A morgue attendant in a white lab coat pulls open a battered metal drawer. Its contents are a corpse that’s been recently murdered in a brutal and strange fashion. The attendant steps back and two guys in suits lean forward to examine the corpse for clues to its demise. Sound like a scene from Law & Order or one of the many police procedurals or forensics shows? Wrong! It’s a scene that appears often in the long-running series, Supernatural.
Over the course of several seasons, the seventh which is currently unfolding, the protagonists of Supernatural, brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, have investigated and eliminated many of the things that go bump in the night. So the show features many elements of horror and fantasy, but what makes it truly interesting is that it does so through the filter of hardboiled crime fiction.
Don’t believe me? Let’s start with the main characters. Sam and Dean are two guys in their late ’20s and early ‘30s who were raised by their father to hunt and kill the various supernatural creatures that prey on humankind. It’s a profession that’s left them beaten and battered both physically and mentally. In their crusade they’ve lost both friends and family members and seen some truly horrible stuff. In spite of it all they continue their thankless and dangerous job and they do so with open hearts. They also remain truly human characters who have flaws, make mistakes, and crack a beer when the job is done.
That sounds an awful lot like what Raymond Chandler was talking about in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” where he describes the protagonist of a hardboiled detective tale:
. . . Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people . . . .
That extends to the supporting cast that Sam and Dean interact with, as well. In horror fiction the occult expert is often depicted as a scholarly academic type who dispenses information with a British accent. Sam and Dean’s resident occult expert, however, is Bobby Singer, a crotchety but warm hearted, blue collar mechanic who serves as a surrogate father figure to the brothers.
It’s not just the characters that make Supernatural a crime show either. The stories the characters get involved in often unfold as crime tales. The brothers generally go hunting in areas that have seen a rash of mysterious deaths or disappearances. So just like police officers and private detectives they spend a fair amount of time gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses to try to figure out what’s going on and what they’re up against.
Sam and Dean’s enemies are another thing they have in common with great TV detectives like Hank Dolworth and Britt Pollack of FX’s late, great series Terriers. Their adversaries often outmatch them in physical power and in some cases political power as well. In the current season the brothers are up against a conspiracy of man eating monsters that have possessed humans in positions of power and have used that power to turn their lives upside down. They’ve lost almost everything because of it, but they still soldier on not because they expect a reward, but because they know what they’re doing is right.
So if you’re a crime fiction fan whose hasn’t watched Supernatural because it deals with otherworldly and unrealistic things I recommend you give the show a chance. You won’t regret it. It may deal with monsters and demons, but it does so in a realistic and truthful manner. In fact Supernatural could be viewed as a big search for the truth about many things: monsters, life, good, evil, friendship and family. And as Raymond Chandler said in The Simple Art of Murder, that’s ultimately what good crime fiction is all about:
The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.