The Death of ‘Death in Paradise’ – The BBC mystery series that has truly been murdered.

One of my most popular blog posts has been a piece I wrote in early 2017 about the award winning, view rating smasher, exotic-come-bumbling British crime drama Death in Paradise. In that piece I looked at how its diverse representation of mixed gender and strong well written BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) characters, alongside wonderful plotting and original crime ideas made the series a real hit, and one to watch for fans of crime fiction.

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The new team

But, this was at the end of season 5, and I am sad to say that since then and particularly with the most recent series, everything that I praised about this programme has been totally reversed. And it is unbelievably shocking.

Let’s start with Race. Each episode has the main cast of the Saint Marie police force, and then the selection of characters who will be involved in the murder investigation. In this cast of suspects is where the series used to take BAME representation and gender balance very seriously, most importantly portraying BAME characters as normal people, and not making them stereotypes of their race or giving them stories that were only about race and nothing else. It was bold and exciting writing, bringing a diverse cast into millions of people’s homes each week. Even winning them awards for diversity. But things have changed horribly.

As I write this we are midway through season 7, and (get ready for this) in the first 3 episodes, nearly half the series, that entire cast of characters are totally white. How is it possible that a series that is set in the Caribbean can have no black characters for its first 3 episodes? What on earth are they thinking? The crimes explored have mainly become about the problems of a white elite that can afford to holiday, own multiple hotels, or lead poker tournaments on the island.

Now I may hear you say that the programme still has its diverse main cast. 3 out of the 4 are black and all non-British. However, the issue is now that the rich character development, tensions and cultural explorations that were dealt with through the main cast in the early series have all been gutted out. The main cast are as cardboard as possible, the black characters being now of mainly fairly low intelligence, only able to do desk work, and seemingly unsure of anything until the white detective amazingly explains it to them, and they are slowly becoming parodies.

We get to episode 4 of this series 7, and we do get to a black cast of characters. However, the major problem here, is that they are given stereotypical ‘black roles’. They are crazy Christian faith healers, and American pentecostal preachers. This is a major issue, as we go again towards the terrible idea that holds so much of our televisual output in this country: that only things about ‘race’ or about ‘black culture’ happen to people of colour, and everything else happens to white people.

The gender balance still remains high, with a mixture represented on screen, but a similar problem occurs here as with racial representation, let me give you an example.  Florence Cassell, right hand woman to both D.I Goodman (of series 3-6) and D.I Mooney of the current series, has become so thin a character as to seemingly have no thoughts of her own. She is written to stand around, asking what is going on, and watching D.I Mooney do everything for her. Then in a recent episode she had the role of chasing a suspect and grabbing them, both of them falling into the water. This caused a spate of write ups calling patronisingly calling her an ‘action woman’. The co-detective before her, Camille Bordey, was a fully rounded, complex and fiery character, who actually did detection. Having a full character, Camille was never called out and lifted up for one specific thing that she did in an episode, but Florence is written so vaguely that when she does one thing (running once in an episode) she gets the patronising name of ‘action woman’, seemingly because she has done nothing else before that or since.

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The classic duo – D.I Poole and D.S Camille Borday

All of this is down to bad writing. This show used to have a gorgeous set of character relationships, with the simple but brilliant premise of an Englishman forced to solve crimes in the sun, and everything that built from that culturally and racially was genius. But now any tension is totally lost. Those who take up the detective role at this point just enjoy being there. They don’t seem to suffer from any tensions apart from some food being too spicy, or a drink being odd, and everyone gets along. And if they don’t it’s because of some extremely base misunderstandings of each others cultures. Like for example in episode three of series 7 where poor Florence can’t possibly understand the idea of the ‘Desert Island Discs’ radio show: “Why would you be thinking about what music you are listening to, you need to survive if you are stuck on an island alone”– I mean please.

And the most tragic of all, for a detective series is the mysteries themselves. What used to be a wonderfully written show, with clear links to the great books of the past, without over stating, and using the best aspects of the genre in a new context were what made series 1 and 2 so wonderful to watch. Now the whole programme has the level of detective writing that you would expect to find in a do-it-yourself murder mystery box that you order for a birthday party.

The crimes used to link so well to the context built, and evolve naturally out of a situation (take the series masterpiece ‘Predicting Murder’, from series 1 as a perfect example), but now it seems that a writer has had a cool idea they want to get out and have then written a ridiculously convoluted and weak set up in which to show that idea off. Take for example, episode 2 of the current series 7 The Stakes are High, where there is seemingly no reason for the killer to create a highly complex and risky murder when they could have bumped off the victim at anytime they liked elsewhere. The ideas, context, motives and clues just don’t stack up, and nothing gels, leaving you covering your eyes in despair.

