Showing posts with label Midsomer Murders. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Midsomer Murders. Show all posts

07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds

by Janice Law

We’ve had a lot of Sleuthsayers columns on different types of mystery writers: noir vs psychological, cozy vs hard boiled. And also considering different approaches: stories planned with outlines vs developed on the fly, even that big question to revise or not to revise.

I’d like to suggest a different division that encompasses a lot of these varieties, namely closed vs open plotting. By closed, I mean something like the traditional mystery which, despite its relative modernity, has classical antecedents. Back in the day, Aristotle talked up the unities of time, place, and action, basing his analysis on the Greek tragedies that favored a tightly focused action with a few protagonists in one locale. Contemporary short mystery stories, anyone?

The Greeks also liked to begin in media res, in the heart of the action, another favorite device of most modern mysteries, not to mention thrillers.

Beyond this, we see an interesting split. If the closed mystery may no longer be set in the country house or the isolated motel, it has a small universe of suspects and usually a fairly compact geographic area. This is particularly clear in the various UK mysteries that adorn PBS each season. Vera may be set out on the windswept moors and empty sands, but there are rarely more than five real suspects and, in this show at least, they are as apt to be related as in any Greek tragedy.

Midsomer Murders is also fond of a half dozen suspects, mostly unpleasant people who will never be missed. Ditto for Doctor Blake who, with all of Australia, sticks close to Ballarat and, yes, the handy five or so possibilities. Clearly, the attractions of this sort of story for the TV producers are the same attributes that pleased the Athenian town fathers: compact locations, smallish casts, one clear action. The emphasis is on the puzzle factors of mysteries, and at their best such works are admirably neat and logical.

The open mystery takes another tack, flirts with thriller territory, and likes to break out of confined spaces both geographic and psychological. If it has ancestors, they’re not the classically structured tragedies, but tall stories, quest narratives and, if we need a big name, Shakespeare, who loved shipwrecks and runaways and nights in the woods, as well as mixing comedy and tragedy and all things in between.

I’ve thinking about this divide for two reasons. First, I just finished what will be the last novel in the second Francis Bacon trilogy, Mornings in London. I really wanted a little bow to the great British tradition of the country house mystery, and I managed a country mansion – just the sort of place Francis hates – and a nice half dozen suspects. I had a victim nobody much liked and rather a nice crime scene, and I must confess that neither Francis nor I was really happy until I could get us both back to London and off to other places less claustrophobic.

Turns out what I had long suspected was true: I’m not cut out for tidy and classical and ingenious puzzles. And I don’t write that way, either. I like to meander from one idea to the next, a method of composition much more conducive to glorified chases and quests than to Murder at the Manor. Too bad.

The other reason I got thinking about closed vs open plots was a quick dip into a Carl Hiaasen novel, one of his orgies of invention that spins off in every possible direction without somehow losing a coherent plot. If Agatha Christie is still the godmother of every good puzzle mystery, Hiassen’s satiric crime romps have certainly taken chases, quests, bizarre personalities, and imaginative disasters about as far as they can go.

I wonder now if writing style is inevitably connected with a certain type of mystery. Perhaps those who compose traditional, classically inspired mysteries are the same clever folk who can plan the whole business from the start. And maybe those of us with less foresight are inevitably drawn to a chase structure with a looser time frame, wider real estate, and more characters.

25 November 2014

Important Thinking On British Televsion Mysteries

By David Dean

Being a trained observer from my police days, it has not escaped my notice that many of my fellow  SleuthSayers are fans of British television mysteries.  It helped that several of you wrote articles on this very subject--these were my first clues.  I suspect that many of SleuthSayers' readers are fans, as well.  I don't have enough evidence to make an arrest, but I think that it's a reasonable suspicion.  So, knowing that I am in good company, I am ready to confess without benefit of counsel, that I, too, enjoy these programs from the misty home of the English language.

English TV Policemen with authentic accents
I've heard, or read, several very good reasons for liking the Brit mysteries (as well as some of their other programming such as "Call The Midwives"), and I have a few of my own which I'm anxious to share.  Firstly, everybody speaks with these really great accents, though sometimes they are difficult to understand.  I have advocated subtitling, but this has not yet been enacted.  What is it about their accents, anyway?  There are dozens of "English" accents being spoken around the globe, from the U.S. to South Africa, but not one of them sound as smart as Englishers themselves.  That's just not fair.  I want to sound smart, too.  But since I can't, I like to watch the British being cultured and savvy.  Sometimes I try on an English accent at home, but Robin either studiously ignores me, refusing to respond to any of my extremely pithy observations, or tells me to stop embarrassing myself.  I feel smarter when I do this, though she says that I don't sound, or look, smarter at all.  She is of Irish descent on both sides of her family and is unreasonably hostile to the English, I think.  Things only get worse when I switch to an Irish accent.



Dreaming Spires
So, the accents are cool, but that's not the only reason I like British television.  There's also the locations.  My absolute favorite is Oxford, the setting of the Inspector Morse, and latterly, the Inspector Lewis, series.  Notice how I worked in "latterly"?  That's how they talk.  Besides being an incredibly beautiful city with its "dreaming spires" (don't ask), it also puts the lie to British weather being lousy.  It's sunny nearly every episode--and this show (in both its manifestations) has a decades-long history!  I can't understand why all the Brits want to move to Spain when they've got Oxford.  If you follow the adventures of Rosemary and Thyme, you'll find that they too walk in beauty beneath a glorious sun and flawless sky.  As soon as Robin retires, we're saddling up for some of that gorgeous English weather!  To hell with Ft. Lauderdale!


