About 80 zillion historical costume TV series are murder mysteries, and I dislike most of them. Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, William Murdoch, etc., etc., none of them hold my interest, despite often meticulously recreated historical costumes and settings.
There are a few exceptions. Kind of. I enjoyed Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-2015), though I didn’t finish all three seasons (OK, so maybe it didn’t hold my interest very long). I really enjoyed The Bletchley Circle (2012-2014) — more because the series showed women trying to be independent in post-WWII Britain than because of the mysteries they solved. I liked Death Comes to Pemberley (2013) mostly for the continuation of Pride and Prejudice than for the mystery attached. I watched a few episodes of Mrs. Bradley Mysteries (1998) purely for Diana Rigg’s sassiness (also, great hats). Mystère à la Tour Eiffel (2017) was a great lesbian historical movie, and oh yeah, it’s a mystery, so there’s that. And if push comes to shove, I don’t mind Jeremey Brett as Sherlock, but I can only last for a few eps. Yeah, that was all pretty back-handed, I admit.
What’s my deal with mysteries? Let’s dig into it.
Murder-mystery stories can be predictable
Most mystery TV shows are an hour long (minus commercials, where applicable), and the mystery is laid out in the first few minutes of the show and solved in less than 60 minutes. It feels so trite and simplistic. Everything depends on one super-sleuth who pieces together a bunch of little clues that only he / she has the amazing insight to discover. Sherlock Holmes is the first and foremost example of this, he set the pattern, and everyone followed his lead. I’m not impressed — I’m incredulous.
It takes actual detectives months or years to solve crimes, and they don’t always do it alone. Yeah, yeah, all TV shows and movies are condensed and fictionalized, but the murder-mystery genre feels like the worst offender IMO.
Let’s face it, this is a formulaic genre. Every episode of every murder-mystery series goes like this: murder is discovered, detective gathers clues, witnesses and suspects are interviewed, insert misdirection / false suspect, then chase of real killer, and detective solves the case. The whole thing is livened up by whatever personal quirks the detective and his or her companions have.
For example, Agatha Christie’s books have been analyzed and found to be very consistent in length, number of characters, word choice, and plot layout. According details found in the ITV documentary The Agatha Christie Code:
“All of her books are very similar in style, using the same number of letters in a word on average, and approximately same number of words in a sentence. This is true for books written at the beginning of her career as well as books at the end of her career; it was as if she found a successful formula which captivated her readers and stuck with it.”
Also, why do so many murders happen in the near vicinity of certain super-sleuths? Fictional Cabot Cove, Maine, setting for (not-historical) Murder She Wrote, was calculated to have the highest murder rate in the world, according to statisticians at the Open University, U.K. Other popular mystery shows had ridiculously high murder rates as well, with one or two murders per episode, often in the same small towns.
Even when the murders take place in a big city, like London or New York, why is it just the one detective who’s solving these exotic cases? There are no other decent detectives available in said major world city? Not a single one, huh? That’s some ego right there.
Look at everyone’s fave Miss Fisher. She lives in 1920s Melbourne, Australia’s capital city at the time. It had a population of 103,251 in 1921, yet crime had been going down for decades and was at only 0.9 violent offenses per thousand people in 1929. Even if I could get past the super-low crime rate, why or how is Phryne the only one in the city solving those few crimes? My suspension of disbelief is stretched way too thin for this.
The historical costumes look the same after a while
Murder-mystery TV series revolve around one central character, a professional or amateur detective, and maybe his / her helpers. The main cast is limited, but regular, and the setting rarely changes except for special events. Once everyone’s been established and the historical period and social class(es) are visually set, there’s very little change. The detective (and any helper characters) rarely have their own development arcs that are expressed visually in costume.
The only costume changes come from any excursions the detective takes outside homebase or from any of the murder victims and suspects. This might be interesting, on occasion — and I’ll note that Miss Fisher is one show to make a point of giving Phryne excuses to attend all kinds of crazy events and go different places just to liven things up. But in general, the murder-mystery TV series stays put in town and lets the murder come to it.
This is where the big-screen movie mysteries have a real advantage. Take someting like Death on the Nile (1978), which goes TO TOWN on the costumes because a) they clearly had the budget and, more importantly b) the story is about Brits going on holiday, it’s not ‘detective lives in Town X.’
