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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Galileo: Intuition vs Logic in a Japanese Impossible Crime Series

What’s this you say? A Japanese impossible crime TV series based on the works of Keigo Higashino? Yes please!

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Galileo (ガリレオ) explores the relationship between rookie detective Kaoru Utsumi – first introduced to English readers in Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint – and University physics professor Manabu Yukawa, as they team up to solve complex cases. What’s not to love!

Each episode features an impossible mystery: young boys astrally project themselves to give alibi’s to accused murderers, people die in locked rooms with the only clue being that fireballs are seen leaping across the room from the building opposite, secret messages float on water then disappear when grabbed at, and much more. Each crime has some route within a scientific hypothesis, and Yukawa, known lovingly by the police force as ‘Galileo’ for being a ‘weird’ scientist, arrives at the solution through some kind of testable method, after furiously scribing an equation wherever he may find himself, which can then be demonstrated in his university laboratory.

The series is exactly what you would expect from a prime time Asian drama. Melodramatic performances, knock-about and groan worthy humour, parodied characters and crazy music choices. But within that is some really sophisticated writing and some high level plotting, clueing and original impossible set ups.

The characters Utsumi and Yukawa are based on two series detectives from contemporary, Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino. However, apart from their job titles, the complex crimes, and the fact Yukawa drinks instant coffee, that’s pretty much where the resemblance to the books ends. But it doesn’t make the series un-enjoyable, and the writers are consistent with what they have created, and after the first two episodes (it seems like they needed to warm the general viewer into the series) the writing and the crimes get much more serious, chilling and eerie. Each episode can be seen as a short morality tale with a theme explored through each paranormal or impossible situation: is it right to sympathise with a serial killer? Is it right to commit suicide if it benefits others? Is it right to allow people to keep false beliefs if it comforts them? And the overarching theme of the whole series: logic against intuition and emotion. It was a tough choice, but to warm you into watching this series, here are my top 5 episodes from the 10 in this first series, in order of appearance:

‘Moeru’ (Burns) – Ep 1

The opening episode of the series begins with a group of young social layabouts causing havoc in a quiet area of town. A man looking at them out of his window lifts his phone, types in a few digits, and the groups leader freezes on the spot, his head bursting into flames. Great visual clues throughout and the witness of a little child to a strange occurrence during a lantern festival bring Yukawa and Utsumi to the incredibly complex solution. But just when you feel like things are tying up too neatly, and the crime seems outlandish, there is a sudden twist which changes your perspective on the entire event, and makes the solution totally believable.

‘Sawagu’ (Poltergeist) – Ep 3

Utsumi gets a call from Yukawa, asking her to help find the missing brother-in-law of one of his students. The man, missing for over a week, was known to enter the house of a recently deceased old woman. The house now seems to be occupied by a cast of suspicious characters. When Utsumi breaks in to investigate the walls are covered with handwritten protective signs against spirits, and a few moments later the entire house shakes violently throwing objects everywhere. Is it the spirit of the old woman, or a message from the missing man? The solution to the poltergeist activity is super simple, but it’s the why it happened at the exact time of the death and disappearance which makes it so clever.

‘Shiru’ (Foresight) – Ep 6

A cracker of an opening scene leads into the only semi-inverted mystery of the series, the premise and setup of which could have been lifted straight from a Higashino story. (Who knows maybe it is, we don’t have a huge amount of translations here!). A newlywed is drinking with his beautiful wife and best friend when he receives a strange call. After looking at the number, he pretends to answer a business call and slips into another room. An affair is revealed and the woman on the phone says that he had promised to marry her. He says it’s impossible, and with that she tells him to look out of his window. Pulling the curtain aside he looks to the flats opposite, and there is the woman, stood on a chair, her head through a noose. She says he has five seconds to decide or she will hang herself and begins to count down. The man in desperation pleads, but she reaches one, and kicks the chair away. Utsumi is called to her flat to see the body and clear the scene, but a few passing strange objects show that things might not be what they seem. This was definitely my favourite episode from the series, the clueing, pace and plot are just perfect.

‘Miru’ (Spiritual Sight) – Ep 8

A famous chef is stabbed to death (over 270 times) in her cooking school kitchen, but at the exact time of her murder she is seen by her sister, standing outside the window of her apartment seemingly warning her of her murder. The apartment is over 30 kilometres away, and impossible to reach in the time frame. This isn’t the strongest mystery in the series, but some lovely clues – including why a button on a cd player would make music go fuzzy – and again the reason why things happened in the way they did, make it convincing and memorable.

‘Utsuru’ + ‘Hazeru’ (Transcription and Explosion) Ep 9-10

Utsumi is forced to do a police talk at a local secondary school during their school festival. Afterward she is looking around the school art exhibition when she encounters an unbelievably life-like (or should I say death-like) sculpture. A plaster cast face suspended in a gilt frame titled ‘Death Mask of a Zombie’. There is a commotion in the crowd looking at the work, and a woman claims that the cast is the face of her son, registered missing for the last month. The boy who made the piece is called forward and says he made the piece from a metal cast he found near the local nature pond, which he grabs from the shelf. The metal cast has the shape of the man’s face perfectly moulded, including evidence of a bullet wound in the centre of his head. This brilliant start sets up a twisty plot which pits Yukawa’s intellect against an evil relation from his past life.

You can watch the whole series online here on Viki, a site much like Netflix but for asian drama. If you are happy with adverts every 15 minutes you can watch it for free, or if you pay a small fee you can watch without. Unfortunately one episode (Ep 4 – Kusaru) seems to be missing and I’m not sure why, but hopefully they’ll resolve it.

And let me implore you to read Higashino’s books. They are very much worth your time, and are subtle, social and enigmatic reads. Detective Utsumi is also one of my favourite detectives I have read, and how she is set off against the other members of her team is brilliant. You can read more about that here in my review of the impossible crime novel Salvation of a Saint.

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’.