Mysteries In Name Only?

Back when I launched my Nick Hoffman series, Woody Allen did Manhattan Murder Mystery.  That film was missing a crucial piece: there was no discernible reason for the amateur sleuth to get involved in investigating the murder.  Despite some funny lines, the movie was hollow.  It’s natural for cops and PIs  to investigate a murder, but amateurs need a believable motive and leaving it out showed a lack of respect for the genre.  The film seemed tossed off with an anyone-can-write-a-mystery attitude.

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I recently tried watching Columbus Circle about a wealthy agoraphobic living in an exclusive Midtown building.  New neighbors suddenly started brawling in the hallway and I thought 1) they’re faking 2) they want to lure her outside 3) they’re after her money.  It all proved true within minutes.  Unbelievably, the woman neighbor badgered the agoraphobic into walking down the hallway and there was no reason why the shut-in should have succumbed. So the psychology was bogus and the writers didn’t respect the thriller genre enough to make anything remotely believable. I see this in films and on TV way too often.

Then there’s Sherlock.  The show started out as an innovate reboot of Watson and Holmes.  It even played with the homoerotic nature of their bromance:  Sherlock discussed it with aplomb, Watson with annoyance.  Most amusing.

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The special effects that were originally fun have overtaken the show and became distracting.  More than one fan told me he enjoyed them because they demonstrated the chaos in Holmes’s mind.  And his mind is anything but chaotic, it’s extremely organized.  Explosively fast editing works in a Jason Bourne movie, but Sherlock’s thinking should be awe-inspiring, not stupefying.

There was progressively less story in the show and I wondered why. Then I saw the writers on PBS practically boasting that Sherlock wasn’t going to be “about solving a crime ever week.”  Really?  Why breathe new life into a fabled character and then totally subvert what he does?  Their attitude and preference for FX showed contempt for the genre they were in.

Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu fields an even bolder take on Holmes, making him a recovering addict and turning Watson into a woman and his “sober companion” when the show debuted.  There’s no flashy camera work or FX now, but just as much substance.  Crimes have typically been solved, not ignored.  By making Watson a woman, it opened up the Sherlock story up in a unique way.  This Watson is a strong, complex, fascinating woman.

Part of the joy of Elementary has been watching her develop into an amateur detective, and in seeing her navigate a complex, layered relationship with Sherlock.  But it’s sadly come to feel like a primer on Alcoholics Anonymous: progressively less action-oriented and less about sleuthing.  Mysteries aren’t really actively solved so much as talked about and there’s more standing around and jawing that there is detecting.  Again, you get the feel that the writers are bored.

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For the real deal, I’ve turned to watching The Bridge, a Danish/Swedish co-production I rent from Netflix.  It’s smart, deep, dark, and funny when it needs to be.  The writers clearly love the genre they’re in, and it shows.  It starts with a body found exactly midpoint on the stunningly beautiful bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden, which means police forces from both countries have to cooperate, and that’s more complicated than we might expect.  There are language issues, jurisdictional issues, procedural issues–and the lead detectives are wildly different characters.  One is sloppy and cuts corners, the other is humorless and rule-bound.  Yet they gradually make an effective, compelling team.  The show is dramatic, tense, moody, exciting.  And there’s real, powerful mystery at its core–something this mystery author and lover craves.

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the novel of suspense Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries here.

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