Endless detective series, endless mystery remakes
TV, in particular, doesn’t know when to stop with a murder mystery series. David Suchet played Hurcule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Poirot from 1989 to 2013 with 70 episodes. He’s been the most prolific, but he’s not the only one. Ian Holm and Alfred Molina each played the character on TV, and Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, among others, and now Kenneth Branagh, have played Poirot on the big screen. Enough already!
But no detective has been remade more times than Sherlock Holmes — he’s the “most-portrayed movie character” in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Not counting the modernized versions (hi, Benedict Cumberbatch), there’s still Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Tom Baker, Michael Caine, Jeremy Brett, Rupert Everett, Robert Downey Jr., Ian McKellen, and next up, Will Ferrell (yes, historical). Do we really need more of the same?
It’s the exact same character and the exact same stories. I guess it’s “new” when they’re made modern, but then that’s out of our purview at Frock Flicks. So I go back to this is me, ignoring vast numbers of historical costume movies and TV series because they’re the same old repetitive murder-mysteries.
Anyone with me? Or are you a fan of historical mystery shows?
Have you checked out Murdoch Mysteries (Canadian series, also known as The Artful Detective)? It’s been going long enough that many of the supporting cast have had character development arcs of their own. I’ve always wondered how accurate some of the ladies’ outfits are, for turn of the century in Toronto, Canada.
The same production company has also know come out with a new series set in the 1920s, the “Frankie Drake Mysteries”. The first episode just aired last night, so I have only just started watching it myself.
Yep, & we consigned Murdoch to ‘Oh the Bad Movies & TV You’ll Watch’ – https://www.frockflicks.com/oh-the-bad-movies-tv-youll-watch/
Thanks for the reference (I wasn’t following this blog when this article was posted last year).
I appreciate the note that the costumes are “fine for the period”, as that’s all I really wondered about. And I will readily admit that I haven’t seen all the early episodes myself. My husband was the one to binge the early seasons and then guided me into the series with a selection of the episodes he figured I’d enjoy the most.
William Murdoch is mentioned in the first paragraph of this article :p It’s my fav TV show because I love the characters so much (even the weekly murders are a secondary thing to me), but I can see how it’s a bit dull in the costume department for most people…
Haven’t seen Frankie Drake yet. Not sure how I feel about it, might give it a go if the reviews are good.
My eyes must have skimmed right over it, with the mention of so many other names, and the etc’s coming right after his LOL
I’m a fan. But there are several mystery novels that could be made into a two-four part series. Dame Fervisse comes to mind.
You make some good points. But I don’t mind historical mysteries. With so much unpredictability in real life, it’s nice sometimes to immerse myself in something predictable. I like knowing the murder/kidnapper/rapist is going to get caught and punished and I don’t mind suspending my incredulity.
Well, yes, mysteries (historical or otherwise) are repetitive, and the villain gets caught. It’s part of their charm.
You forgot Cadfael in your rant. I know, Derek Jacobi, but it fits the bill, too!
And as repetition go, I like all of it better than the:
“I don’t know what to write/ I’m too lazy to research/ History is boring anyway/ OMG I need some female plot… I know, Let’s have a RAPE!!” throws confettis to celebrate genius idea
we get in quite a lot of historical series (Yes, looking at you, Outlander… amongst others)
Sorry, but I don’t share your feelings. One, I love mysteries. And two, I love them even more when they are period dramas. Which is why I can watch any Agatha Christie adaptation – especially those in period costumes – over and over again.
Though modern you need to add Jonny Lee Miller to your Sherlock list. While the show it formulaic JLM’s Sherlock isn’t.
I love a good mystery and quite frankly the historical ones seem to be better than the moderns ones out right now.
Too bad Hollywood doesn’t read more books. Lots of historical mysteries that haven’t been done out there. The Irene Adler series by Carole Nelson Douglas comes to mind for a start.
I’m with you. I think Miss Fisher keeps my interest because her character is such fun and as you say, she has those excursions to liven things up but it’s pretty much the only murder mystery series I watch.
There are a few I like in the “I can’t be bothered to choose anything, oh look, it’s Jeremy Brett” kind of way. Brett’s Holmes, Hickson’s Miss Marple. But no, in general they’re not high on my list. On the other hand, a good police procedural gets my interest, but they’re mostly modern. Since the modern police force wasn’t started until 1832 (or 1794 if you count Thames River Police) there are few that are even possible. On the other hand, I’d be up for a well-casted Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe series. What, golden era Hollywood and Los Angeles? Count me in. But it’s not for the mystery, it’s for the spectacle and the characters. I don’t care who did it or who was done.
