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.