Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Broadchurch and How To Spot A TV Murderer

Did you guess whodunnit in Broadchurch? Having saved it up, Richard and I binged on the whole series over the weekend, and I have a few thoughts on its themes and surprising quality below (with implicit spoilers if you’re good at clues). Or what about other murder mysteries? Have you ever wondered how to spot the murderer in a TV detective series? Or specifically whoprobablydunnit in Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Father Brown, Inspector Morse and more? I reveal Richard and my (almost) infallible Rules of Suspicion: what’s the number one biggest giveaway of the TV murderer attempting to divert suspicion?

Richard started this long ago when he told me the three general and specific rules for spotting whodunnit in Agatha Christie. He’s right about them, too. Though I did correctly predict Broadchurch’s in Episode Two (albeit after wrongly being convinced Mark and the Rev Paul were shagging, particularly when the former stormed into the latter’s church as if in personal betrayal), I’m usually not a patch on Richard for spotting the murderers. What I am pretty good at is spotting themes in particular authors’ writing. Between us, we’ve come up with three rules that catch bang to rights an awful lot of whodunnits’ off-the-shelf attempts at misdirection, and several more specific ones after watching too much of particular detectives…

Richard and Alex’s Rules of Suspicion

Whoever throws around the most vicious accusations is probably the murderer. Any child will be able to tell you the rhyme that warns of this.

Whoever is too nice is probably the murderer. But you don’t come to a murder mystery to stoke your faith in human nature, do you?

Whoever is the victim of a murder attempt but manages to survive when all around them fall is almost certainly faking it to divert suspicion.
If anyone manages to survive an ‘attempt on their life’ while the detective is there as a witness, the chance of their being innocent approaches zero.

Richard and Alex’s Detective-Specific Suspicions

Sherlock Holmes
*Except in terrible adaptations that turn Irene Adler into ‘a villain’ because the terrible writers are threatened by an intelligent and independent woman, so she has to be evil.

Agatha Christie

Father Brown


Inspector Morse

SS Sturmbannführer Kessler

Midsomer Murders


Implicit spoiler warning: in case you’re just skimming across this article and might pick up something vital at a glance, I’m not going to mention names of suspects when I say something that implicitly implicates or clears a particular person, though you can probably work out who they are if you’re reading more closely.

I have to admit that I came to Broadchurch with some wariness. It was an ambitious drama series with many good actors in it, so I wanted to give it a go; but on the other hand, police procedurals aren’t really my thing (particularly horrible depressing Daily Mail-ish paedo-scare misery-porn), most ITV drama I’ve seen over the past few years has been deeply unimpressive, and Chris Chibnall as a writer has often been much worse than that. I have in the past been so critical of Chris Chibnall’s writing (Torchwood Series One being its nadir) that I came to Broadchurch fearing the worst, though with a little hope from his two Doctor Who episodes last year which while no triumphs for me felt conspicuously like he’d been trying harder and, despite having serious problems with the end of each, I’d quite enjoyed until the last five minutes. In Broadchurch, remarkably, his writing seems to have grown up, even down to a dramatically and morally satisfying conclusion.

The obvious part of the series’ success lies in telling two overlapping stories well: a whodunnit police investigation; more importantly, the harrowing emotional effect that has on a community. And it achieves the latter with generally very effective writing and in letting the various characters in that community breathe, as well as giving most of the recognisable suspects their own moments of suspicion and plenty of what on the surface seem like red herrings. The two leads were, of course, strong performances, with David Tennant seeming like he’d not slept since giving up Doctor Who and Olivia Colman moving from Hot Fuzz to everywoman in much darker places, but none of the actors and few of their actions struck false. The emotional realism reinforced the well-plotted mystery, with almost all the clues feeding back into the eventual pay-off from the in-your-face damaged characters to the intriguingly off-key early question of the deleted messages. For me it made the right choice, too, in the ending being all about the effects on the people, rather than just catching the murderer (something achieved through a combination of chance and, at the last, choice, rather than brilliant policework). It meant the writing was both straightforward in terms of how we understood and empathised, and shot through with ambiguity in no character being plain good or bad – that is, going some way to capture the complexity of life, even if that occasionally led to mixed messages (hugging is fine and natural and you should be ashamed for being suspicious of it / but also a danger sign of suppressed evil, for example).

And yet there were other, slightly postmodern touches for people wanting more layers: references such as naming Wessex Police’s DI “Alec” “Hardy” for Wessex’s Thomas Hardy and one of his best-known characters, Doctor Who quotes in the dialogue (to match the large cast of Doctor Who actors) and the faintest whiff of Twin Peaks that ITV would let you get away with; genre-aware – up to a point – DS Miller hanging a lampshade on her superior’s stereotypical broody detective schtick; the recognition about the viewer that we will recognise certain actors and say ‘Ooh, it’s them – they must be significant’, which the first episode foregrounded by giving us opening minutes of the soon-to-be-bereaved dad’s happy tour of all the famous faces in the village, then closing with a montage of those same faces in the dark, alone, troubled and suspicious, all but slapping on subtitles ‘FAMOUS SUSPECT #1…’

For me, though, the most interesting – and the most successful – extra layer was the thought that had gone into giving it a moral outlook that underpinned the drama without being overpowering.

