Tag Archives: Numbers

The Strange Mystery of the TV Mystery

Spoilers abound throughout.

That curly hair. That ugly brown coat. That perfect eye-roll. That windmill. Yes, folks, Jonathan Creek is back tonight, a mystery series full of twists, turns, jumpy moments, proper baddies and genius solutions. Who could forget the one where the floor was actually moveable? Or the one where the wall was actually moveable? Or where the placing of a single apostrophe was the key to the whole thing? (That’s how important punctuation is, folks.) Everyone else is stumped, except Jonathan, who shambles in, makes some abstruse comments, frowns a little bit, and then explains everything in time for tea.

And that’s what I call a real mystery show. It deeply saddens me that traditional cosy mysteries are slowly being stifled with a pillow in a room locked from the inside; meanwhile, detective shows are becoming high-octane thrillers where the focus is less on working out whodunnit and more on violence, politics and looking cool with a big gun. OK, sometimes a bit of FBI-versus-terrorists action hits the spot, but, in general, I firmly subscribe to the idea that the golden age of mystery fiction was the 1920s and 30s, with your Agatha Christies, your Dorothy L. Sayerses and your Ngaio Marshes. Granted, the 20s were a different, more genteel, better-dressed place, which is why some writers are sceptical about whether this kind of detective can work today – for example, The Independent’s Rebecca Armstrong asks “[D]oes the whodunit have a place in modern crime fiction, or has it been bumped off by serial killers, scalpel-wielding pathologists and sophisticated cynicism?”

Well, I’m stubborn, and I don’t see why TV can’t keep the Christie spirit alive, albeit a little bit updated for the modern age. So, to spur on the television gods to help me out, here’s a handy guide to writing modern detective shows the classic way, courtesy of Ronald Knox and his ‘Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction’.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

With this rule as with many others, preparation is key. Take the episode of Numbers where two girls have had plastic surgery to look identical – we’re told this in the first fifteen minutes, so when it turns out that one is the other, we slap our foreheads and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Contrast the episode of House where a badly disfigured patient turns out to be someone else of similar height and build who’s never been mentioned before, causing viewers everywhere to wail, “Well, how was I supposed to guess that?!”

9. The stupid friend of 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.

Makes sense, and most modern detective shows and thrillers do have at least one dope who needs things explained to them. Other than the eponymous John Watson in Sherlock, we have the cop explaining the rules to the writer (Castle), the medical examiner explaining the cause of death to the other agents (NCIS et al.), the detective chief inspector working things out before the sergeant quite gets there (Midsomer Murders)…

Note: that the Watson should only be slightly stupider than the audience (and the detective), which is why Numbers occasionally misses the mark, with the otherwise delightful math(s) genius Charlie Eppes explaining things in convoluted, patronising, boringly slow detailed metaphors to the poor stupid FBI agents around him. Example, describing how to identify people who write messages online:

“Senders of these messages develop their own unique patterns of speech, which can then be analyzed using statistical linguistic analysis.” (OK, that’s fine, I –) “It’s like a jeweller beading a necklace. A jeweller chooses certain types of beads, then strings them in a particular pattern according to his own unique personal style, just like IM senders will exhibit their own styles.” (That’s a terrible analogy, Charlie.)

Additional note: the expert must explain to the non-expert, not the other way round. I’m looking at you, CSI.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

This isn’t usually a problem in modern TV, largely because of the just-mentioned tendency to err on the side of over-explanation. The one exception is the show that in many other respects is the closest thing to a modern update of golden-age mysteries – Sherlock. Sometimes we get the patented Sherlock word-cloud of all the things he can see about a person (the pause button is exceptionally helpful in these circumstances), but at other times we simply don’t get the chance to access whatever clues Sherlock is working off. So even with a visit to the planetarium earlier in the episode, for example, how on earth is the average viewer supposed to know that the (fictional) Van Buren Supernova only appeared in the Dutch sky in 1858, after the fake painting was supposedly painted?

Obviously, getting the balance right is tricky – make sure the viewer can catch the clues if they’re looking hard enough, but avoid emphasising them so much that you can see the ending coming three miles off – and perhaps I’m nitpicking. But the fun is in the puzzle, and if there’s a piece missing, the viewer is justified in throwing the metaphorical jigsaw onto the floor and stamping on it.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

The rationale behind this rule is that we sympathise with the detective, and therefore it’s too much of a sneaky trick to make him or her the killer; but it’s a rule occasionally broken by even the classic authors (for example, in one Agatha Christie’s most famous books). That said, modern detective TV isn’t generally as tricky as that; what does happen is that someone close to the detective is the bad guy (the first season of 24, The Killing season two, Broadchurch, Sherlock season 3). Is this allowed? I’m saying yes – it can be emotionally devastating, but technically it’s playing by the rules (although you have to question the skills of the detective who can’t work out that their spouse/child/co-worker/lover is a murderer…).

