible, narrativizable, and punishable. The injustice inflicted by the colonizers is not.
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