The internet has cut out, just over a fifth (12m 15s) of the way into this week’s episode of Death in Paradise. While I’m waiting for it to come back online, I’m going to make a prediction about whodunit. Not to show off, but because I think there are certain sorts of clues that really stand out, especially in dialogue, and clients are often interested in techniques for making this kind of information less (and occasionally more) prominent. Details are going to be a bit fuzzy, because I can’t go back to check them. But obviously there are going to be spoilers for the episode.
The setup: Regular characters Fidel and Dwayne are moonlighting as security guards at a gallery; a painting by one of the island’s prominent early 20th century artists is on display before being auctioned. The gallery owner gives some information about the painting and its artist before we’re introduced to this week’s cast of suspects and victims: there’s Carlton, a male escort who seems to be a friend of Fidel’s. There are also three women who we don’t get much information about, but who are clearly going to be implicated. Carlton seems to be disturbed by something at the gallery and leaves abruptly. Later, when the event is over, Fidel and Dwayne receive a call rerouted from the police switchboard. They hear Carlton say “She’s got a gun”. When they rush to his house they find he’s been shot. Carlton’s phone is missing, along with a single book about the Caribbean.
Prediction: The gallery owner is the murderer. The painting is a fake. Carlton noticed this, and the gallery owner noticed him notice. He stole the book because it contains information about when the bar in the painting was founded, and it will contradict whatever he said at the beginning about the story behind the painting. I don’t know how to explain the “She’s got a gun” phone message. Possibly the gallery owner put on a voice, but maybe a better explanation will turn up.
Explanation: First, there are some small clues which stand out from mystery experience. Specifying that the murderer has to be male or female is a red herring in 90% of cases. The scenario implicates a woman; therefore, by mystery thinking, the killer is a man.
Second, it’s very common for valuable objects in mysteries (paintings, manuscripts, secret lost Dickens novels) to be fakes. So common that evening mentioning an object like that makes its provenance suspect. (Although my initial reaction was that the phone call was a ruse to get Fidel and Dwayne away so the painting could be stolen, which would be another way for a valuable item to feature in a mystery. But since it’s still there, I guess it’s fake.)
Third, the gallery owner seems to have an alibi. He was the only person there when Dwayne and Fidel got the call from Carlton. It’s not unusual for every character in an episode of Death in Paradise to have an alibi, but for the moment it’s suspicious that he’s the only one.
But the most important factor, which makes me almost 100% sure of my prediction, even at this early stage, is the gallery owner’s dialogue about the painting. It’s too detailed. Modern TV writing, especially for boring exposition, is about maximum efficiency. If it’s superfluous, cut it out. The days when Remington Steele, Banacek, or Magnum P.I. would waffle on for a full five minutes in a desperate attempt for the writers to fill the running time are, mercifully, long dead. The downside of this is that it’s hard to sneak in clues that have no obvious relevance. The gallery owner mentioned a specific date when he was talking about the painting. The exact date of the painting isn’t pertinent to the story, so why was it emphasised? It must be relevant later on. But how could it possibly be relevant? Only because it dates the painting. Therefore it must be a lie. What could contradict it? The stolen book. And everything else follows from there.
There are three strategies here. The first is not to care that it’s obvious. That’s perfectly valid. As I’ve stressed in my other reviews, there’s nothing wrong with mysteries being solvable. But suppose you don’t want that. What can you do? One technique is to hide the clues better. Deemphasise the date, either by choosing a different contradiction or by making it into a “quieter” clue. One option might be a visual clue, like a dated plate on the frame. Or you make the line seem less superfluous: make it into a joke or a piece of character building. (Although in this specific case it’s hard to think how that could be managed.)
The second option is harder but more interesting, and there’s still a slim chance that’s what’s happened here: trust that the audience is genre-savvy enough to spot these clues, and use them to plant a false solution. That’s what Christianna Brand would do; her books are complex kaleidoscopes of information that may or may not be consequential, depending on how you look at things. It’s not unusual for her plots to feature five or six possible solutions that explain almost every clue, but which have to be discarded because they don’t explain everything.
The mystery genre is old. There’s over a hundred years of stories trying to pull variations of the same few tricks. If you want to surprise an audience, you have to be one step ahead. That means concocting a scenario which has at least three solutions (or partial solutions – obviously false solutions have to fall down at some point). The first solution merely needs to occupy the characters. Some of the audience will buy this, but most know this is false, because mysteries aren’t resolved until the end, but the characters need to seem to be making progress. It’s no fun watching people be utterly baffled with no leads or insight. The second solution is what traps the audience. You need a trail of clues that the characters seem to have missed, that are conspicuous by their absence from the investigation. This is what lulls the audience into thinking they’re one step ahead of you. Then you surprise them with the true solution.