At a bit of a lockdown loose end? Murder to Measure has a solution for your family Saturday night, bringing you live murder mystery enetertainment in the comfort of your living room. Zoomraker to premier on 6th June 2020 at 8pm on Zoom – just £5 for a family ticket. Gather round your laptop or tablet and enjoy a slice of James Bond-inspired mystery.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been an unusual year. Following the imposition of lock down in the UK in March, Murder to Measure had to cancel or postpone all of its bookings for the next couple of months. Despite a gradual easing of restrictions, it looks like the hospitality industry: hotels, restaurants and pubs will remain closed for quite sometime, meaning that we are missing out on performing for you. Online seems to be the way forward, which presents a number of technical challenges which we have been grappeling with and testing to ensure we can continue to provide our own brand of murder and mayhem.
After testing out various video link platforms, payment options etc, we are now able to launch online mysteries using Zoom, and accept secure card payments. Our first event will be Zoomraker – a James Bond-inspired mystery on 6th June 2020 at 8pm BST. We’d love you to join the team of international operative as they try to overthrow the evil Dr Sinn and the agents of STENCH to prevent world domination. Is there a mole in their midst and can you identify the murderer in this fun mystery which is suitable for all the family. You can find out more information here, including how to books and answers to many of your questions. We’d love to see you, vodka martini in hand…
What are your favourite murder mystery programmes and films? I have already mentioned a few books that I have enjoyed over the years, so now I am turning my attention to TV and film.
The Ellery Queen TV series ran for just one series in the 1970s, but I loved the fact the titular detective “broke the fourth wall” near the end of each episode and invited the viewer to solve the mystery that had occurred. There were some pretty clever twists and clues along the way, a couple of which I have unashamedly “borrowed” for Murder to Measure plots, mainly because whenever I mention this series no-one seems to remember it. On rewatching a few episodes, they may seem a bit dated and clunky, but the mysteries at their heart are still satisfying.
I’ll make no apologies for loving Columbo, starrring the late Peter Falk as the seemingly shambolic homicide detective who somehow always seemed to get his man (or woman) through frequent questioning of the main suspect. Usually, the viewer knows the identity of the killer from the outset, and the thrill of the story comes from watching Columbo bumble through the investigation, losing his thread, chomping on a cigar and fumbling through the pockets on his shabby raincost to find vital clues, until eventually the killer, assuming Columbo to be incompetent, becomes over-confident and trips themselves up, allowing the detective to pounce and reveal that his seeming ineptitude is all an act. Much of the bumbling and fumbling was ad-libbed by Falk to help keep the other actors on their toes. Columbo is probably the best-realised detectice character on TV, and although most of the plots would not work well in Murder to Measure stories, the series illustrates the importance of characters in making a story intriguing.
Monk, starring Tony Shalhoub as the title character ran for 8 series, with Adrian Monk, a former San Francisco police detective with obsessive compulsive disorder, acting as a police advisor on a series of improbable cases. The central character’s quirks and brilliant insights keep these stories entertaining and intriguing. Running throughout the series is Monk’s attempt to identify the killer of his wife, Trudy, an event which helped exacerbate his psychological problems and led to him leaving the police force. In some stories, like Columbo, the audience knows who the killer is, but the episode is spent trying to find the evidence for their guilt, or breaking their seeming airtight alibi. There are plenty of clever ideas in these stories, but the fun of the episodes is in exploring Monk’s unconventional methods and thought processes
In case there was any doubt, the proof that my main interest in TV crime fiction lies with the quirky detective figure, Jonathan Creek as my fourth choice probably seals it. Written by David Renwick (who created One Foot in the Grave), the title character here lives in a windmill and works as a magician’s consultant, thereby having a unique talent for solving “impossible crimes” such as the classic locked room mystery . Humour runs through every story, along with a “will-they-won’t-they” relationship. (Spoiler alert – they will). Although the later stories ran out of inventiveness, the early series presents some truly unique plots and mysteries that are totally satisying in their solution.