Take also episode 1 of series 7 Murder From Above, (penned by Robert Thorogood, the series creator, writer of some of the best episodes of the programme, and an actual authority on detective fiction and who therefore should know better.) This episode sees a woman commit suicide by jumping from the balcony of her room locked from the inside. But DI Moony thinks it’s murder. Why? Because the victim left the lid slightly off of her nail varnish and had only painted her thumb nail. How does he convince us as the audience that this small clue means murder? Well he just tells us that’s what it means of course! DI.Mooney (and I paraphrase here) points to the victims bed where there are some shirts folded up neatly and says “no, she would never have left the lid off of her nail varnish, look she is an extremely neat person, this doesn’t make sense.” This represents the worst kind of writing in detective fiction, where the writer simply tells us what things mean, and that they could have no possible other meaning or function – aside from the fact that a folded shirt on one occasion doesn’t make you a neat person, or a hotel maid could have folded them, or someone else etc etc etc.

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But only her thumb nail had been painted!

I could go on and on but you get the point. It’s this kind of poor writing that was satirised in books like The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkely back in 1929!

“Don’t waste time on unessentials. Just tell the reader very loudly what he’s to think, and he’ll think it all right. You’ve got the technique perfectly, Why don’t you try your hand at it? It’s quite a paying game, you know.”  (Poisoned Chocolates Case, Anthony Berkley, 1929) 

Other than these murderous writing problems, the general dialogue and delivery is so wooden, full of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, with endless stretching out of the most simple concepts that it is actually cringe inducing. I had to take breaks in watching the 3rd and 4th episode in particular because the writing was so poor. The actors (and there are some great ones in the series) fed this terrible dialogue, sound like they are reading their lines from cards next to the camera.

Why does this all frustrate me so much? Well I am of course a fan of detective fiction. When I see a chance that the form may get solid representation, with possible new takes on the genre, not to mention all the other great points about inclusion that this show can bring up, then it’s super exciting. But Death In Paradise now represents why many people think detective fiction is so poor, unintelligent, weak, unliterary and not worth their time. And for a programme that pulls in more viewers than ever (8.79 million for episode 1 of series 7), it’s a tragedy that this is what most people will believe detective fiction is.

It’s so sad to see something that once had such credibility in every area, become the most empty and conservative parody of itself. I implore any readers to go back and watch an episode from series 1 or 2 against this series, it’s like watching two entirely different shows. I want to say there is still a chance that it could pick up again. But unfortunately, I already know that it’s too late. At least I can go back to the days of D.I Pool and Camille Borday, but I know that we cannot have them back again.

 

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The Invisible Guest: Oriol Paulo (2016) – Can Thrillers and Locked Rooms work together?

A man stirs from unconsciousness, sprawled on the floor of his hotel room, as he hears the police banging against the door. Coming to, he finds his mistress lying dead in the bathroom, she has been bludgeoned to death. Calling out to the police for help they break down the door and storm in. The problem? All the doors and windows are locked from the inside, the door was watched, and there is no one else in the room. The man is arrested as the only suspect, now about to stand trial for murder.

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This delicious problem is presented in the brand new Spanish impossible crime thriller The Invisible Guest by Oriol Paulo. The Spanish title is ‘Contratiempo, the literal English translation of which is ‘Against Time’, which I think would in some ways have been a better name, and I’ll explain why. The film opens with Adrián Doria, a hugely successful young business man, receiving a late night call at his apartment where he is now under house arrest for the murder. Doria’s high powered lawyer has employed the services of Virginia Goodman, a prestigious defence attorney who has never lost a case. Goodman comes with the news that a witness with a new piece of evidence has emerged for the prosecution. The judge has called for the witness to testify that same night, which means that Doria and Goodman have only three hours in which to figure out how the crime was committed and compose a solid defence, or he goes to prison for murder. She starts a stop watch and places it one the desk, the untangling begins.

A great hook right? The locked room angle and the ticking clock have you on the edge of your seat from the off. Goodman asks Doria to explain the events from the start as they happened, which gives us a very natural piece of exposition to bring us into the crime and it’s surrounding story. The film develops into a cleverly layered set of extremely twisty plots that build into a number of big crescendos. A lot of the ‘detection’ is done by Goodman as she tries to unpick the motives, and double cross purposes of all involved. She tests and pushes Doria to his limit to draw out every angle on the case possible, and the detection is focussed as much on intuition and feeling – “What does this puzzle say to you?”- as much as does on ratiocination and the deconstruction of evidence.

