Personal trials and the chaos of summer have me buried in Agatha Christie yet again, seeking the distinct assurance that only a good murder mystery can provide. But what is it about a good who-done-it that calms our existential despair?
I watched a family living a nightmare. Their son had been murdered. Their friends were suspects. Their marriage was falling apart, lies were revealed, people were hurt, secrets laid bare. And there, in the midst of all these revelations, was the thing itself—the irrefutable fact that they had to get on living with—their son had been killed and the world's sense of meaning-purpose-justice was shattered in an instant.
Now you may be wondering what sort of strange, mean-spirited person I am, to watch all this with interest, and even, dare I say, delight? A very normal person, it would seem. The 'murder-mystery' genre, whether in literature or film, continues to top best-selling/most-watched lists around the world. We simply love a good who-done-it ... but why? On the surface, murder mysteries are terrible—necessitating violence, loss, and tragedy. Why do we like these stories so much? Even more odd, why do we find them so comforting?
In the past week, in the midst of some personal catastrophes (not to mention a great deal of stressful realities in the world at large), I watched all three seasons of the British serial crime drama Broadchurch. While, yes, the premise involved the murder of an 11-year-old boy, much of the show involves Detectives Alec Hardy and Ellie MiIller conducting official interviews, talking with family members, and making copious amounts of tea. These quiet "official" acts in the face of unspeakable violence are indescribably cathartic. Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant) was a recognizable character (even with that thick Scottish brogue)—the good-hearted, troubled inspector who will stop at nothing to find the truth. Detective Miller, played by Olivia Colman, provided a soft, human touch, concerning herself with the emotions of friends and family while attempting to maintain professional distance from a crime that has destroyed her town.
Murder mysteries don't shirk from the violence of real-life. Sometimes the worst happens. People die—sometimes in brutal, cruel ways. We have free-will—we hurt each other. Disease, bad-luck, random happenstance—what a fragile world we live in! Every moment threatened by 'what if?' Like a good Greek tragedy, a murder-mystery allows us the Catharsis ('terror and pity') of the worst-case-scenario.
But a murder-mystery also promises us answers. It promises us a good and thorough investigation that ends with the bad guy getting caught. Can you rectify the initial injustice? Of course not. But it can provide closure, release, and a smallest sense of restoration. At one point I even commented to my husband how remarkable it was that we human beings create courtrooms. Here this terrible, indescribable thing happened, and a whole community comes together to say (in an official capacity) this is not okay, we need to rectify this! Something has gone terribly wrong and we are going to fix it. The ritualistic need for restitution is a very real need.
Murder mysteries don't shirk from the violence of real-life. Sometimes the worst happens. ... But a murder-mystery also promises us answers.
There's not much more comforting than a smart detective—except maybe a very flawed-detective. It's no surprise that most of our detectives are anti-heroes, plagued by personal demons and social ineptitude. Inspector Alec Hardy is physically ill, emotionally unhinged, and (much to my husband and my amusement) a shockingly bad inspector at times. Perhaps we need to see our detectives as flawed—it makes it easier for us to put ourselves in their place. It gives us some hope of solving the mysteries, the injustices and incongruities, in our own lives.
There's an entire genre of murder mysteries known as "cozy mysteries"—marked by amateur slooths, quiet villages, domestic disputes, and 'off-screen/page' violence. Agatha Christie is by far the most famous purveyor of cozy mysteries—she offers us complicated character sketches, tangled motivations, and a shocking revelation, all within the confines of an accessible paperback! Is it any wonder she is the best-selling novelist of all time? When we open the pages of a Christie novel, we are usually greeted by something familar: a dinner party, a train ride, a quiet village. The familiar is then 'up-ended' by tragedy—and in comes our delightful sleuth! a la Miss Marple, Inspector Poirot, etc. here to set things right with a dash of whimsy and good humour.
A few years ago I found myself immersed in another cozy mystery series—Murder, She Wrote, the American crime drama that ran for twelve seasons from the 1980s into the 1990s, starring the charming Angela Lansbury as the celebrated mystery-writer oft-turned detective, Jessica Fletcher. The show is easily parodied (it's amazing how many times Jessica discovered the killer was left-handed) and not remotely frightening.
Jessica lives in a quaint town in Maine (which apparently is not the cozy hamlet we think based on the amount of murders she's asked to investigate!)—and she always solves the crime. There's usually an explanation, too—Inheritance, Jealousy, an Accident. You won't find any serial killers on this show. It's the perfect 'cozy mystery' for when the world seems out of sorts. Jessica Fletcher promises to swoop in with a hot cup of tea and some good clean detective work. To quote from another of Angela Lansbury's famous roles (Mrs. Pots)—"it'll turn out alright in the end, love, you'll see."
While Broadchurch is too gritty and dark to qualify as a cozy mystery, I found the dramatic British cliffs and small-town dramas a balm to my existential queries. I've always found rainy, dark weather comforting—it encourages time inside with books, a fire, a hot drink. And by watching this show, in the midst of muggy summer, I could escape to some dramatic, isolated British hillsides. With Broadchurch over I've moved onto another U.K. crime show—Shetland. Fisherman's knit sweaters, blustery weather, and empty, lonely cliffsides abound, so I'm sure I'll enjoy it as well. [I did enjoy Shetland, but like with all these shows, the early seasons were by far the best.]
I also notice in British television a lack of 'perfection' that often irks me in American dramas. In British TV, the characters aren't all gobsmack gorgeous. In fact, their haircuts are a little messy and they aren't all dressed like they just walked out of a magazine. I like this nod to 'real-life' messiness. And when a detective, in a guttural Scottish accent says, "Okay, don't worry, here's what we're going to do," I feel myself relax. Someone knows what to do. Someone official is going to solve the crime.
And the cups of tea! The many, many cups of tea. Nothing quite heals like tea on a rainy day and these British detectives never shirk from offering a cuppa.
So as I brew myself another pot of Earl Grey and imagine myself walking some Bronte-esque moors, I can rest in the knowledge that the worst can happen, and that it will be okay.
Katie Marquette. "The Consolation of a Good Murder Mystery." Born of Wonder (July 17, 2023).
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Katie Marquette is a writer, producer, and audio editor. She is the creator/host of the arts and theology podcast and Substack, "Born of Wonder." She has undergraduate degrees in English literature and religious studies from St. Mary's College of Maryland and an M.A. in Conflict Resolution with a certificate in Humanitarian and Refugee Emergencies from Georgetown. She also studied for a term abroad at Oxford University, taking classes in medieval and renaissance studies. She has worked for non-profits, research institutes, NPR, and even a horse tack shop. She deeply believes in the power of storytelling to bridge divides and create meaningful connections through beauty, wonder, awe, and art. She lives with her husband and two daughters on a small farm in Maryland. You can connect with her online at bornofwonder.substack.com or at bornofwonder.com.Copyright © 2023 Katie Marquette
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