[13 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Call them potboilers, page turners, or sanctioned Summer/Vacation reads, but a good mystery makes the heart soar… and, typically, the head hurt. Unless you’re someone who grabs the latest celebrated tome and rushes to the final sentences to see “whodunit”, the fun of any detective story is deducing along with the lead. Sometimes, we are smarter than our goofy guide through the clues. In other instances, we can’t possibly be as erudite and intelligent as the person parsing through the suspects. It’s all about the reveal, the coming together of hints and hidden connections that lead to the moment when fingers are pointed and—typically—butlers are blamed. There’s also a fascination with the figures dishing out the denouements, individuals with perception and drive that put mere mortals to shame.
So it makes sense that the various mediums would adopt these ‘detectives’ for their own. Stage, small screen, and cinema have all turned the mystery into a marketable commodity. Why, even today, there are various configurations of crime dramas, CSIs, and crackpot conspiracies that use the whodunit format, or a variation of the same, to solidify their (often long running) entertainment designs. With one of the most celebrated, Britain’s Midsomer Murders, releasing yet another DVD and Blu-ray set (number 22, which arrived on 6 August), it’s time to discuss the best personal procedurals of all time. Since both film and television thrived on such material, we’ve included both. In some instances, there is even some significant crossover. In all cases, the core question becomes the focus of the plotpoints. Yet it’s how the mystery is solved which is often more intriguing than the identity of the criminal.
It’s been around since 1997. There have been 95 episodes and two Christmas Specials. Up until 2011, it featured the same lead character, DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), along with a collection of partners—Sgt. Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), Sgt Dan Scott (John Hopkins), Sgt Ben Jones (Jason Hughes)—all probing the crimes in the surrounding county. While it doesn’t offer up the same ludicrous level of sleaze as something like Blue Velvet, the show definitely plays up the ugly underneath angle quite well. Horrible things happen in this sleepy little rural community and it’s up to the Barnabys (a cousin has taken over for the retired Tom) to figure whodunit.
Every era needs its own particular PI, and the ‘70s got theirs in the persona of Jim Rockford. An ex-con (wrongfully convicted and eventually pardoned), he barely ekes out a living. Setting up shop in a rundown mobile home near Malibu, he uses his wits, not his fists (or his unlicensed gun) to deal with the dangers around him. Featuring an oddball collection of sidekick characters (including his ex-truck driver Dad Rocky and a former friend from prison named Angel) and plenty of lovely ladies, James Garner simply reworked his successful Maverick persona into a memorable Me Decade dude.
When your entire show is a mystery, when it’s based on a mythos that was pliable and modified over the course of several seasons (and feature films), it’s hard to say whether there could ever be a successful denouement. Like Lost, or the property up near the top of our list, this look at the FBI’s secret supernatural investigation division (with an eventual detour into alien invasion/assimilation conspiracies) couldn’t find a logical way to bring its many divergent narrative elements together, so it never tried. Instead, it went for the whole enigma wrapped in an ambiguity angle, and more or less succeeded.
With his wry moustache, plastered coiffure, and elegant demeanor, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poiroit remains one of her greatest literary innovations. Belgian by birth, the character became synonymous with the British murder mystery tradition, second only to the man at number five on our list in relative recognizability. Over the years, he’s been played by John Moffatt, Albert Finney, Sir Peter Ustinov, Sir Ian Holm, Tony Randall, Alfred Molina and, perhaps, most memorably, David Suchet. In fact, the last name on the list has been part of a project to bring each and every Poirot story to the small screen. As of 2013, there’s only five more to go.
Miss Christie’s second appearance on this list is also one of the more unique entries in the genre. The character is an elderly spinster (can we still say that in 2013?) who plays at being a detective “as a hobby”. Naturally, she finds plenty to investigate in and around her sedate village of St. Mary Mead. The character made the transition from page to film in the ‘60s, played by the incomparable English actress Margaret Rutherford. Angela Lansbury even tackled the role for 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d. From 1984 to 1992 Joan Hickson played the part for UK TV. Since 2004, Miss Marple has remained a staple in UK sitting rooms.
He’s the great granddaddy of the genre, perhaps second only to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin as the founder of the modern murder mystery. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the character in 1887 and the erudite detective who uses deductive reasoning and logic as his tools of the trade soon spanned four novels and 56 short stories. Since then, he’s been immortalized on film (with Basil Rathbone being, perhaps, the most memorable), portrayed on stage, and a standard in several televisions series (including a celebrated adaptation featuring Jeremy Brett). The character is so solid that it can even survive modernist reimaginings (ala Guy Ritchie or Elementary).
Dapper, droll, and usually drunk, retired private detective Nick Charles was the very opposite of the hard boiled dicks who dragged their knuckles through dive bars looking for clues. Along with his heiress wife Nora and their wire-haired terrier, Asta, the couple sipped bootleg gin among Prohibition era swells and traded witty rejoinders with verbal panache. Oh, and they also solved mysteries every once in a while. Author Dashiell Hammett’s last novel became such a stunning starring vehicle for actors William Powell and Myrna Loy that the rest of their creative canon seems inconsequential. There would be five sequels, and even a TV series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
Sure, we learned relatively quickly who killed Laura Palmer. It wasn’t so much anticlimactic as antithetical to what American auteur David Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost wanted to do with the genre and format. Instead, this is another bravura bit of baroque American Gothic, played out among the fog-drenched designs of a sleepy Pacific Northwest burg, complete with crazy log ladies and mystical woodland creatures. While the series might have gone off the deep end toward the end of its run, Lynch truly twisted things up to masterpiece levels with his provocative film prequel, Fire: Walk with Me.
Thanks to hundreds of hackneyed impersonations that emphasize the obvious ticks of the Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective (and star Peter Falk’s complex personal physicality), many have forgotten what a fascinating character study this long running TV series really was. Without a traditional whodunit to center the scripts around (the perpetrator was usually revealed in the opening act), the writers focused their attention on the raincoat wearing schlub, infusing his oft-incoherent ramblings with backstory and insights into his home life and preferences. Falk found the right balance between slob and savant, and maximized both to magnificent effect.
Frankly, this is as close to perfection as the TV mystery can ever get. Robbie Coltrane, who many know as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, plays an alcoholic, gambling addicted police psychiatrist who uses his keen powers of interpersonal observation to “crack” cases, usually with little more than a suspect’s responses within an interview to go on. With each storyline stretched out over several episodes, there is plenty of room for Dr. Eddie ‘Fitz” Fitzgerald’s human imperfections to show through, including an affair with a colleague and struggles raising his children. Brilliantly acted. Brilliantly written. Brilliantly realized. Just brilliant all around.