Pied Piper in Police Procedurals


Picture the scene: police tape, a music institute, a car, and inside the car, a well-esteemed music teacher—or what’s left of the well-esteemed music teacher. Crawling over him and in him and through him are the furry bodies of nightmares, rats. 

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The grisly corpse (eaten by rats, of course) in “Grimm”

Music, crime, rats.

What comes to mind?

For me, anytime music and rats are linked, I think of the “Rat-Catcher of Hamelin,” aka, “The Pied Piper.” Of course, fairy tales are a very big part of my life, but then again, fairy tales are also a big part of the public subconscious. There’s a reason we look at a plucky underdog wanting to be Prom Queen and see Cinderella. See visualizations. Fairy tales and its tropes carry associations which seep, steep, and subliminally creep through our lives.

So when watching tv Grimm’s interpretation of the “Pied Piper,” I was a little miffed at the policemen’s lack of awareness of the “Pied Piper” myth. In the episode “Danse Macabre,” when faced with the grisly half-eaten corpse, the “Pied Piper” tropes go right over the detectives’ heads, including the in-the-know Grimm detective, Nick Burkhardt. Which, for Pete’s sake, the music institute is called Von Hamelin Music Institute.

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The fairy tale quote that proceeds “Danse Macabre”

This level of awareness that exists primarily for the audience and not the character is a common device in Grimm. Each episode is colored by a fairy tale quote at the start, so granted, the audience is informed of the scenario when the show begins. But Grimm takes place in modern-day Portland with the premise that fairy tale and supernatural creatures operate in our world, a world with our same tales and associations and pop-culture, as do the investigating detectives. So it’s disappointing that  Grimm’s awareness of fairy tale tropes and hijinks mainly works on one level: the audience.

Contrast this with Lie to Me, a psychological procedural, and their treatment of the “Pied Piper” tale. The episode “Pied Piper” starts with the execution of a child-abuser and murderer. Before lethal injection begins, the condemned man utters: “I’m an innocent man. The Pied Piper was a rat catcher who was tricked and didn’t get paid. He stole the children of Hamelin so the rich would remember the day. I didn’t take Little Rex [the chid]. The Pied Piper did.”

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Cal Lightman and the condemned man, the lackey to the “Pied Piper”

When the Lightman Group (Drs. Cal Lightman, Gillian Foster, and associates) investigates this claim, they are aware of the “Pied Piper” tale. Dr. Foster argues, “There are theories that the pied piper was a symbol of death, that the fairy tale was concocted to explain a horrible tragedy where the children died.” (It’s exposition yes, but no one does exposition like Dr. Foster.) Other clues branch off into biblical allusions (the death of first-born sons, the Plagues) which the good doctors treat with as much weight as the fairy tale. Why? Because we make associations with fairy tales for good reasons.

Disclaimer: I’m no detective, but I’ve been a long-time connoisseur of cop-and-crime shows, and this seems to me to be a marvelous approach. The symbols used in the Zodiac murders speaks of the Zodiac killer; the methodology of the Black Dahlia murder speaks of her killer; so of course, the “Pied Piper” tale speaks of this modern-day “Pied Piper” killer.

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The killer, Kevin, who associates himself with the “Pied Piper”

And when the backstory of the killer comes to light, it’s easy to see why he latched onto the persona of the Pied Piper. Betrayal by those with wealth? Check. Weird preoccupation with children? Check. Obsessive vendetta against those with wealth? Check. Flautist? CHECK

Lie to Me operates on two levels of awareness (of fairy tales, of pop culture, etc.), with characters first and audience last—the most honest approach, I think. Grimm doesn’t trust the characters as much as they trust their audience, which comes off both manipulative and trite: how can we trust the judgement of characters that are meant to operate in our collective world without our collective public awareness?

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