There is trouble afoot in Midsomer. Shocking crimes have been committed and Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby seems powerless to prevent them. Dramatic irony is almost unendurable. Midsomer Constabulary don’t know it yet, but the perpetrators of these foul deeds are identified before anyone says a word.
It was the scriptwriters whodunnit…..
Midsomer Murders, starring John Nettles has been on our television screens for more than a decade and for most of that time my family has enjoyed sitting around watching the body count rise each week with grisly relish. Our daughter is so fond of the series that she named our black labrador ‘Barnaby’ three years ago. It is always far-fetched, but in recent episodes it has been met with ever more incredulous comments from the Grogan sofa. Only a crush on Sergeant Jones (Jason Hughes) has kept the female members of the family watching.
As a crime writing enthusiast I have been prompted to consider what makes a really good television detective. There are obvious candidates of course, but can we pin down why one character fails to engage us whilst another has us in raptures, working out plotlines and rewinding to identify moments where we might have missed a vital clue?
Television police drama is not one homogenous genre. It ranges from tedious soap opera to gory psychological thriller; from flimsy to forensic. There may be humour, magic, realism or darkness, but one thing that these shows generally have in common is death; and in Midsomer Murders they are running out of original ways to dismember, poison, shoot or crack over the head.
So I thought I would look at shows I would still be sure not to miss and attempt to work out why they keep me watching. It was a very long list, but I have reduced it to my top five sleuths. I am sure many people will disagree with my choices, but here goes:
1. Wallander. Introduced to Henning Mankell’s Swedish detective Kurt Wallander via a 20 year crush on Kenneth Brannagh I have loved not only his recent BBC version, but have graduated to the Swedish version shown on BBC3. I do mean ‘graduated’ because as much as I am glued to the British version, the gritty, grey portrayal of crimes on the streets of Ystad in Swedish (with subtitles in English) has a subtle, less dominant main character and is incredibly atmospheric; the language is soft and attractive, not stereotypically sing song. In both series however, the choice of music, both main theme and background, is sublime.
2. Inspector Morse/Lewis. What can I add to the superlatives always used to describe this groundbreaking series based on the books by Colin Dexter? Only one or two episodes disappoint, and when it began in 1987 it opened up opportunities for other shows to occupy a two-hour slot on prime time television. John Thaw as Morse and Kevin Whately as Lewis dominate the golden-hued streets of Oxford to the plaintive background music of a Barrington Pheloung soundtrack and Mozart arias.
3. Jane Tennison – Prime Suspect – the first episode. Lynda La Plante introduced us to her fabulous but flawed female character in this episode which was, I think, the best and least confusing. The suspense, the casting – of Helen Mirren, Tom Bell and John Bowes as the murderer – gave it an edge that took it into genuinely thrilling new territory. It was a shocking, full of dark images. The streets of London were never scarier.
4. Roderick Alleyn – The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries. I had to choose one period series, and Patrick Malahide gave these adaptations from the Ngaio Marsh series of detective stories (written between 1934 and 1977 )a quietly compelling feel. I had read all the novels in my teens and was only disappointed that they filmed just 9 of the 32…
5. Jonathan Creek. So he isn’t a policeman, but he most certainly is a detective. Always most interesting and amusing with Caroline Quentin’s Maddie Magellan, Alan Davies is perfectly quirky, calm and ,crucially in this case, not hardened and cynical. Always certain of a rational explanation, his insights into the Machiavellian possibilities of the human mind are always entertaining and occasionally plausible. Using Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens as the theme is creepy without being contrived.
So – they are my top 5. I know I can be challenged for not including Poirot, Marple and Sherlock Holmes (even Barnaby). I would watch those series with great pleasure, but perhaps they are just a little too familiar. And perhaps, it seems, I need to have atmospheric music to increase my enjoyment…
As an aside, I have to give an honourable mention to Dr Mark Sloan in Diagnosis Murder (a daytime telly treat, notable for numerous members of Dick van Dyke’s family in ever changing roles and with ever changing hair colour…), The Ellery Queen Whodunnits, starring Jim Hutton (complete with boyish humour and a review of clues to camera at the end) and the Tales of Edgar Wallace, creepily memorable from my ’70s childhood for the black and white bust-on-turntable opening credits to the ‘Man of Mystery’theme tune. Spoofs (and spoofed) they may be, but sometimes it is a relief to sit back with the kids and watch something where you know they are acting….
So if you were a criminal mastermind, who would you least want on your tail? Or as an enthusiast of the deductive process who would you most like to have dinner with?