I began watching the first episode of the BBC’s Ripper Street with a certain amount of hostility. I’ve spent the last six months doing research for a new mystery, half of which is set in 19th century Bristol and which concerns, among other things, the birth of modern photography and a series of violent crimes against women. So when the BBC started teasing their new series, set in 19th century London and featuring violent crimes against women and apparently a whole lot of primitive photography, I was understandably irritated.
This happens every time I get my act together and begin writing something, and as usual I needn’t have worried. There’s not much overlap at all (although they did pinch some ideas for impromptu chemistry which I’ll have to reconsider). My story is set in the 1860s, only a few years after the invention of the dry-plate. By 1889 photography has advanced a lot, and the plot of this first episode of Ripper Street turned out to involve an early foray into moving pictures. Once I knew I didn’t have to rip up all my notes, I began to enjoy the show a lot.
[Light spoilers for the first episode of Ripper Street, heavy spoilers for Death in Paradise]
Ripper Street isn’t even structured as a mystery: it’s a police procedural that’s unconcerned with keeping the identity of the culprit a surprise. Instead, the focus seems to be on a certain sort of Victorian griminess that’s become very popular recently. Despite this, I expect many people will be turned off by the violence. Every episode will have a standalone plot, so the rape, torture and murder of women for the entertainment of wealthy perverts that featured in this episode is possibly not representative. But, given the title, I doubt many lady characters are going to be having a jolly time over the course of the series! It’s certainly not for kids, and Sunday night seems an odd time to show it. Still, the acting was good, and the dialogue was well-written and had a great rhythm to it, both in the back-and-forth between the characters and in the individual lines. It’s not exactly dripping with convincing historicity, but it’s not really any worse in that regard than that inexplicably popular snooze-fest Downton Abbey. I was reminded quite a lot of Drood by Dan Simmons. It has that same sense of exaggerated squalor. I’ll definitely watch some more, although I can see it becoming a bit tiring if they don’t mix up the crimes. A times it feels like crime fiction is a ceaseless bombardment of murdered women, and it’s easy to get mutilation fatigue.
One thing that worries me is the need to bring Jack the Ripper into it at all. There were a lot of hints that the main character has some history with Jack, which is perfectly reasonable as the basis for a character arc, doubtless coming to a head in the series finale. But actually putting “Ripper” in the title seriously limits the scope of where this series can go. As so often happens, I agree with Martin Edwards: the crimes of Jack the Ripper are important, but they’ve been analysed to death. I’m worried that what seems like an interesting jumping-off point for the writers now will end up as a millstone round their necks in nine or ten episode’s time. Hopefully I wrong. In the meantime, I’d (naturally!) like to see more of a mystery element. But I’m not as dogmatic about that as I might once have been…
…especially while Death in Paradise is around to entertain me. This is pure formula, but it shows that you don’t need to deviate from the template if you do it well. These are well-structured and impeccably paced Golden Age-style mysteries set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Marie, with a focus on impossible crimes. Every week begins with an unusual murder, then a half-dozen or so suspects are introduced and then interviewed one at a time. There’s frequent rumination by the detectives on the current state of the mystery, and a good number of well-telegraphed clues. There’s even always a “gather all the suspects” scene just before the end! Bookend that with a few slices of island life and you’re done! Almost perfect. The first series was broadcast in 2011 and was brilliant. The quality of the episodes dropped somewhat towards the end of the run, but overall it was my favourite show of the year.
It also demonstrated two useful mystery writing concepts that are easy to forget: first, it’s perfectly possible to have a mystery series where the main characters are only lightly sketched, and where their life outside the mystery of the week is basically irrelevant. If you’d asked me last week to name the four members of the police team, I doubt I could have remembered a single one, but I could easily have listed their character traits and how they facilitate moving the plot along and sneaking in all the necessary exposition quickly and plausibly. This would be harder to get away with in a book, where lack of explicit characterization can leave you with cardboard cutouts or cyphers. But good acting and pithy dialogue solves all those problems on screen. Death in Paradise is far from a masterclass in dialogue writing, but it’s more than good enough for its purposes.
Secondly, Death in Paradise consistently shows there’s no requirement for a mystery to be baffling for it to be entertaining. I solved every one of the first nine episodes superficially (i.e. I knew whodunnit and, where appropriate, how) and many of them entirely (i.e. figuring out all the extraneous details and working out where all the clues fit in). I doubt I’m alone in that. I’d rather have a well-clued mystery that I can solve before the end than a sparsely-clued mystery where the solution has come out of a hat (and better either than a convoluted and inconsistent twist pile-up that relies on the viewer forgetting what they were told fifteen minutes earlier).
I’m not sure what more to say about the first episode of series 2, which dealt with the murder of a cruel plantation owner. I enjoyed it a lot, although I’d have preferred it if the solution didn’t involve a secret passage. Admittedly it was a plausible secret passage, and it was plainly foreshadowed. (The show doesn’t claim to be Jonathan Creek. Impossible crimes aren’t in its remit, they just tend to crop up.) But I did get the impression that they were working to Father Knox’s decalogue, so when the tunnel didn’t turn out to be a red herring I was a little disappointed (I’d figured Louis and Kim for the culprits early on, and the photo confirmed it, although their motive and relationship seems unguessable. But with all those establishing shots of the waterwheel and the cogs, and the fact that “mechanic” in mysteries is often permissible shorthand for “master engineer”, I was seriously expecting Louis to have built some sort of machete-firing deathtrap!)
What else? The threat of a relationship between Richard and Camille makes me a bit worried, although the rug-pull at the end of the episode was reassuring. I’m also glad that Danny John-Jules’ accent has settled down. The JOH(AN) dying message was a bit stupid, because it was already an unhelpful and unnatural thing to write, and he conveniently dropped dead at the point where it would cause the maximum confusion. But that’s par for the course with dying messages, which have always been my least-favourite mystery trope. And by Ellery Queen standards it was crystal clear!
So definitely better than the last episodes of series 1, but not as good as the first few. I think next week’s will be the test. The creator, Robert Thorogood, has written a locked-room mystery (with smoke! I’ve not seen that before. Presumably it’s crucial…). I’m very much looking forward to it.
So there you have it. Two very different shows, and I enjoyed them both on their own terms. But I’m not sure why the family friendly Death in Paradise is languishing on Tuesday nights, when it seems like it would be perfect for Ripper’s Sunday evening slot.