Personally I loved the original Danish version of The Killing, which brilliantly portrayed the effects of a murder on an ordinary family, and Line of Duty is always well-written and acted and worth catching up on if you haven’t yet indulged in a binge-watch.
Possiibly the closest thing to a Murder to Measure clue-based mystery, The Last of Sheila was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins and is set on board a Mediterranean cruise. Once the cruise is under way, movie producer Clinton, a parlour game enthusiast, informs everyone that the week’s entertainment will consist of “The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game.” The six guests are each assigned an index card containing a secret that must be kept hidden from the others. The object of the game is to discover everyone else’s secret while protecting one’s own.
I loved these puzzles when I first saw this film, and whilst it appears dated to more modern eyes, there is much to enjoy in this story.
The game of Cluedo, or Clue in the US, has probably been many people’s introduction to solving a murder mystery, and this 1985 comedy film brings Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet, Colonel Mustard et al to life, under the watchful eye of Tim Curry’s butler, Wadsworth. In its original cinema release, audiences would be shown one of three endings. All three are included in the DVD version, with title cards stating that “Ending A” and “Ending B” were possible endings, while “Ending C” was how events actually occurred.
As a parody, pretty much every murder-mystery trope is explored, including fake identities, secret passages and a recreation of how the crime was committed. It’s all great fun, with Time Curry stealing the show, despite somne strong performances from the likes of Christopher Lloyd and Madeline Kahn.
A relative newcomer, Knives Out is a classic whodunnit with pretty much everyone at the party to celebrate the 85th birthday of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (an on-form Christoopher Plummer) being a suspect in his murder. Daniel Craig’s detective, Benoit Blanc is an worthy addition to the genre, and even though half way through you may think (through a series of flashbacks) that you know who did it and how, there are plenty of surprises still in store. It is beautifully scripted and acted and fits very much into the Agatha Christie mould with plenty of touches of humour throughout. Definitely worth checking out for all mystery fans.
Murder by Death is a pastiche mystery written by Neil Simon, featuring a host of send ups of well-known detectives, including Poirot, Miss Marple and Sam Spade. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I know it inspired a short stage sketch I wrote many years ago and it also served as part of the inspiration for Rian Johnson, who wrote Knives Out (above). Gosford Park is another favourite, directed by Robert Altman and written by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame). Not so much a murder mystery as a satirical look at the relationships between the upper and lower classes in the 1930s, with Nazism on the rise in Europe, Stephen Fry, plays the detective, Inspector Thompson, who investigates the manor-house murder. Great fun all round.
“What are your favourite mysteries?” comes up every now and then, and I would have to admit to having a few books, films or series that I could happily cite as being major influences in my interest in the murder mystery genre. Not all are well known, and perhaps some aren’t that brilliant, but they have all left some sort of impression upon me in the last 50 years or so….
The Three Investigators Series
As mentioned previously, I read voraciously in my youth, and one of my favourite series from about the age of about 8 were the Three Investigator novels published by Random House from 1964. In these, the portly, quick-witted Jupiter “Jupe” Jones, athletic Peter “Pete” Crenshaw and studious Robert “Bob” Andrews solve a variety of mysteries from their headquarters, a house trailer, hidden among the piles of scrap at the edge of Jupiter’s Uncle Titus’ scrapyard. Originally billed as Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, I fervently believed that each story had been written by the famous film director, whereas, in fact, they were produced by several writers, most notably, Robert Arthur, who came up with the original concept. Although there are 43 complete stories in existence, I outgrew them by number 20, The Mystery of Monster Mountain, but I still have fond memories of the stories which featured puzzles and clues to find treasure, including the Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, and The Mystery of the Screaming Clock.