Rosemary and Thyme
But the main reason that I like British programming may surprise you.  Yes, the wonderful acting is certainly a draw, but that's not it altogether.  It has to do with the casting.  Have you ever noticed that, unlike American television, British actors are not uniformly attractive?  In fact, in many cases even the actors and actresses in the leading roles of British shows are not in the least bit glamorous.  They're allowed to look like me over there, and still work.  Inspector Robbie Lewis would never be confused for an American television detective.  He might, however, be mistaken for an actual police officer.  Neither Lewis and Hathaway, nor the inspector/sergeant duo on Midsomer Murders appear as if they run ten miles a day and spend an hour every morning in the gym.  I've never seen any of them beat anybody up, which is a daily requirement of their American TV counterparts, and very calorie-consuming.  And since they don't carry guns, they can't shoot any villains.  They actually say that, you know--villains.  As for R and T, they spend all their time investigating murders at various castles, hotels, and estates across England while doing some light gardening, and taking numerous breaks to snack and drink wine.  These Brits appear to drink a lot of wine!  I always thought they were big on warm beer, but no, it's wine for these folks, and it's always being served at things called fetes, which no American knows the meaning of; though they look a lot like parties.  They seem to be held mostly on village "greens" or in gardens.  Though, when the weather doesn't permit (which is almost never--see above) they are held in drawing rooms.  No American knows what kind of room that is either, but it doesn't matter.  This is another thing I like about English life on the telly (sorry, Robin, old girl); they do a lot of partying!  The down side is that the guys almost always have to wear a tux, though they call them something else, I think.  Anyway, it's kind of nice to see men and women who could pass for what I call "normal" populating the screen, with nary a "six-pack" ab between them. 

So there you have it, all the good reasons to watch British television.  Oh...were you thinking it was the clever writing and convoluted plots that form the centerpieces of these programs?  How the hell would I know?  I can't understand half of what they're saying.  I just like how they say it.     
                   

21 October 2014

Playing in the Shallows

by Janice Law

We all love profundity, heartbreak, piercing stories of love and loss and heroism, and some of us aspire to write them. But fortunately there is also the category of guilty pleasures, encompassing what used to be called “tired businessmen’s entertainment.” As far as television mysteries go, I refer to the pleasant shallows of predictable scripts, familiar characters, and faintly absurd premises.

NCIS, the most popular show on television as my husband reminds me, is strong on all three. Every week, the Marines and or the Navy takes a substantial hit to its personnel. If the show continues with its LA franchise, and opens, as planned, an NCIS New Orleans, I doubt we will have enough manpower to staff our ships.

Of course, the NCIS corps of detectives is charming. The cases ingenious. The action sporadic but exciting. But what I think really draws the public is the fantasy element: the smooth working of every conceivable technology from CCTV to the multitude of data bases at the fingertips of the clever NCIS techies.

Who hasn’t gotten lost in the wilds of cyberspace or wasted endless time in searches that go nowhere. Not the folks at NCIS. A photo or a license number or a blood type gets tapped in; almost instantly the screen blossoms with a complete dossier or photos of the getaway car or the crucial piece of information that links a drop of blood to – voila– some arch-villain of the terrorist persuasion. This is the sort of fantasy that writers, at least, can really enjoy.

At the other end of the spectrum is a guilty pleasure of my own, the British ITV import Midsomer Murders. Once again, the plots are complex, and if the cast is maybe less interesting than NCIS, the scenery – stately homes, thatched cottages, trout streams and woodlands– is considerably better. Besides, Midsomer Murders goes to the heart of the matter: the victims will generally, as the Lord High Executioner was wont to say, “not be missed,” while the killers are even less fetching. No pity needed!

Where Midsomer Murders even exceeds fantasy levels of NCIS, however, is in the reaction of the quaint and pretty Midsomer hamlets to a body count that would embarrass Detroit. The residents are shocked. The aristocrats (at least one per episode) are shocked to be questioned. The middle class is shocked to be suspected. The working class is shocked to be arrested. “Things like this just don’t happen here,” is the standard reaction by one and all.

And this is why, despite the fact that nearly every episode begins with either someone walking in the night forest – never to emerge alive again; or with an early morning walker out with a keen-nosed dog – soon to discover the latest corpse, the villagers continue to tramp the woods and venture out alone on lonely paths in the dark of night.

Worse yet, the locals continue to hold those most dangerous of human gatherings, the village fete. We didn’t expect anything better than a string of killing from the Film Festival which attracted outsiders and theatrical outsiders at that. The Literary Fest was almost as bad; the star attraction coming from London and literary feuds being notorious for their viciousness, but still the body count was more than even the most pessimistic organizer could have imagined.

We did, however, expect that the annual Garden Fete, featuring as it did innocent horticultural pleasures would prove harmless.

Not a chance. Gardeners were bumped off almost before the flower judging began, while both the Music Fest and the Midsummer frolic laid waste to multiple victims, some in the latter with ancient Celtic implements.

When even archeology is against you, there’s as little chance of survival in Midsomer as in NCIS’s supposedly more gritty urban D.C. But then neither show is realistic, despite the country charm in one case and the technical hardware in the other. Both deal with another commodity, an undemanding predictability. Lets face it, there are days then the shallows look pretty enticing.