Tea and a Mystery – Mystery! on PBS

Mystery! title card – By Captured, cropped, and reduced from video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvGKpWhbRIk, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55124134

The idea for this blog post arose from a very dreary, blustery day last week, full of rain and chill – the kind of day where the best thing to do is make a steaming cup of tea and curl up with a good mystery, whether in book form or its filmed version.

I think the WGBH series Mystery! may have been my introduction to the genre, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Even though I’ve never had a desire to write mystery novels, I enjoy trying to solve each one’s puzzle, and I’m a particular fan of novels that have great settings, either geographic or period. As you might imagine, then, the Sherlock Holmes stories, anything by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Rex Stout, and the Father Brown tales and Murdoch Mysteries on television are all some of my favourites.

Accordingly, on that dismal evening, I put on my wellies (metaphorically; I don’t actually own a pair) and headed out to get fish and chips while my hubby, temporarily laid up due to knee surgery, put on the kettle.

A cold, unforgiving rain fell in sheets as I drove through the night. The traffic lights created glistening rivers of red on the asphalt disappearing beneath my tires…But I digress. (I’m also a fan of noir 😉)

Who doesn’t love trying to solve a good mystery? There’s probably someone out there, but it’s hard to imagine. All animals are inveterately curious, humans included. I used to play hide-and-seek with our (late) male dog, Ramses – I’d hide somewhere, call his name, and he’d run around the house until he found me, wagging happily. He was a very clever dog who loved to play games like that.

The mystery genre is hugely popular, with an amazing variety of very different stories being told. There are several sub-genres within ‘mystery’, often with overlap between them: the Classic style of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, Crime, Police Procedurals (sometimes called Hardboiled if the detective is cynical and street-smart), Noir (I love Dashiell Hammett, personally), Private Detective, Capers. and a more recently-defined category called Cozy.

But mysteries can also creep into other unrelated genres, like Romance, Science Fiction and even Fantasy. No matter their own genre, I’d recommend that any budding novelist pay a lot of attention to how mystery stories build suspense and drop clues.

The Mystery! series has spent many years featuring many of the greatest tales in the genre’s history. A spinoff of Masterpiece Theatre, it debuted in 1980, and partnered with the BBC and ITV (a competitor to BBC in Great Britain) for the shows it aired.

Each episode began with a subtly creepy animated opening sequence, in black and white with startling spots of red, drawn by the late, great artist Edward Gorey, famous for his darkly-humorously gothic artwork. It showed an old country house, a formal ball, then people attending a funeral, investigators, and a moaning woman doing various things like lying across a crypt. For me it was one of the highlights of the series, setting the tone for the shadowy whodunnits to follow.

The other brilliant touch was the succession of interesting hosts that introduced each episode, beginning with film critic Gene Shalit. He opened the very first broadcast with these delightful words:

“Good evening. We’re about to set out on a series of entertaining mysteries – 15 weeks of suspenseful, sophisticated, crafty conundrums that are darkly diabolical, or amusing adventures with introductions that suddenly seem alarmingly alliterative.”

Shalit left the show the next season, to be replaced by the inimitable Vincent Price, who brought all of his horror chops and sardonic humour to the role. Just the sound of his voice was enough to give viewers the chills, apart from the various haunted house gags he performed. He went to Boston twice a year for eight years to tape his opening and closing segments, only stepping down due to ill health.

Diana Rigg took over in 1989 and did a wonderful job, with the elegance and wryness she’d shown in her role as Emma Peel in the 1960s British television series The Avengers.  

My hubby and I watched Mystery! regularly for many years, but it suffered from bouncing around between various public-television stations and eventually we lost track of it. Nevertheless, several of our favourite shows ever became that way through the series – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with the wonderful Jeremy Brett as the titular protagonist, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (with our favourite Poirot ever, David Suchet), Dalgleish with Roy Marsden as the taciturn detective, Foyle’s War (another great period mystery, set during WW2 in Britain), Zen with Rufus Sewell, and more. All of them were extremely well-produced and made for many great evenings of watching in front of a crackling fire.

So how does a good mystery novel, or script, get written?

First there’s the mystery itself. You as the writer are all-knowing, deciding who did it, how they did it, and how you’re going to reveal that slowly to your readers using suspense to hook them until the big reveal at the end.

Of course, talented writers have turned the tables and revealed the murderer at the outset, building suspense either in how the criminal tries to get away with it or the investigator either cleverly or doggedly hunts them down. One of the best novels I’ve ever seen do this, although it’s technically a thriller, was Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, wherein you know early on who the bad guy is and watch in fascination as a history professor and an ex-policeman try to find him.

I’d do a ton of research if I were to attempt writing a mystery novel. There’s so much subsidiary information that needs to be accurate: police involvement and legal procedures, the details of the murder at the heart of the story (especially the plausibility of the method used to commit it), how the detective (amateur or professional) conducts the investigation, and period authenticity for whatever era the mystery takes place in. Sometimes these can be played with, and only on purpose – The Murdoch Mysteries feature a detective who’s so brilliant he invents inquiry techniques before their time, often with names that are cheeky wordplays on their actual modern counterparts.

Then there are the elements specific to your choice of genre. Police procedurals need great accuracy about the segments, from the discovery of the crime to forensics, and these will change depending on the country, county or even specific city/town. Modern police novels tend to include gritty and often gruesome details, very different from Cozy Mysteries, which, just as their name suggests, provide more gentle reads and charming settings.

A terrific blog post on Reedsy, How to Write a Mystery: The 6 Secret Steps Revealed, talks about crafting a memorable sleuth. Every great investigator in novel or movie history has had interesting quirks that make them so accomplished, and that makes their investigation both authentic and compelling to watch. Sherlock Holmes was brilliant, impatient with stupidity or anything boring, and between cases needed to challenge his over-active mind with infusions of cocaine. He often thought best while playing his violin, which could drive his doughty assistant Dr. Watson crazy on occasion. Inspector Lestrade was the Scotland Yard ‘copper’ who tolerated Holmes’ interference.

And therein lies another critical ingredient: a well-rounded cast of secondary characters, because no main character exists in a vacuum.

One of my hubby’s and my favourite shows was the series Castle, which we continue to watch in syndication. We love it largely because, although each episode’s mystery was intriguing, it was the milieu that made it special. The plot revolved around Richard Castle, a handsome and spoiled multiple-bestselling mystery novelist, who ran into hardboiled NYPD detective Kate Beckett through a case she was investigating. He enjoyed his involvement so much that he decided to use her as inspiration for his new book series, which meant that through his friendship with the mayor he arranged to follow her around and annoy the crap out of her.

Their dynamic, and slow-growing romance, formed the main engine for the series, but it was all the other characters that gave the show its life. Castle’s interactions with his dramatic actress mom and straightforward teen-aged daughter showed his more thoughtful side, while the various other detectives, police chief, uniformed officers, coroners and technical consultants fleshed out the unraveling of each crime being solved.

Usually there was a great deal of humour, but the shows could also get very serious from time to time. The other distinguishing feature of the series was Castle’s persistent promotion of theories involving the strange and unusual, from aliens to time travel to zombies, a hilarious contrast to Beckett’s no-nonsense realism. (The series aired on our Canadian sci-fi channel based on that alone.)

If you have a great idea for a mystery/crime novel, I recommend starting with the Reedsy blog to get a feel for the mechanics of the genre. And some time well-spent absorbing techniques from the best, whether aired on Mystery! or between the pages of a book, couldn’t hurt either 😉 Put the kettle on and investigate!

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