Yes, on the characters and spectacle, but I’ve found most mysteries to have very little of either, or not enough to compensate for predictability, sadly. I’ve given up on watching most mysteries after I could predict who did it after watching about half of an episode. :)
Alas, I love them. I know I shouldn’t for all the reasons you list, but they are balm for a troubled soul: the televisual equivalent of macaroni cheese.
YES! My eyes glaze over immediately!
I love them, but you do make good points… They’re one of my comfort objects though, but I am picky about the ones I watch.
I always said, re: Agatha Christie, that I had to wonder about Miss Marple and all those deaths around her. At least Poirot is a detective so has an excuse (though a lot seems to follow him too…), but Miss Marple… Hmm… lol
Death follows Miss Marple because she’s Nemesis.
Have you read The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde? There’s a great line in there about how deaths have gone up around the great sleuths, and isn’t that interesting? I can’t find my copy or I’d pull the quote.
I adore Jasper Fforde books!
Yes! Jasper Fforde is amazing. I need to reread the Nursery Crime books though, I’ve only read them once.
I like watching Father Brown. It essentially runs on a loop on BBC HD, so now I just turn down the volume and admire the dresses (while doing something else).
Tiny spelling correction: It’s Hercule Poirot.
I agree with your points about murder mysteries being formulaic, but I love them anyway. I could watch Poirot all day.
Murdoch Mysteries didn’t impress me story and character-wise after a few episodes.
It’s too recent to be “historical”, but I love Remington Steele. It’s my favorite show.
I’m just here to upvote Remington Steele — especially the earlier years!!!
Well, it was Pierce Brosnan’s breakout role, & I admit to being charmed by him ;-)
I enjoy David Suchet Poirot because he finished it all. And he ages and i like the continuity. (Also i am a terrible speller and my auto correct isnt working so forgive spellings)
Whatever! I will watch them all!
Yup, this is me. I’ve watched the first season of Murdoch and I did enjoy Grantchester, but as a whole the genre doesn’t really interest me.
They’re like comfort food to me. Plus Poirot is so perfect, it’s like a “how to” for men and women to dress 30s. And, we had Miss Fisher’s fan dance on an endless loop for a while over here. You to, Essie Davis!
I have a whole drawer of DVDs of them that I can watch over and again, including modern one, but I do understand that if they’re not your bag it must be so boring. Trouble is I find those without such a structure just devolve into well dressed soapies. Downton Abbey, Poldark – they’re just Days of our Lives set in the past.
Ones I have enjoyed but not listed include Endeavour – an excellent portrayal of Oxford int he early 1960s and Maigret with Rowan Atkinson. Also the Tommy and Tuppence series from the 80s which is a fun Wodehouse type take on Christie.
I also must address the issue of changes of actors being important. I can watch Joan Hickson forever in spite of the bad 80s hair and music and lingering camera shots. Amazing stuff. But in spite of loving both actresses with a passion, I can’t STAND Geraldine McEwan or Julia MacKenzie in the role. They’re both so jolly and twinkly. Miss Marple was a shrewd cynic and her obfuscation was being vague, not twinkly. Grrr.
I really LOVE historical mysteries. I agree with a lot of your points about them, but I think I like some of the Agatha Christie ones because they are formulaic and not in spite of. I’m with you about Bletchley Circle: I think it’s one of my favorites because it is a mystery AND we get to see interesting characters working within the social parameters of a certain time period. I love Gosford Park for similar reasons. It’s a piece about certain niches of society with a mystery bonus!
That said, I’m up for all of the costume mysteries. But I also like formulaic / predictable police procedurals too. So you can discount my opinion here!
OMG – I feel like you’ve put a finger on how I’ve [guiltily] felt for decades! I’ve always thought most hour-long-with-commercials-murder-mysteries are 45 minutes of people lying followed by 5 minutes of people telling the truth, 5 minutes of the protagonist smugly explaining the whole thing to everyone else, and 5 minutes of “look how wonderful our life/town is”
Ugh. No thank you. I’ve always wondered why I had no interest, when a lot of the costumes dramas available, when strong female leads to boot, are these formulaic shows.
