Long before it was a television series, True Detective was the name of an American magazine that specialised in lurid, sensationalised stories of real-life crimes, often told from the point-of-view of the grizzled police veterans who investigated them.
This reference point is important when discussing the television incarnation of True Detective. The central thread and internal mythology of the show – two tough, damaged police detectives, hell-bent on avenging the murder of innocent women and children in the face of considerable official complacency – owes much to the true-crime magazine genre. It’s also been a standard trope in crime fiction since the 1930s.
The eight-part series (and careful, some spoilers follow) begins in Louisiana in the mid-90s. Two police detectives, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and his new partner Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are assigned to investigate the murder of a young woman. Particularly shocking are the presence of strange occult symbols on the woman’s body and surrounding crime scene. All we know about the woman is that she was a drifter and a prostitute. With the exception of Marty and Rust, no-one wants to spend too much time and energy finding out what happened to her.
As the investigation proceeds, the detectives begin to link her killing to a string of apparently unrelated disappearances across the huge expanse of rural Louisiana. A lone serial killer with occult tendencies or the head of a fundamentalist Christian church that funds schools in poor rural areas are two possible culprits.
Interspersed with these events are flash-forwards of Marty and Rust, older and much worse for wear, being interviewed separately by police about their recollection of the case. Why is not made clear until the halfway mark of the series. The two detectives thought they had solved the case back in the 90s, but killings with the same occult signs are still occurring.