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

"Pass the salt? Of course! That's it!"

“Pass the salt? Of course! That’s it!”

A fine line to tread here – what counts as an accident? This blogger argues that “a sudden inspiration which leads the detective to new discoveries” is OK – well, thank goodness for that, because every TV detective in the world is prone to one eureka moment per episode, usually thanks to someone else (often the Watson) saying something completely unrelated to the case. More of a problem is when pure chance wafts a clue the detective’s way – I think we’d have the right to feel a little put out if Rick Castle stuck his finger in a psychology book and magically landed on a useful idea, rather than working it out like a true writer.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

That is to say, racial stereotypes are to be avoided (a good rule for life as well as detective shows). Again, most programmes stay on the right side of this rule, although fictional Mexican street gangs are a bit of a staple in any American show set south of Chicago, while a Russian is pretty much always going to be a bad guy. Perhaps more worrying is the recent trend in using characters with mental health problems as go-to criminals, the implication being that depressed/bipolar/anxious automatically = psychopathic. In particular, if someone has multiple personalities, at least one will be a killer (Criminal Minds, Law and Order and too many others to mention).

Kudos to The Bridge, though, for bucking the trend with Saga Noren, a detective who’s probably on the autistic spectrum but is unequivocally a good guy (and the most sympathetic character in the programme to boot).

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

Again, a tricky one. House has a problem here, because medical information features quite highly, and it’s tough to work out what illness someone will eventually be diagnosed with if you’ve never heard of it*. (To be fair, once the answer was rabies, which most people have heard of – but still the only person I know who guessed the diagnosis before House did was my mother, and she’s been a doctor for thirty years.) In other cases, even the most hardened law-breaking criminals must abide by the laws of physics and chemistry – freerunning thieves, yes, murderers with jet packs, no.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

Who uses secret passages nowadays? Everyone can be instantly located through their phone’s GPS tracking. That said, Saga Noren did once spot a false wall in a garage (the woman behind it was a corpse, which may explain why her phone was turned off).

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

A genuinely great rule, although one that The X-Files snatched up, threw against a wall, set on fire and tossed into the sea with a lead weight around its ankles. I think we can agree that Mulder and Scully, as well as other series where supernatural phenomena are part and parcel of the set-up (Medium, Ghost Whisperer etc.), are exempt from this rule; otherwise, down with psychic phenomena as an explanation. The modern, technophile nature of most crime/detective shows currently on TV means that this isn’t generally a concern: The Mentalist uses a detective whose ‘psychic’ skills are a front for Derren-Brown-style mind tricks, and Jonathan Creek gets away with spooky noises and eerily moving objects because Jonathan always proves that a real live human was behind the mystery.

Scooby-Doo knew it was true too.

1. 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.

This is the clincher: Knox’s foremost commandment and my golden rule. This is where all those epic Scandi dramas, as well as arc series like 24, sometimes leave me cold – we generally find out who the killer is about two-thirds of the way through the season, and the rest of the time is devoted to catching them. This is also why I just can’t watch Columbo, where the killer is deliberately revealed in the first scene and the mystery is in how Columbo works it out (‘howdhecatchem’ is not a thing, OK?).

Basically, I want to guess. I’m not saying every detective show should be set in the English countryside and feature people who hold village fêtes and live in manor houses (for one thing, if all shows were Midsomer Murders we’d have no black characters on TV). And I’m all for depicting (a very exciting version of) the modern world on television, with facial recognition systems, DNA tests, satellite calls and laser technology. But the one thing I really want in a detective drama is a finite number of characters, all suspicious, all hiding something, but only one (or occasionally two) of whom are actually a killer in disguise. NCIS unfailingly gets it right, with a big splash of humour, which is why I love it (plus I have a crush on Tony). Sherlock usually gets it right, also with a big splash of humour, which is why I love it (plus I have a crush on Sherlock). And Jonathan Creek, while perhaps cosier and less cutting-edge than its fellows, is filled to bursting with two-faced characters, secrets, lies, accusations, puzzles and japes – and, naturally, a big splash of humour.

I think I’ll stay in tonight and watch some TV.


*Unless it’s lupus.