Peril at End House
No collection of favourite mystery novels is complete without a Christie or two, and, despite the fact that I cam to the Queen of Crime’s work fairly late in life, I will tip my metaphorical hat to Peril at End House, a Poirot mystery that plays by the rules and has both a satisfying and logical conclusion that the observant reader should have seen coming and a cracking red herring that whilst nothing to do with the ultimate solution, distracts both the detective and the reader, whilst also being satisfactorily explained by the novel’s conclusion.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
A more modern addition to the genre, which skilfully blends the traditional country house whodunnit with more fantastical elements. Perhaps best described as a fusion of Agatha Christie with Quantum Leap, the investigator in this story repeatedly finds himself as a new character in the story, and each time has to investigate the murder of the title character – a murder which he has witnessed on several occassions, yet has been unable to prevent. As well as having a cracking good murder mystery at its heart, with plenty of suspects and a good few twists along the way, there is another mystery – just who is the person investigating the crime, and why is he trapped in this ever-changing time loop? Whilst this latter mystery was less well resolved in my mind than the murder side, I found the story original and compelling throughout and certainly something worthy of rereading.
Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
Horowitz is a prolific writer with plenty of strings to his bow; as well as writing for the popular TV series Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders, he has written official James Bond stories in the tradition of Ian Fleming and created his own detective, Daniel Hawthorne in a series that almost made it into this list in The Word Is Murder (2017), and The Sentence is Death in which he writes himself in as the clueless Watson character. He has also written a couple of stories set around the world of Sherlock Holmes. This second, a follow-up, of sorts, to The House of Silk is a great invocation of the works of Conan Doyle and pulls off a great twist, the nature of which, if not the details of which, many may have seen coming, yet still be surprised by. It’s a bold and intriguing story which is worthy of a second read.
The Coffin Dancer by Jeffery Deaver
Jeffery Deaver’s detective, Lincoln Rhyme, a brilliant but hardheaded forensic criminologist who suffers near-fatal injuries while on the job, leaving him a quadriplegic made his debut in The Bone Collector in 1997, but for me, this follow-up narrowly beats it mainly for its sheer twistiness and the fact that Rhyme is somewhat more likable in this story. The Bone Collector was made into a film starrring Denzel Washington as Rhyme, but so far, no announcement has been made of a possible follow-up.
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
One of literature’s big secrets was blown in 2013, when the author of the previously little regarded The Cuckoo’s Calling, was exposed as none other than Harry Potter creator, JK Rowling. In this fourth outing for Galbraith’s private detective, Cormoran Strike and his “assistant” Robin Ellacott, he really finds his stride and voice. The pacing of this admittedly lengthy novel is absolutely spot-on and I couldn’t put it down, anxious to find out who did what to whom. The ultimate denouement is satisfying and the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Cormoran and Robin is played out well, and never cloying, as so often such relationships can be.
It has been a tough task picking out my few favourite detective fiction novels, and a few that didn’t quite make the cut for various reasons include Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, Ann Cleeves’ Shetland-set Jimmy Perez novels, the original Sherlock Holmes stories and Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said. It also adored Donna Tartt’s Secret History, which doesn’t quite fit into the murder mysyery mould, as we know from the outset who committed the crime – the story then revolves around explaining the complex reasons why it occurred and the consequences of the perpetrators’ actions. I’m sure you have your favourites too. What books do you think I have missed off, or should have read?
I will be returning soon to consider some of my favourite mystery tv series and films, and will include a couple of obscure or forgotten titles you may well have missed or overlooked.
“Where do your ideas come from?” is another one of those perennial questions. The late, great Douglas Adams, would always answer “From a small mail order company in Cleveland”, which serves to demonstrate how difficult this question is to answer. In the case of murder mysteries, however, there is a huge raft of media in existence which can serve as a template or a springboard for a new story. Stories about murder have been around for almost as long as the written word; one only needs to peruse the book of Genesis (which dates back to the 6th and 5th centuries BC) to learn of Cain slaying his brother Abel, although there isn’t much mystery in that story, as the scipture plainly states:
“and when they were in the field Cain rose against Abel his brother and killed him.”
