Take a look at the daytime TV schedules and you might think the national appetite for murder mysteries is insatiable. Hercule Poirot, Inspector Wexford, Miss Marple, Inspector Morse, Murder, She Wrote, Bergerac, A Touch of Frost, Lewis, Rebus, Midsomer Murders and others dominate the daylight airwaves. What is it about them that appeals to us?
Whether they began life in print or on the TV screen, they all follow in the footsteps of Wilkie Collins, whose The Moonstone is generally regarded as the first detective novel, published in 1868. The most famous followed in the 1880s in the shape of Sherlock Holmes.
The classic murder mystery was usually set in a small, closed community, ideally a remote English country house, so that the killer was known to be one of the small ensemble cast. The protagonist was often, but not exclusively, an amateur detective or a private-eye, who was not only remarkably intuitive, perceptive and knowledgeable but always, crucially, disdainful of the attending policeman. This is presumably symptomatic of the low esteem in which the forces of law and order were held by society in those days. The plots were often resolved over the course of a weekend.
Meanwhile, investigations conducted by bona-fide detectives are now referred to, prosaically, as police procedurals. This is ironic as the leading character is necessarily a maverick, headstrong and dogged, who takes every opportunity to flout procedure and cut corners. This middle-aged man, no longer ambitious, will have a whole catalogue of idiosyncracies, which can include alcoholism, belligerence, an inability to commit to a personal relationship, a poor work-life balance, a fiery temper and a slightly reactionary world-view. He may have a penchant for opera, jazz, whisky, real ale, football, classic cars or unsuitable women. His fractious relationship with his boss would test the patience of a saint, but women always find something attractive in him. Unfortunately, any promising relationships soon crash and burn when he is inevitably obliged to put his work first. As soon as she has been stood-up, the embittered girlfriend will disappear quicker than a scotch egg from a fat man’s lunchbox. Curmudgeonliness will be balanced by vulnerability. The sole reason anybody tolerates this incorrigible ‘character’ is that he has an uncanny knack for getting his man. The end justifies the means. These detectives are sometimes solo operators, but others have loyal and obedient side-kicks to run errands and tell them the occasional home truth and act as go-between with the long-suffering Chief Superintendent.
The detective’s natural enemies include the duty solicitor, the pathologist, the uniformed branch, the courts, any bleeding-heart liberal, doctors who try to prevent the questioning of a patient, bureaucracy and officialdom in all its guises. From the funeral (with a mystery mourner) or the reading of the victim’s will (disputed) to the moment the killer is behind bars, our hero will be so intent on his quarry that he will neglect his paperwork, his diet, his resolutions to cut down on booze and fags, his doctor’s orders about exercise and his girlfriend’s reminders about their scheduled romantic weekend. Indeed, at the outset, he might have been the only one who did not think the death was merely an unfortunate accident. He might be hapless, but he is not clueless.
Whether our investigator is an amateur or a pro, the murder mystery merely provides the skeleton of the plot. For it to be a success the investigator must be charismatic, with a colourful cast of suspects and witnesses, ideally with secret pasts, hidden relationships and unexpected allegiances, lending the twists and turns to what could otherwise be a straight road. The third ingredient is a photogenic backdrop, which could be a stately home, a quaint village, Edinburgh, London or an Oxford college. Plot devices should include at least one false alibi, one red herring and one implausible coincidence – two suspects have similar cars; an identical twin brother; the priceless vase was one of a pair; the victim was a secret heir/ illegitimate child/ unknowing witness to a crime, and so on. Occasionally, the action will take us to a rubbish tip, a deserted warehouse or a grotty council estate, reminding us that our hero is getting his shoes dirty so we don’t have to, whilst he explores the seamy underbelly of life that most of the genteel audience seldom sees.
We all know the formula and we all have our favourite defective detective. I used to enjoy TV’s down-at-heel Columbo, whose screenplay showed us the guilty party even before the opening credits, our shabby hero spending the rest of the episode in a game of cat-and-mouse with the culprit, who is invariably betrayed by his (or her) own hubris. Whereas Columbo’s drab raincoat, leaky shoes and soggy stogy made him the butt of any humour, they never interfered with his investigation, while his compatriot Monk’s chronic and debilitating OCD often leads to a suspect making good his escape while our detective is avoiding the cracks in the pavement.
Talking of monks, the most pious of the detectives has to be Cadfael, the medieval monk, who bucks the trend in terms of character, but he must overcome not only the establishment, in the shape of the sheriff and the church, but also the ignorance and superstition of his peasant community. Instead of car chases, the very occasional action sequences have to make do instead with a horse and cart, giving us plenty of time to admire the woodland views.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the CSI franchise, where the charmless, geeky investigators rely heavily on science rather than human intuition and they leave me colder than the occupants of their bulging morgue. I am sure they would run rings round Columbo, but I would rather pass an hour in his company, any day of the week.
So why do we like a murder mystery so much? We prefer the ones with well-drawn and interesting characters, navigating their way at pace, through an increasingly labyrinthine plot, set in pleasant scenery. A little humour and romance never go amiss and broaden the appeal. But murder mysteries in particular? The first two reasons are obvious: although it only came in at number six in the ten commandments, murder is still top of the shop when it comes to crime and the punishment severe, so the stakes are high; we all love a mystery, pitting our wits against the detective’s, spotting those little clues in the words and pictures and discounting the red herrings, much as we solve the cryptic crossword in our daily paper. Or you could liken it to making up a jigsaw with a pretty picture from the pieces we are given. But I suspect there is something deeper happening. This is one occasion when we are invited to cast judgment and vent moral outrage. These stories also tell us something about ourselves personally, and about the society we live in. No doubt we take comfort from the perpetrators always meeting their nemesis and justice prevailing in the end. Perhaps there is a clue in the fact that these are largely aired in daytime, when the audience demographic is presumably dominated by pensioners, judging by the commercials for denture fixatives and comfy chairs. They welcome any reassurance that, in our green and pleasant land, crime will be punished and the perpetrators locked away safely so that we may all sleep easily in our beds once more.
Has this production line come to an end or will writers continue to invent new detectives with more eccentric foibles? It is unlikely they will ever outdo Sherlock Holmes, who used morphine and was ravaged by cocaine addiction over a century ago. Can producers find more exotic locations? No doubt, but the recent series of Zen, set in Rome, is not being recommissioned by the BBC, so that alone is not enough. Could the format be adapted for a futuristic setting? It’s already been done: Isaac Asimov had a robot detective in stories published in the 1950’s (as opposed to Philip K. Dick whose 1968 story had a human chasing after androids) and Sean Connery played a detective on Jupiter in 1981’s Outland (definitely Jovian, rather than jovial). Will TV companies keep repeating the old shows ad infinitum? I doubt it, as younger viewers are baffled by old-fashioned plots and situations that have long since been outdated by DNA analysis, mobile phones and the internet. Will they remake some of the old favourites? Again no, for the same reason.
It seems to me that the murder mystery has reached the end of the line. Perhaps inappropriately, they are dying a natural death. This will leave the TV channels a lot of airtime to fill.
Keywords: TV series, whodunnit, murder, mystery, detective, crime, police investigate, investigation, suspect, criminal, killer, inspector, detective, daytime.