Thanks! I’m with you!
Yes, you’ve described the formula perfectly! Thank you.
I actually like mysteries and need something REALLY good to hold my interest (like…a war) if it’s not. I like Holmes quite a bit, and adore Peter Wimsey (especially since Sayers more than most plays fair-you know what Lord Peter does. Christie in particular is…not so great there.) On the other hand, unless a show is somehow really amusing, like ‘The Durrells in Corfu’, I feel like I can’t justify caring about these people. Like I’ve tuned out on Poldark- just kill George, people, half your problems go away. Also, cousin girl, poison your dick new husband. I get really impatient with drama characters who aren’t being constrained by historical accuracy.
I love her, but I do agree about Christie. It’s not really fair when you’re trying to figure things out yourself and you’re not given all the information. :/
Yet another example of how different my taste is from Trystan’s. I don’t get the point of fiction that does NOT involve murder. Mystery, modern or historic, is wonderful on the page or the screen.
What I hate are romances … romance is a plot device, but as a whole plot, bleah.
Two points: first of all, try “Nicolas le Floch” for fun. Murder (and other) mysteries set in France before the Revolution. Very naughty and swashbuckling. Lots of bump and tickle and sword fights.
Secondly, I feel about historical romances the way Trystan feels about historical mysteries. formulaic, shallow, not much plot. Boring. They don’t hold my interest. Pretty costumes, maybe, but not much else going on.
Part of the fun of Muroch Mysteries, for example, is seeing how the technology of the times is used to solve the crime, the sci-fi elements of one of the characters (an inventor whose inventions are always stolen by others who get the credit), and the the historical context, like women’s suffrage, corsets vs. no corsets, visits from real characters (like Tesla, Edison, Mark Twain),and general Canadian history and mores.
The fun with Miss Fisher is the fact that she is a “liberated” woman who defies societal norms.
But, I confess that I have always been a mystery fan. It’s my favorite genre. I never much liked Agatha Christie (formulaic) because she would leave out a vital clue, so the reader couldn’t solve the mystery and then whatever detective it was would assemble the cast of characters and pontificate. As for Joan Hixon as Miss Marple, I feel she portrayed the character as a ditzy old biddy. It drove me crazy.
I dislike historical romances for the same reason, plus they tend to be horribly written. For me it’s the combo of horrible writing, coupled with formulaic writing that kills it for me, in any genre.
I love Murdoch Mysteries for the same reasons. All the actual history and real people that get inserted really makes the historian in me happy. And Pendrick’s and Murdoch’s inventions. And I love that (nearly) all the medical examiners have been women. It’s so much fun!
I dig on some murder mystery shows, especially when I’m in the mood for predictable formularity. Agree that of the more recent historical murder mystery shows, Miss Fishers is among the best because the character of Phryne Fisher is so fabulous.
Then again, from a story structure perspective, many genres are formulaic. Rom coms most all have the same plot that progresses at about the same rate. Ditto horror and thrillers and adventure tales.
But hey, everyone’s got their own palate. I’ll watch the murder mysteries so you don’t have to. :)
I pretty much agree. My main exception is Cadfael though for all of the reasons. I do get bored with most of the mystery shows though, I just thought it was because it was ALL my mom would watch when I was growing up but no, when I got older I was still like meh. Every once in awhile I will throw on one of the many Sherlock stories but it’s fairly rare.
Ugh, Will Farrel is playing Holmes? Well, that just ruins my night. I can’t stand him, and Sherlock Holmes is probably my favorite fictional character of all time. =P
Trystan thanks for articulating the reasons for disliking the Murder/mystery genre so well. I am with you entirely on this and these days almost everything that comes up is murder mystery. It shows a sad lack of imagination. Occasionally I will give in and watch something because there is nothing else and I know the acting etc will appeal but only when that is a “one off” like Death at Pemberley and not an ongoing series, When a “murder” happens within a story, eg Bleak House or the Pallisers that has justification within the ongoing action rather than being simply what the story is about it is quite different.
I’m in the camp that equates murder-mysteries (especially historical ones) with comfort food. All the points you made are totally valid, they just don’t really matter to me or are actually reasons why I like them.