Detective fiction, where a crime or crimes are committed and then investigated and solved by an interested party, is a more modern phenomenon, usually ascribed as originally a 19th century invention.
Detective fiction in the English-speaking world is widely considered to have begun in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allen-Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue featuring the the eccentric and brilliant Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, who solves the mystery of the brutal murder of two women, Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, using a logical process, which Poe calls “ratiocination”.
The grandfather of English detective fiction, however, is Wilkie Collins (1824–1889) whose novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone are considered to be the first English detective novels. In The Woman in White, the investigator,Walter Hartright, employs many of the sleuthing techniques used by detectives in later novels to investigate the various mysyteries he encounters, whilst in The Moonstone, Franklin Blake, the “gentleman detective” investigates the theft of a valuable diamond. T. S. Eliot called The Moonstobe “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels” and Dorothy L. Sayers praised it as “probably the very finest detective story ever written”. I would personally disagree with Sayers on this, but there is little doubt that following itrs publication in 1868, an explosion of detective fiction followed in Britain, perhaps in part due to the sensationalism of real-life cases, such as Jack the Ripper, an unidentified serial killer active in the largely in and around the Whitechapel district of London in 1888.
Much of 19th-century detective fiction was published in periodicals, the form of Victorian detective fiction being primarily the short story. In 1887, a new detective burst upon the scene, with the appearance of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. Conan-Doyle’s famous creation was the archetypal detective hero; he was eccentric, irascible, focused, tight-lipped and of course brilliant. The Holmes stories also introduced another important trope to the genre in the form of Dr Watson, Holmes’ loyal sidekick, who by serving as the narrator for most of the stories, becomes the eyes and ears of the reader, describing possible clues without giving away their significance and often sharing his frustration in Holmes’ reluctance to fully reveal what he has deduced. Holmes’ popularity became widespread with the first series of short stories in The Strand Magazine, beginning with A Scandal in Bohemia in 1891, so much so, that when Conan-Doyle tried to kill off his creation in a final battle with the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty in The Final Problem public pressure forced him to bring him back in The Adventure of the Empty House in 1894. Conan-Doyle continued to publish stories until 1927, by which time his detective explicitly appeared in four novels and 56 short stories.
The Golden Age of Detective Fiction was the period betweeen the World Wars, where a number of writers rose to prominence, notably Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Carter Dickson, GK Chesterton and Ngaio Marsh. Of these, Christie and her creations Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, remain the most well-known, although Allingham’s Albert Campion and Chesterton’s Father Brown have all featured in their own TV series and Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn fit squarely into the category of “gentleman detective” which became popular during this period. Many of these writers’ stories conformed to the rules laid down by Monsignor Ronald A. Knox (1888-1957), namely:
The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
All supernaural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
No Chinaman must figure in the story.
No accidentmust ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
The detective must not himself commit the crime
The detectivemust not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
The stupid friendof the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
Twin brothers,and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them
Although, some of the more notable stories from this period are notable and perhaps memorable because they break one or more of these rules in remarkable ways – for example Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the solution of which is eminently guesssable by the experienced reader, despite the rule breaking.
Christie continued to produce stories until her death in 1976, but the tradition of her and her peers continued, often through the media of film and television. New sub-genres emerged, including the Police Procedural, where the investigating officer follows his or her instincts and the contraints of the legal system to investigate the crime, often with elements of forensic science being explored or the hard-boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett et al. Focus upon the detective’s modus operendi also lead to the “howcatchum” mystery as frequently featured in the brilliant Columbo TV series. In these stories, the viewer normally knows who committed the crime, but the mystery relies on the way in which the shambolic, seemingling incompetent detective exposes the truth behind the crime.
More recently, the seb-genre of Nordic or Scandi-noir has risen in popularity, featuring stories usually written from a police point of view and set in Scandinavia or one of the other Nordic countries. Often set in bleak landscapes and avoiding metaphor, authors such as Henning Mankell, Peter Høeg, Jørn Lier Horst, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø epistomise this style of detective fiction, giving rise to popular TV series such as The Killing, The Bridge, Trapped and Bordertown. The bleak, isolated police procedural has travelled beyond Scandinavia, as in Anne Cleves’ Shetland series and S4C’s Hinterland.
