But is it a Locked Room Mystery? The case of the impossible alibi.

Recently I was having a chat with a friend about impossible crimes (believe me this doesn’t happen that often), and though not a big reader they loved the series Death In Paradise. In response to my statement that I liked the impossible episodes of the series so far, they said “but aren’t all the episodes impossible crimes, because no one could have done it?”

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In the intro to his brilliant CADS magazine number 74, editor Geoff Bradley writes a lovely off-hand piece about Death In Paradise, and its wave of bad press despite it’s popularity, (something I considered in this post). In his intro he also calls the stories of the BBC series ‘impossible crimes’.

Both these examples got me thinking. The idea that these stories are all being considered ‘impossible crimes’ seems to be because usually everyone has an alibi. This point of view doesn’t just apply to the TV series, but also to novels I have seen in discussion online. Some have suggested a novel as an impossible crime or locked room mystery because all the characters claim to be elsewhere at the time of the murder.

At the risk of treading some old ground covered by JJ somewhat in this post from last year, (it’s worth reading his post to see how he defines the terms ‘locked room’ and ‘impossible crime’ generally), I want to add my voice into the mix on this more specific point. I do not think a novel or episode of detective fiction counts as an impossible crime or locked room mystery simply if all the characters have seemingly solid alibis, and that is your complete set up. Why do I think this? Well, I think it’s something to do with the fact that an alibi and the impossible or locked room element of a novel are two very different things, with different roles.

Alibis are often created to be broken or solidified and therefore, even if seemingly watertight surely they can’t be the edges of an impossibility for the fact that most of the time they don’t hold up under scrutiny, or are meant to be broken down. Another problem is that the alibi can also be a lie. Many characters may say that they weren’t there or provide themselves with a place to have been, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. I think for a story to qualify as an impossible crime or locked room mystery something impossible has to have taken place, not just that there is a murder in an easily accessible location or within a generally plausible murder situation and everyone says ‘I wasn’t there.’

Seeing as Death In Paradise was the beginning of this thought process, let’s take the set ups of two episodes from series one as an example. Episode 1: ‘Death in Paradise’ tells the tale of a British detective shot while locked inside a solid steel panic room. Only the police know the code to the door, and when they get inside he has been shot at close range, no weapon and no murderer left within. The killer has somehow vanished into thin air. Therefore the physical circumstances under which the murder occurs are baffling and not able to have taken place, in other words an impossible crime. In Episode 3: ‘Predicting Murder’ (the series masterpiece I think) a woman is found poisoned in the classroom of a local school. There are two shot glasses on the teacher’s desk, and a bottle of strong drink, with only hers and the head teachers fingerprints, and only her glass poisoned. For the time of the murder however, the head teacher has an unbelievably rock solid alibi: “So let me get this straight, your alibi is that you were doing charity work, in an orphanage surrounded by nuns.” And so does everyone else who was involved in the school. This I would say, however, is not an impossible crime. The murder method and setup while complex, are not ‘impossible’ to occur, in that anyone could come and go into the room as they wished, even someone outside the cast of suspects could be responsible, and although they have alibis they were not all continuously watched, and it doesn’t mean that they are not lying or conspiring together. It seems as if complicated or tricky murder set-ups are being confused with an impossible or locked room set-ups.

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‘Predicting Murder’

But maybe I am on shaky ground here? Alibis do often provide or hold together an impossibility. We could take the most classic locked room trope of the ‘first on the scene’ as an example. Used countless times over the years, here the alibi is: ‘We were all together when we broke down the door and the victim was found stabbed inside’, which is also the crux of the impossibility/solution ‘you were there, but when you went to examine the victim, who was only incapacitated, you stabbed them without anyone realising.’ Here then the alibi and the mechanics of the impossibility serve each other. Another example could be Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint (2008), we know who the murderer is, but we also know that she was on the other side of Japan at the time of the murder, so how on earth did she do it? Her alibi is, in essence, the impossibility.

