In February of 1946, George Orwell published another of his essays in the best British tradition. It was civilized, thoughtful and not without humor. It displayed a sense of the past and put the present in perspective. It was about murder.
More exactly, to quote the title of the essay, it was about "The Decline of the English Murder." In it, Orwell looked back fondly on pre-war days when, of a Sunday afternoon, you could put your feet up after a sumptuous dinner (surely roast beef and Yorkshire pudding), open the paper, and read a really good murder story.
By really good, Orwell explained, the crime would have to have all the traditional elements: class, cunning and conscience - that is, the murderer's struggle with his own. It wouldn't be just a detective story but something of a morality tale.
A proper murderer, said Orwell, should have a certain social status, and his crime show some ingenuity; he would be a respectable solicitor or clergyman, his preferred means a slow-working poison. Most important, the story should include some "tiny, unforeseeable detail" that inevitably trips up the killer.
So what TV series has entranced this country Sunday night after Sunday night, season after season? That's a rhetorical question. "The Sopranos," of course.
The New York Times, our accepted arbiter of good (upper-middlebrow American) taste, hailed it as the "greatest drama ever created for television."
The Wall Street Journal's estimable Peggy Noonan spared no superlative. "The Sopranos," she declared, "wasn't only a great show or even a classic. It was a masterpiece, and its end Sunday night is an epochal event. With it goes an era, a time."
Goodness. I would never have known all that. I still don't. And yet Miss Noonan's voice is not one easily dismissed. She was capable of producing some of the most eloquent of presidential phrases so long as she had Ronald Reagan to deliver them. And she remains a font of socio-political insights if the reader will trouble to entangle them from the occasional - OK, regular - portentousness with which she delivers them.
In the build-up to the Sopranos' farewell performance, Peggy Noonan hit an elegiac note - and held it for 1,162 words. One expected her to declare at the end that the show now belongs, not to the DVD market, but to the ages. It was as if Shakespeare had just ended his run at the Globe, or Sophocles closed out his Theban trilogy.
"The Sopranos" a masterpiece? An epochal event? The End of an Era? The show ended Sunday night - or at least came to a close - not with a bang but a blackout. Not exactly Desdemona meeting her demise at Othello's jealous hands.