The Cult of the Prosecutor

The downfall of Eliot Spitzer reminded me of a great essay by Philip Marchand titled “The Cult of the Prosecutor” (Toronto Star, July 23 2006) which traces the decline of the lone wolf private dectective as a popular hero and the rise of shows celebrating District Attorneys, forensic labs, and by-the-books police officers. Spitzer’s rise to prominence was part of this cult of the prosecutor, a cult that flourished as much among liberals as conservatives. The problem with the prosecutor cult is that it’s a form of statism, of assuming that agents of the government are omni-competent and morally trustworthy at all times. I’m old school enough to think that liberals and leftists should be wary of prosecutors and certainly not regard them as agents of progressive social change.

Unfortunately, Marchand’s article doesn’t seem to be available anywhere online (although it can be found on the Toronto Star archives).  

Here are a few choice paragraphs:

But Spillane’s hero, Mike Hammer, represented something more than a private detective who, unlike Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, slept with the dames he met on the job and pistol-whipped, with equal enthusiasm, uncooperative sources of information.

Hammer also embodied an independence – from police, government and the judicial system – that our popular culture has since decisively rejected. The cult of the prosecutor now dominates television crime shows. Instead of the lonely knight-errant walking down those mean streets, we have relentless police investigators, sophisticated forensic labs, and fiercely upright district attorneys who battle evildoers and their loathsome defence lawyers.

The trend began before 9/11 but has intensified since then. The message of current cop shows on television is simple: The government protects you and holds your destiny in its hands. Say goodbye to the rogue private eye – he has gone the way of the lone Westerner.

It’s not hard to decipher why we have become addicted to this kind of crime drama. The “war on terrorism” has profoundly unnerved us. We desperately need to believe that government agencies, bureaus, secretariats, and legal systems are on top of things, that their employees know what they’re doing, that they toil long hours to keep us safe, and they might actually have a chance to stop that suicide bomber or trained terrorist before he strikes.


Then, in 1988, a former ad man, television screenwriter and producer named Dick Wolf changed everything with a television series called Law & Order. The show was unique in three respects, as outlined in Law & Order The Unofficial Companion, the definitive study of the series by Kevin Courrier and Susan Green.

First, the series, as Courrier and Green note, presented “a relatively positive outlook on American justice.”

Second, the series featured a prosecutor as hero. “It turned out to be a really original idea because, up to that point, there had never been a legal show featuring prosecutors,” Courrier and Green quote Wolf as saying. “I believed the heroes weren’t the defence attorneys who were getting these scumbags off. The heroes were the prosecutors, working for a tenth of the money and putting them away.”


6 thoughts on “The Cult of the Prosecutor

  1. Yeah, I think the “relative lack of popularity” is the key here. Alas, The Wire lacks the wide mainstream acceptance of Law and Order.

  2. Where on earth does this guy get the idea that Spade and Marlowe didn’t fuck their clients and beat up punks? Hammer took everything they did to the extreme, but there was nothing innovative in it. All three spent time bedding women, coolly fighting them off, and slapping around anyone they felt like. I’ve read The Maltese Falcon almost every year for the last 20 years- dude played on the edge.

  3. The general smugness and pat morality of the members of the Repressive State Apparatus that feature on these shows is a source of endless amusement for me. Almost high camp.

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