Here I could run into even more problems, in that sometimes an impossible crime story is only such because a character’s testimony says so, but they are later found to be lying. Does that then mean the novel has changed from impossible to not? Or as was discussed a little in the comments on JJ’s post, Carter Dickson’s Judas Window (1938), one of the most important locked room mysteries ever written, requires us to believe that the central figure is innocent for the impossibility to even be there.

But in saying all this, I believe my point still stands, because I would say the impossibility in the ‘first on the scene’ scenario suggested above is: that they were stabbed in a room locked from the inside, but the killer managed to vanish away. Perhaps it’s the circumstances of the type of murder itself, rather than the alibis of those involved taking priority? Maybe it’s something to do with a mix up between the ‘howdunit’ and the ‘whodunnit’ and where final boundaries lie?

So what do you say? I would love to hear your thoughts on what you think constitutes a locked room proper, and how alibis play into that, as I try to traverse this rather narrow, icy path of definitions (leaving no footprints as I go).

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’.

 

 

My Top 5 Jonathan Creek Episodes

After another long hiatus the BBC cult impossible crime series Jonathan Creek, penned by David Renwick, has a new episode on the way! December 28th will see Creek, alongside his new wife Polly, solving the mystery of Daemons’ Roosta christmas feature length special .

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I have a very special place in my heart for the Jonathan Creek series. Renwick over the years has created some of the most ingenious plots, clues and solutions within the impossible crime genre. And with this new episode on the way I thought it would be fitting to open this brand new blog with a list of my top 5 Jonathan Creek episodes!

Jack in the Box (Series 1: Episode 2)

The second Jonathan Creek story and, I could say, still my favourite locked room solution to date, and a total original. A paranoid comedian is found shot through the head with the gun in his hand, 30 feet below ground in a locked nuclear bunker, with two sets of 6 inch thick metal doors that have to be cut open for entry. It looks like an open and shut suicide, but the problem is, the comedian has crippling arthritis, and never could have pulled the trigger to kill himself. The clues are an unused toilet, and a lightbulb, just perfect.

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The Eyes of Tiresias (Series 3: Episode 2)

An old lady vividly dreams every detail of the murder of a french business man shot inside his locked office, even down to his dying words. The next day the murder takes place, exactly how she dreamt it, word for word. Jonathan is tasked to find out how she could have predicted this, and then a second death through her dreams. Amazing dark mood, and the main clue is the fish food she buys in the market.

The Black Canary (1998 Christmas Special)

Lorded as Renwick’s master work. A retired magician shoots herself in a snow covered garden in full view of her aged husband. Yet when the paramedics examine her body moments after, it’s concluded that she has been dead for over 8 hours. The next impossibility is that just before she shot herself a strange man with a limp spoke to her, then ran into the woods. Yet when her ageing husband runs out, there are only her set of footprints left in the snow. The man with the limp seems to have left none. Pure poetry.

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Time Waits for Norman (Series 2: Episode 7)

A man with Chronophobia, a fear of time, (married ironically to a collector of clocks), is seen by reliable witnesses in both New York and London only minutes apart. Cyphers, hamburgers and a spilled cup of coffee lead Jonathan to the simple and brilliant solution. And no, it’s not twins.

The Coonskin Cap (Series 4: Episode 1)

A unknown shooter fires during a police reconstruction of a murder, and disappears from the locked room which they shot from, leaving only the gun propped up at the window, in site the whole time. The killer then strikes again when they strangle a police officer and vanish from a school gym locked from the inside. On analysing the victim’s chilling, dying words ‘You’ll never get away…’, Creek tumbles to the killer’s deeply calculated methods.

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If you are yet to watch the Creek series, and this has wetted your appetite, I am very happy to say that it is all on Netflix. Get on it and let it’s deliciously 90’s feel take you away. If you have watched them which were your favourites?

The new episode I await with bated breath. Perhaps it will be the last Creek tale ever… (Don’t make me think of it!)