There are a couple of absolutely killer scenes, and there is one plot point in particular -when one victim’s phone rings… I won’t say anything more – which is heart in throat stuff. The cast is also sparse, which works both for atmosphere and plotting. The cinematography is beautifully moody, with a gorgeous blue and green hue haunting the whole film, across a very limited number of locations. I had heard about this film over at the Golden Age Detection group on Facebook, but didn’t think we would get an English release. So I was chuffed when my wonderful sister told me that it was now on Netflix! I urge my readers to give it a go.

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However, I do have a number of criticisms about this film, and that brings me to the title of this post. The Invisible Guest seems to suffer from the problem of trying to do to many things at once, therefore watering down each aspect in turn.

The hook of the three hour time limit, which kicks us off with a bang, is not really used as the plot moves forward. We now and again get a shot of the stop watch, but otherwise the tension is not capitalised upon, which limits the urgency of solving the crime. Therefore, what could have been a brilliantly claustrophobic dialogue between Doria and Goodman across the apartment table, ends up falling a little flat.

The same then goes for the locked room problem. Because Paulo has tried to create a surprise twist by twist plot, the complexity of the locked room starts to get consumed, and the intellectual focus of the impossible crime that opens the film gets lost. This is then apparent in the solution to the locked room itself. When I got to the end, I watched the set up back a number of times just to make sure, but I honestly don’t think it is fairly clewed (would really appreciate your thoughts on that readers), which is a shame because there is some really solid clewing elsewhere. And in the context of what has been set up I’m not sure the solution would be full proof and actually possible. Carr used a very similar solution idea in one of his short stories, but did it better because it was really believable in how it occurred.

And as for the twists, there were so many that they start to loose force, and therefore I could see the final revelation coming a mile off. This meant that what could have been a powerful tying together of threads lost it’s punch because of predictability.

What I will say in it’s defence is that the motive for the twists and the locked room are solid, if  a little outlandish, which is not an easy thing to get right. Therefore it makes me all the more sad that these elements are crowded out by the film trying to be too clever for it’s own good.

So after all that, my question is, can a locked room and a thriller style plot really mix? Does the speed and twisty nature of modern thriller writing work alongside the slow and methodical nature of a locked room problem, or will they always be bumping heads?

I guess a simple answer would be yes, of course they can, as pretty much anything can happen with good writing. There are many stories yet to be penned, so there is nothing stopping it happening. If we look at books like Till Death Do us Part and She Died a Lady by Carr, they are mind blowing in their pace, and shocking plot turns with impossible problems being the absolute centre of the plot. But then in my opinion these books are more thrilling than thriller if that makes sense? So, is it that the elements needed to create a modern thriller are just too different for the elements needed to create a brilliant locked room puzzle? I guess the bigger question is what is the authorial context that makes a thriller work the best and the same for a locked room story? Let me know your thoughts.

Do give The Invisible Guest a go, there is so much to like, and I really enjoyed seeing a screen writer deal with a modern locked room problem. If you loved it and the locked room solution let me know, I’m ready to be wrong! You can watch the trailer here to get in the mood:

 

 

Is BBC’s Death In Paradise Trash or Treasure?

Formulaic and generic or culturally vital? In this post I consider race, sexuality and detective fiction in one of the BBC’s most popular series.

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The original cast

The exotic-come-bumbling British crime drama Death in Paradise is well underway with its 6th series. The detective show has had some of the highest ratings on British television with the opening episode of this new series being watched by 9.26 million viewers. However, Death In Paradise for a long time has received a huge list of bad press. Being called formulaic and cliche-ridden. Sam Wollaston in The Guardian called it ‘the TV equivalent of a boring holiday timeshare.’ However, even at an initial glance, Death in Paradise has many elements that have huge importance in our current cultural climate.

The main thing that is powerful about this show is its level of inclusion. Gender balance throughout the series is extremely high. In the last series there were upwards of 5 lesbian and gay characters most of them in relationships that weren’t considered shocking or unusual. And the highest credit is that it’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation is on top form. Out of the 4 main cast 3 are black, and all of them are portrayed as non english.

But it’s not just this racial and sexual inclusion that is so important. What is most vital about the stories that these inclusive casts inhabit, is that they are deeply normal. This is huge because although things have moved forward in our presentation of diverse characters on screen, many stories that feature BAME characters are usually about ‘race’. Race-based stories are hugely important and when handled well can speak about many issues that need to be addressed on a daily basis, but if that is the only context in which say a black woman is seen on screen, it totally belittles the vast experiences of being black. It proclaims that everything that happens for BAME people is only ever about their race, and that every other story happens to white people.