Broadchurch – The Underlying Themes

What most impressed me about the series was that it dealt with a horrible, tabloid-friendly, always-reported-black-and-white sort of story as a much more thoughtful narrative. Even as the show drew me in, I was sceptical that it was trading on a fictional form of rubbernecking misery porn even as it had its cake and ate it with ‘…But of course journalists are evil reptiles’ to show false piety. But by the end, Broadchurch had shown itself to be something much deeper than that, and perhaps even with a touch of genuine piety.

Rather than just take the easy road of saying how shocking Daily Mail Daily Herald hacks are but subscribing to their worldview, it offered two more unusual turns. Though of course the Daily Mail Daily Herald journo was indeed a repellently cynical parasite, it not only gave her a redeeming feature – in days when even some of the media are strapped for cash, wanting to put the work in rather than just regurgitating or twisting words from press releases (though I scoffed at her apparent shock that her story was sexed up for the front page). More strikingly and more bravely, it implicitly (but no less strongly for that) critiqued not just the form of the Daily Mail Daily Herald but its values. The ‘paedo scare’ was shown as an irresponsible witch hunt that claims an undeserved life; and the ambiguity of the eventual repressed killer leaves further questions hanging, even the possibility that the climate of fear contributed to the killing. And, going back to the main body of the series, it showed throughout how tomorrow’s careless chip paper can harm many people along the way. We’re spared most of the feeding frenzy at the end, but we already know how horrible it will be.

There was a deeper morality to the series than media ethics, however. Broadchurch was at the same time a very modern story and very old-fashioned in its underlying themes, to such an extent that I wonder if the writer has a Christian faith informing his work. Part of it might be the name of show, in plain sight. Part of it was that the vicar for once seemed more or less credible as a vicar – at least in his two sermons, after a piss-poor attempt at the Problem of Evil (perhaps he just bottled giving the line on that to a grieving mother, which you might take as extra motivation to find courage to do the right thing in the penultimate episode even when faced with the worst threat someone can make today). But it was also that as every character’s secrets peeled away, all of those ‘red herrings’ echoed and reinforced each other until at the end it wasn’t just the grammar of whodunnits that made the killer’s identity clear, but the morality of the series that led inevitably to it. Over and over, we were told how destructive adultery was (even in the heart) and that betrayal by your partner was the series’ original sin. It was a murder mystery where you don’t work it out from the clues, but from the themes, asking the viewer by the end: how can you not have known? While the characters themselves weren’t black and white, it’s hard not to see the overwhelming near-universal guilt and the way that almost anything a character vindictively slags off rebounds to be found unwittingly in their own lives as a stern morality from the omnipotent author.

So Broadchurch Wasn’t Perfect…

There was one suspect who, though a decent performance, I found so improbable in concept and their red herring so unconnected to the themes of the rest that their only proper dramatic function appeared to be to illustrate DI Hardy’s gradual collapse. Conversely, we didn’t see enough of Tracey Childs’ rather fabulous police boss with her cool pedeconferencing sporting shades and ice cream, but she was saddled right up front with one of the minor mysteries so awkward that I wondered throughout if it would ever have a payoff (a practical rather than a thematic one): why didn’t Ellie get the job? The series starts with DS Miller returning from three weeks of holiday, scattering presents among the jolly coppers, before being abruptly called away by the Chief Superintendent to be told that she’s not been promoted. Despite being told before she left that they needed a female DI, that she was local and that she was a shoo-in, in her absence the situation had changed and someone else had already been appointed a week ago. A male DI with an apparently conspicuously awful record about which no-one would speak. For a minute, I thought that the explanation had to be that the murder had taken place a week ago, they’d had to get someone in fast, and so Ellie would be the viewer’s point of view in a town suddenly gone horribly wrong – but, no, it was all still to come and there was no motivation at all for dumping on her. That made Hardy’s appointment such a bizarre turnaround that it suggested psychic powers not for Will Mellor but for Tracey Childs, with her able to see into the future of the case or indeed into the minds of TV bosses who might have said, ‘I know we promised the lead to a woman character actor but really we need a big name male star’.

DI Hardy belatedly explaining the missing link (and pendant) in the infamous Sanbrook Case was in many ways necessary – for the drama, for the viewers, giving his motivation, showing he’s a good copper really (or was: seeking redemption through doing another job he’s literally not fit for suggests he no longer is), and to put in place the last major piece of thematic reinforcement for the series’ underlying original sin. But, as he’d been silently taking the blame until now to protect two other people, and as even without naming the guilty party the press are going to find it bleedin’ obvious, why come clean now and ask only for a couple of days’ delay from the local rag? This was so clearly a deathbed confession that, the viewers having heard what we needed to, there was no dramatic need for it to be published as well: you expected his caveat to be not ‘give me a couple of days’ but ‘after I’m dead [in a couple of days]’. Was he scripted to keel over at the moment of triumph, as many earlier scenes had hinted, but then the producers realised they might have a hit on their hands and asked for a rewrite to preserve the unlikely but now promised sequel?

All in all, though, Broadchurch was a surprisingly impressive and thoughtful series, and once again proves the old Sherlock Holmes adage that I’m glad I don’t live in the countryside.

[Oh, joy, Blogger’s doing its thing where it either prints all my text in one splat or gives random massive gaps if I force in breaks again]

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You've missed one: the actor is too well-known for the very minor part.

Because the part gets bigger when they get arrested for the murder, of course.
You're absolutely right.

Though I still always cherished the Randall and Hopkirk in which Martin Clunes was clearly going to be the major guest star - then killed to take us into the opening credits.
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