10 July 2023

The Importance of Stupidity

Mystery fans tend to celebrate the well-stocked minds, brilliant logic and analytical genius of the great detectives, but let's be fair. The genre itself relies to a great extent on stupidity. I am not talking now of the many human follies that supply mystery plots: the protagonist home alone who investigates that sound in the basement, the detective who refuses to wait for backup, the careless bon vivant who parties with dubious companions, or the career criminal set for one last big score. 

No, I am thinking of that great asset for private detectives and clever consultants: a properly stupid police presence. Note the restrictive, 'properly'. Getting a fictional lawman who is dense enough to need help but solid enough to be useful is a delicate literary trick.

 Consider how convenient it is for Sherlock Holmes that his London is served by Inspector Lestrade. Or how nice for Poirot that Inspector Japp is so often puzzled by the case at hand. I needn't even mention those dull chaps, alternately confused and dazzled  by Miss Marple, who lack the advantages of residence in that notorious burg, St. Mary Mead.

I was thinking of such useful officials while watching the entertaining Belgian series, Professor T, now on PBS Passport. It is subtitled, fortunately, rather than dubbed, but there has also been an English language remake with the same name.

In either version, Professor Teerlinck is a great mind in the Sherlock Holmes vein, with even more quirks than the sage of Baker street, including a serious germ phobia. He's a professor of criminology in Antwerp, eminent enough to get away with slovenly grading and candor to the point of rudeness. On the plus side, for someone with minimal social graces and skills, he has a lot of insight into human motivation, plus intellectual courage and a total indifference to the high and mighty. 

Amidst several off-putting habits, Professor T also has a rather endearing fantasy life, frightening and/ or  amusing visions that provide non-verbal cogitation. Professor T's an interesting creation, and Koen De Bouw does a good job of making him as sympathetic as possible.

All Professor T needs to show his brilliance is a compliant police force, and the series delivers up not one, not two, but three detectives needing help, plus their commanding officer. All good, all interesting, all well-performed, but not, I think, in the Japp or Lestrade category. And why not? In a word, they seem insufficiently stupid. 

According to his back story, Paul Rabet, the lead detective, was very successful prior to a personal tragedy – a dramatically convenient death, the skeptical viewer thinks, just before Professor T showed up. No wonder Paul dislikes the moonlighting academic.

And sparky Inspector Donckers, formerly Professor T's outstanding student, surely has the brains to get a handle on a tricky case. Even her laid back colleague, Daan de Winter, not as bright but an excellent interviewer, is no slouch. Their chief, Christina Flamant, once Professor T's lover, is a thorough, smart, and sensible leader. 

Do these people really need a Professor T? Of course, for the purposes of the series, they do, and the writers have added personal problems and a romantic subtext in an effort to cloud their minds and distract them from the clues which only the professor will notice. The results are entertaining, but until near the end of the generously long first season both the police team and the professor seem locked in their roles, with the inspectors having to run to the university, case files in hand, to enlist the great mind.

Then in a surprise, a two part episode not only concentrates on the police team but puts the professor, himself, in jeopardy. A more independent team, a more human professor? Seasons two and three will tell, but they might make an interesting series even better.


  1. Thanks for this recommendation, Janice! I can get that up here (Canada) and wondered about it. Always looking for new, true mystery series (as opposed to grim noir).

  2. Ah, the lack of television. (sigh) It sounds intriguing, Janice.

    I seem to recall Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard was pretty intelligent, especially compared to the attention-seeking Lestrade. Supposedly Christie modeled Japp after Lestrade.


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