With such a rich vein of detective fiction already established, and a huge selection of sleuths so well described and known, there is already a vast back-catalogue of ideas, tropes and themes to draw on when writing a murder mystery. Anything that Murder to Measure can produce is sure to draw upon the myriad of books, films and TV series which have entertained so many over the last 200 years or so, although I hope that the are still plenty of new twists and red herrings ripe for exploitation.
As a murder mystery writer and performer, probably my most frequently asked question (after “so who did it, then?) is something along the lines of “So how did you get into this line of work?” I’m not normally evasive about this (unlike the “who did it?” question), but it can be difficult to precisely pin down the actual starting point… did my passion for theatre and drama begin during frequent visits to the Bridgwater Pantomime in the 1970s? Probably – I still have very fond memories of being thrown around backstage by the Dame Johnny Farrance and the giant (a quick visit to Google reveals he was played by Michael Morrice) at Jack and the Beanstalk in 1974, shortly before leaving the town kicking and screaming because I had been told I would be old enough to appear in 1975. I was quite bookish as a child and worked my way through the Three Investigators series and loved the stories that featured puzzles and clues to find a hidden treasure. At secondary school, I frequently took part in the school productions, beginning as Gad in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat( a production presented as part of a double bill, alongside the fourth years’ version of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame – a more bizarre pairing you could not imagine). In the sixth form I was cast as Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer, won a school prize and my love of theatre was cemented.
Having studied Electrical Engineering and Physics at university, I worked for a well-known helicopter manufacturer in Somerset (no prizes for guessing which one!) whilst still taking part in local productions. Being male, a rare beast in most amdram circles, I was often sought by various local companies, one of whom performed annual murder mystery dinners. Like Murder to Measure’s mysteries, these were immersive, meaning that the action and the suspects happened among the guests, however, many elements of the story were scripted, which meant line-learning and rehearsals. They proved popular in the village, and often the group would be asked to provide entertainment at other venues. The need for rehearsals meant that this was rarely possible, and certainly not at short notice. I was asked by a local singles group if we could present one of these mysteries for them, and the timing was all wrong for the group, so I offered to write a suitable story. The theme was to be “Vicars and Tarts” – a fairly unlikely pairing to get together at a dinner, and our first mystery Holy Smoke was born. This was followed by a story for a Curry Rivel Twinning Association (The Curry Rivals), which led to our first paid gig for a birthday party (Ramble – First Blood) which required me to learn a lot about the Battle of Sedgemoor for my character.
Things were beginning to take off, at just about the same time as my day job was beginning to cheese me off, and in 2005, twenty years to the day of starting the engineering career, I decided to work for myself, reasonong that if I didn’t do it then, I never would. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Since those early days, we have produced dozens of stories and expanded the types of mystery offered, so that guests can play roles, or so that teams can puzzle over clues.
This all became possible because my headmaster gave one sage peace of advice on my leaving school. “When you start work”, he said, “The first thing you should do is save up 6 month’s salary. That way, if you decide that you can’t stand the job, you can leave when you want and you’ll have 6 months to find something you enjoy more.” It’s advice I took to heart and followed, and this is what resulted. A fun job, largely working from home and in my own time. Do you have any good advice which you have or wish you had followed?
I have been self-employed for nearly fifteen years, and, in the main, it has been great. I can do most of my work from home, writing mysteries and responding to emails from a shed in the garden, whilst still being around to look after children. The coronavirus pandemic has changed all thatr, of course, as since social gatherings have been banned, all of my income has effectively been banned too. It took a while, but the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, unveiled a package to help self-employed people affected by the restrictions. It won’t come until June, but it will be welcome to me and the many professional actors I have employed over the last few years.