Death in Paradise therefore seems to be carrying one of the mantles of representation at a national level, bringing us BAME actors playing roles that are not focused on their race as their only quality, and not there just to tick boxes of diversity.

But what about the writing itself? Is it all generic and formulaic, like a ‘boring holiday’? Well the answer in many ways is yes of course it’s formulaic, because it’s written in a particular form, that of the golden age style of detective fiction. It’s not just accidentally missing out being gritty or psychological, it’s simply not trying to do that at all. It is detective fiction pure and simple, focussed on plotting, clueing and enigma, and it does that very very well. Take for example a few episodes like the series masterpiece ‘Predicting Murder’ from series one, which has one of the most clever (and most horrific) hidden in plain sight clues that I have come across. Locked room mysteries like the series opener and one of my favourites of the last series ‘Flames of Love’ are brilliantly penned. And the series has also come out with some of the most original premises for it’s crimes, like a man being impossibly stabbed in the back while handcuffed to the detective himself in ‘Spot the Difference’ from series one.

However, Death in Paradise is not all without criticism. A lot of it’s early brilliance is now intermittent, and it’s a shame that as the series has gone on that there has been a dip in quality and the heart of it has slipped away. The main draw of the first two seasons was that DI Poole, maintaining a very British suit and tie against the sweltering heat, simply didn’t want to be there, which added an edge to each murder as it came. But since his departure that tension is all but lost. Also, Poole’s original sidekick DS Camille Bordey, was much more involved in deduction in the early episodes, but later on didn’t serve to move the plot forward. Her replacement, DS Florence Cassel, is gaining a little more traction, but sometimes only seems to have the role of the watching Watson. Some of the mysteries have also become less convincing or overly complicated, as could be seen in the first episode of this new series 6, where the denouement was so long, and much of the clues contrived, with the reveal dependant on a vast montage for it to make sense.   

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The new gang

To bring it back to inclusion, there is another criticism of the series which also deserves more time. If the program relies on its formula to be successful, is the representation of the type of ‘Caribbean’ culture pictured in the series simplistic and unhelpful? Michael Hogan for the Guardian (again!) wrote at the time of series two:  ‘Death In Paradise is also distinctly patronising. The locals invariably believe in myths, magic and ghosts. It takes a bumbling Brit brainbox to come in, cut through the superstition and crack their crimes.’

This is a very very important point, and I would appreciate some more discussion about this from readers of this blog, but I would like to break down this standpoint a little further. To my knowledge there was in the first two series only one episode that did refer to traditional myths and voodoo practices, ‘Predicting Murder’ (mentioned above), where a witch doctor and alternative therapist predicts her own murder. During the episode, in discussing spiritual world views, DI Poole says that he is more ‘church of England’. DS Camille Bordey’s mother Catherine in response asks him if he actually knows anything about voodoo, which although he has been slamming it the whole time, he doesn’t. She then goes on to explain how voodoo is related to ancient catholic practices in it’s lineage. This is a pretty major moment, particularly as DI Poole is trying to import his own cultural values against a culture that he doesn’t understand, only to be challenged by someone within that culture to rethink his point of view, which he subsequently does. The episode in the end becomes a meeting of cultures rather than a parody, and a satire of the ‘all knowing’ white British male.

Important stuff, particularly for white Brits to hear, when it’s so easy for things to be polarised and for false ideas about religions, even about Christianity itself, to be developed. This is potent as we have seen that kind of view coming up a few times of late (see here), not to mention the misplaced anger surrounding Brexit and the British right wing media’s representation of refugees. Also, this episode certainly doesn’t suggest that everyone on the team believes in the voodoo prophecies in this story, but at the very least respects them as an element of their own culture.

So what do you think? Is Death in Paradise trash or treasure? For me, with all its flaws, it’s a treasure, because what better time than right now, in an ever polarized world, to have a hugely popular traditionally English form of storytelling, be so inclusive, while also being of good quality mystery (even if there are generic elements). And the acceptance of Death In Paradise by the masses is making these BAME actors household names, and that is something truly wonderful.

Postscript:

Writing this article was inspired in part by a beautiful article posted by my good friend Jason about race and the comic strip Charlie Brown.

Black, female blogger Aydrea Walden wrote a fantastic blog article titled ‘Top 5 Diversity Mistakes Writers Make’ for writers website Bang2Write, which expands brilliantly on other areas of diversity in writing. Her satirical blog The Oreo Experience is well worth a read.

It might seem like I am slamming the Guardian a bit here, but I actually like the Guardian a lot. However, it does seem than whenever a traditional detective story gets to a reviewer its always unfairly slammed as ‘low culture’.