Detective fiction, according to some, is dying. At least on the printed page, as readers increasingly demand only one type of such story (Police Procedural, Locked Door, etc.) and refuse to glance at any others. Maybe. But in terms of other media, the detective genre remains alive and kicking.
Sometimes, undead and kicking.
“Forever Knight” more or less gave birth to the Vampire Detective trope and subgenre in 1992. It becomes almost startling when one views just how many elements of this show ended up copied by successors. The series had a difficult time. Its pilot, set in Los Angeles and starring Rick Springfield, resulted in a late night series with quite a few changes. Location moved north and east to Toronto. Nick, the central character, became Geraint Wynn Davies (in fact all but one of the original cast vanished). More importantly, Nick’s ally and friend in his quest for redemption became a female love interest–Natalie, a coroner eager for personal reasons to see Nick regain his humanity. Each season things changed, not least the location on television where one could find it, ending up on USA where it got the biggest makeover of all. Along the way, fans divided themselves into factions based upon the relationship in the show they found most fascinating. Nick/Natalie vied with Nick/Janette (his past vampire lover) and with Nick/LaCroix (the ancient, ruthless vampire who created Nick) or Nick/Schanke (his first partner) and Nick/Tracey (his second). Tracey also knew a vampire, a much more scruffy and bohemian type named Vaschon which gave rise to still more factions like Tracey/Vaschon, Tracey/LaCroix, Vaschon/Nick, Vaschon/Natalie, Janette/Tracey, etc. But a few core elements remained and echoed in media that followed. The male vampire detective, wearing a long dark cloak, motivated by guilt to protect humanity, his vampire friends mocking his quest while sometimes helping him out, a human female love interest, usually a female vampire love interest from his past–sound familiar?
“Angel” took every single one of these tropes and ran with them. Details varied, often to startling dramatic effect, but they remained present–including oddly enough the long dark coat. The series eventually gained a second vampire, Spike, on a similar quest and if one looks carefully the exact same tropes all show up regarding him as well! Including the long dark coat, naturally. When one learns that Mutant Enemy advised those submitting initial spec scripts for “Angel” to think of a story for “Forever Knight” it hardly seems surprising! Structurally, Angel was a private detective rather than a cop (more believable when you think on it), and his relationships with both Darla and Drusilla ended up far more complex than Nick’s with Janette and LaCroix. For that matter, the evil nature of vampires in Joss Whedon’s series was explained more precisely.
“Blood Ties,” the short-lived Lifetime show based on Tanya Huff’s novels contained those same tropes again, albeit once more with wildly different details. Which is a good thing. Contrary to what some entertainment producers seem to think, few of us really want cookie-cut stories. Henry FitzRoy made for arguably the most handsome Vampire Detective yet. Certainly he looked best in his long dark coat. As with the other shows, the sexual/romantic tension between him and Vicky Nelson needed a very sharp knife to cut through. Many tropes actually got a wonderful twist. Vicky is the detective, and Henry becomes her partner as she gets drawn into the world of supernatural. She found Henry intensely attractive, ultimately admitting that if she gave in to that she’d probably commit absolutely and maybe end up leaving the human world behind. Which was what he himself both desired yet feared, not least because Henry knew how dangerous his world could be. Unlike Nick or Angel, Henry’s guilt is for something he’s doing right now, and whether he should feel guilty about it remained a major question in the series.
Compared to this, “Moonlight” seems positively retro. Mick St. John feels guilt-wracked just for being a vampire, not because of anything particularly awful he has done (in this way he’s rather Calvinist in outlook–shame over existing, rather than any sin committed). Actually, that was a problem with the show. Mick’s guilt seemed over the top, to put it mildly. He didn’t kill for blood, never had to. Not remotely a cruel man, he hadn’t tortured or destroyed people for generation after generation. What had he done? Other than suffering from sensitivity to light and a warm liquid protein diet, his only sin seemed to be living forever and having superpowers he used for good. Keeping it a secret might have been a source of guilt, or at least tension. Jonathan Frid (the original Barnabas Collins on “Dark Shadows”) once noted the horror of living a lie. But Mick hardly had any problems in that direction. At least we never saw them. More, the nature of vampires on the show was as undead-light as one could ask for. They could walk in sunlight (but didn’t like to, not for long anyway), drink from people without really harming them (Mick actually fed from his human love interest, more than once and to no ill effect), were no more inherently cruel than humans. Whole lot of tension and dramatic possibilities simply never existed for the story to exploit.
Little wonder it lasted such a short time, despite attracting a small, loyal following.
Small wonder Bill Compton of “True Blood” went with all these tropes and took them to the extreme. With one exception. Bill never seems to wear a long dark coat.
Bill feels guilt–and he bloody well should! The man spent decades killing and torturing people for fun (some of the flashback scenes from Season Three are spine-chilling). Even now as he attempts to reconnect with his humanity, he struggles with habitual violence and deceit. He openly envies Jessica, a ‘baby vamp” (i.e. newly turned vampire) who will never have to skulk in shadows looking at human beings as nothing but prey. She doesn’t have to be a monster. He spent more than a human lifetime being little else. Even finding the love of a wonderful girl who not only lets him feed from her but seems to like it doesn’t banish his demons, nor the dramatic tensions they create. Of course Bill Compton in “True Blood” is not really a detective per se, although he works with Sheriffs vampiric and human on and off. He does however help solve crimes and mysteries.
The real challenge may be finding some new way to explore this trope. So far, most Vampire Detectives have been of the gumshoe variety–a la Sam Spade or Marlowe or Spenser. Might a more cerebral vampire be in the offing? Imagine an undead Lord Peter Whimsey or Miss Marple with fangs! Think for a moment about a show like “Criminal Minds” or “Wallender” and imagine some of the leads as vampires. The possibilities are intriguing, yes?