I feel slightly more affection for Murdoch Mysteries as a Canadian and Toronto-native – it’s rare to see things actually set in my city rather than it being used as a stand-in for somewhere else (although, ironically, most of the outdoor filming is done outside of Toronto – though I can point out the local houses/sites they do use!). On a related note, I also really appreciate a show that focuses on Canadian history – and even though the show is set at the turn of the 20th century there are often plots and character that refer back several decades, such as what Canada was up to during the US Civil War, the Mackenzie rebellion, the Halifax explosion, etc. This is just such rare material it’s such a novelty to see! One final point that I feel makes it a bit different is that the main character is actually a member of the police force rather than a civilian who shows the police up – as is so typically the case. The women’s costumes have sometimes made me groan (yes, I could do a better job myself) but I find it charming nonetheless.
Anyway, not trying to sway you in the slightest, you’re pretty bang-on with all the points you made.
Agree to disagree. But glad you gave props to Death on the Nile. Bette Davis and Maggie Smith? Fabulous.
I have to say that I don’t see what is so loathsome about a formula in genre fiction. I think that often genre expectations are confused with and equated to predictability, which is an important distinction. The established formula of weekly murder mysteries (Endeavor, Father Brown, Miss Marple, Murdoch Mysteries, Miss Fisher’s Mysteries, etc) in no way allows me to predict who the murderer is, at least not entirely (you might have an idea who the killer is but not why, or you may know the motive but there are several people who have the same one, etc). Rather, from my perspective, the main character/sleuth provides an entry to the situation at hand and a reliable touchstone while we as viewers explore specific circumstances surrounding each individual murder mystery – they remain a constant when all the other players/motivations/personal histories change week to week. It’s fascinating to me to explore the intricacies of human behavior through the eyes of someone who is somewhat impartial. But hey, like everyone else on here, to each their own! I’ll watch every one of them with a roaring blaze in the fireplace and a hot toddy in hand. Cheers!
I’m definitely with you on the sameness of the costumes. I actually like the predictability of the plots somewhat, because it means I can really relax when watching them, and suspend disbelief for the crime rates – but Miss Fisher was one of the few ones I genuinely enjoyed for the costumes, precisely because they find an excuse every episode to toss her into a visually interesting and unusual setting, be it the beach or burlesque or travelling. I actually like it better than Downton Abbey for that reason.
I agree with the comfort food assessment. I grew up watching mysteries because my mum loves them, though as an adult my taste both overlaps with hers and veers in a slightly less Christie-centric direction. A lot of the pleasure from it derives from its formulaic quality- it has a catharsis element, a purging of extreme emotion and restoration of social order that speaks to some pretty strong human fears and desires. My favorites for historical mysteries are Cadfael and Foyle’s War, both of which are almost interpretive materials for the periods they depict. I’m also fond of Endeavour, Grantchester, and Miss Fisher, all of which bring a lot of social history into the whodunnit formula.
I loooove Foyle’s War and was hoping to find another fan!!! Michael Kitchen is wonderful.
Love that entire series, even the post-war ones.
I don’t share the same opinion as most of the commenters. I adore historical mysteries, both TV shows/movies as well as novels. I have many friends who write really good historical mysteries including Tasha Alexander, Deanna Raybourn, Rhys Bowen, and Victoria Thompson. I particularly adore the Agatha Christie and Miss Fisher adaptations but I love them all. I think the only ones that actually bored me was Endeavor and Murdoch (I don’t like the lead actor).
Oh, look, another old article where I can push my love for Dobrodružství kriminalistiky! I have no idea whatsoever if it’s available in English, unfortunately. But it’s a period mystery series that checks against all your objections – it’s not so formulaic because it’s based on real-life cases and there are, indeed, some that took months or even years and years to solve, and often took whole teams of people to solve (there’s even one episode named “Team” that purposefully focuses on that aspect of crime solving), and the series does not shy away from that. And they’re not even all murders (that’s my own biggest complaint about mysteries – I so enjoy different kinds of crimes every now and then, and that’s something the followers of A.C. Doyle missed in their pursuit of a successful formula). The costumes don’t get repetitive because each episode is set in a different time period. And for the abovementioned reasons, there is also obviously no central Great Detective.
The only thing that matches your objections is that the episodes are all more or less the same length. :D
(I have to admit I do enjoy a period mystery a lot every now and then, for most of the reasons others mentioned; but I also agree with you that all of the things you mention can get annoying, and it’s definitely why I enjoyed Dobrodružství kriminalistiky so much.)