Too little, too late

I’ve been watching a little of the ITV Agatha Christie’s Marple series, and enjoying Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple quite a lot — she does a lovely job contrasting her mild manner and soft voice with her sharp awareness of murder and what drives people to it. But I’m burning out very rapidly, and not for any reasons to do with the show itself. Instead it’s a matter of genre — and my fundamental problem with murder mysteries.

They are, a priori, about a bad thing having already happened. The best the protagonists can do is to try and deliver justice after the fact.

In a few cases they may forestall a subsequent murder, e.g. in the case of a serial killer going after their next victim. But in many cases shows try to raise the stakes by whacking a second person along the way, so now the detective or cop or whoever is playing cleanup to two horrible crimes. Sometimes more.

I’ve been re-watching Veronica Mars with my husband (who’s never seen most of it before), and while the metaplot of season one is indeed about a murder, the individual episode mysteries are about other crimes. Somebody has been conned out of their money, or a car’s been stolen, or a father has gone missing. I think that’s a large part of why I’m able to take the show in larger doses than I can take murder mysteries these days. In those plots, it’s possible to make people whole — to not just get justice, but to undo or at least significantly mitigate the harm.

These days, I think I need that. I mean, it’s not to say that non-mystery novels don’t frequently involve bad things happening that can’t be put right; obviously they do. But it feels different to me when the entire raison d’etre of the series is to have people die, again and again, with the heroes only taking action after that’s happened.

That mode wears on me after a while, even when counterbalanced by a charming old lady. Which is why I think I’ll be turning to something else soon, no matter how adorable Geraldine McEwan is as Miss Marple.

3 Responses to “Too little, too late”

  1. Robert Orr

    Mysteries are somewhat enigmatic for me. I enjoy reading Christie novels – she is the master of the “Whodunnit.” Can’t think of a work offhand where a murder wasn’t involved. My complaint with mysteries is that the characters tend to be one-dimensional. A dear friend who devours mysteries like rock candy – he is widely read in other fields – said, “Bob, if you want character development, you want a 500=page novel. Mysteries are about CLUES.” A problem is presented, clues are doled out and the issue is whether the reader is clever enough to solve the problem before reaching the solution chapter. Agatha Christie is adept at distributing clues. So was Conan Doyle. If you and your husband want to delve into the genre – stretched out over years, I strongly recommend the “Midsomer Murders” series. There are around 100 episodes. Even the Queen of England marveled at whether anyone was left alive in Midsomer. What my wife and I enjoy are the complexity of the stories – especially after Season 5. You snooze, you lose. And DCI Barnaby and his asst do all the unraveling and apprehending without weapons to protect themselves.
    The Brother Cadfael series starring Derek Jacobi as a 12th century monk is also an excellent watch as is the Jeremy Brett portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.


    • swantower

      It does depend on the author. Dorothy Sayers’ murder mysteries wound up being enough about character that we got Gaudy Night, which is twice the length of most of the other books, features a secondary character as the protagonist, and contains no murder at all. But that’s definitely an exception. And even now it’s true that series mysteries tend to be on the shorter side (compared to SF/F or even some types of romance), which leaves them limited space for developing anything other than the clues.

      When I get interested in a mystery series these days, it’s usually because of the setting: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries with 1920s Australia, or the Brother Cadfael ones are potentially appealing to me with the twelfth century. It helps to have a different environment to shake up the formula, or at least to engage me with something apart from the murder itself.

  2. Robert Orr

    Thanks. Will check Sayers out. Getting ready to start The Tropic of Serpents as soon as I finish Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend” for book club and Asimov’s “The Stars, Like Dust” which has one of the really memorable opening lines to a novel, “The bedroom murmured to itself gently.” Say wha’?



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