Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Tell-Tale Told

Whether you were celebrating Martin Luther King Day or Dubyah’s last official hours in office, yesterday was the bicentenary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth. For many Poe is known for his tales of the macabre. My first introduction to his work was through the lurid Roger Corman-produced adaptations of The Fall of the House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death, scripted by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, and all starring Vincent Price.

After reading The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart, each told from the murder’s point of view, I came to what was for me Poe’s significant works. With The Murders in the Rue Morgue, first published in 1841, Poe introduced his readership to what is considered to be the first work of detective fiction as opposed to mystery fiction. In C. Auguste Dupin, who investigates the inexplicable brutal slayings of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Poe laid down the template for the great amateur detective.

Like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and everyone else who would follow, Dupin’s interest in the case would not be for any monetary gain but simply because the mysterious circumstances of the crime piqued his interest and solving the conundrum was an amusement to him. In that first tale and both The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter, which appeared in print over the next few years, Poe established the first-person narration by a close ally, the blundering police officials that would ultimately become a foil for the detective, and, most importantly, the literary device of announcing the solution to the crime before working backwards to establish the mechanics behind the evildoing.

All these tropes would soon become familiar in the years that followed. With this is mind there should have been something on last night to celebrate this wonderful dark beginning. Instead there was the final part of Hunter. This might have been interesting because it featured Hugh Bonneville and wonderful Janet McTeer reprising their roles from Gwyneth Hughes’ 2007 crime drama Five Days. Except the pair were wasted in a tale that pretty much brushed over their characters in favour of an average seen-it-all-before procedural that featured a trio of idiotic Pro-Life killers.

Frankly I would have preferred to watch two hours of Bonneville’s DSI Iain Barclay indulging in his love of astronomy – the drama’s title referring to his favourite constellation of Orion – and McTeer’s faintly sozzled DS Amy Foster lounging in the bath. In the comments a few posts back, when I was mouthing off about Linda La Plante’s utterly rancid Under Suspicion, The Wonderful Woo said

“What's the point in a crime thriller when the perp is obvious from halfway through part one? That's two hours I won't get back. Should we have a two-year moratorium on any cop shows?”

Obviously Hunter had been made before her announcement and slipped in under the wire, but isn’t she absolutely right about this? At the moment it seems that the only real locked room mystery is how the writer inside is allowed to come up with carbon copy junk like this.


At 10:55 am, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

I think the problem (a lot of the time) lies in the execution. Shows can be put together with wit, brio, surety and a devious desire not to underestimate the audience (Galactica, Chuck, The West Wing, The Shield, The Wire, Green Wing, etc) or they can be slapped together with cookie-cutter nonchalance and a disregard for the audience bordering on contempt (the last attempt at Cracker, Wire in the Blood, Torchwood, The Outsiders, Supernatural, Ashes to Ashes, ITN News...).

I’m probably wrong, but I imagine a writer with the chops could put together almost infinite variations on the same theme that were all interesting. In fact, I think that DmC would even take it on as a challenge! ;-) Imagine Espenson or Moore having a crack at the same basic premise. Would it turn out a hunk of shite? Probably not...

Fuck, I reckon Ricky, Julian and Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys could bang out something better.

At 11:17 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

"Frankly I would have preferred to watch two hours of Bonneville’s DSI Iain Barclay indulging in his love of astronomy... and McTeer’s faintly sozzled DS Amy Foster lounging in the bath."

Dirty boy. Personally I can live without the astronomy.

Didn't see the show. But re The Wonderful Woo's comment, I'd suggest there's "perp obvious through ineptitude" and "perp obvious by intent"... I've a personal fondness for those COLUMBO-style narratives where you know from the start whodunnit, because the onus is then on character and conflict and new incident to keep it aloft.

Otherwise it's very easy for the story to settle into a rut and become one interview scene after another, with your main characters just asking questions and your supporting players merely sharing out backstory like the half-dozen narrators in a school nativity play. Chuck in a second victim at the end of Act 2 to shake the class awake, and send to ITV.

But I think my favourite form places the reveal in the penultimate act and follows it with a shit's-hit-the-fan finale. Three acts of foreplay followed by one of wild sex. Which has surely got to be worth an hour or two of anyone's time.

At 1:44 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

This is where, in televisual terms, I’ll go for the US’s wild sex rather than the UK’s generally rather disappointing knee-tremblers... ;-)

At 3:09 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


you’re right there. Heck, I think Bubbles off The Wire along with his White Boy could do better.

Shame that wit, brio, surety and a devious desire not to underestimate the audience is in such short supply here. I mean we used to have it. Did the Americans come over here and trade it for some nylons and chocolate bars?

I’m not even sure the UK stuff even reaches as far as a knee-trembler. Hunter didn’t even get it’s knickers down before it was all over.


yeah, I should have clarified that Bonneville’s star-gazing character would have only got the occasional look in. I saw the wonderful Janet McTeer playing Beatrice on stage in Shaftesbury Avenue in a production of Much Ado About Nothing ages back and she’s been raising my blood pressure ever since.

I love Columbo, where the known murderer is brought down by their own hubris, as much as the Ellery Queen whodunits starring Jim Hutton that I used to watch as a kid, especially since he always paused to address the audience before the denouement to see if the viewers had worked out who the killer was. My sister used to get so pissed off when I’d get it right.

Unfortunately Hunter did fall into the rut of a bit of CSI-style work, some tappity-tap on the computer to glean information. The lead killer was revealed at the end of part one, gave themselves away with an early slip of the tongue in the next hour and it was all a bit of a yawn really. It was a great shame.

Obviously people are trying different formats to get out of the rut, like Five Days or Barbara Machin’s Kiss of Death from last year, telling the story from everyone’s point of view. But I think my favourite form is the same as yours – something that teases right up to the point that all hell breaks loose. The wilder the sex the better, if you want my opinion.

...Of course now I have the urge to shout, “Nurse, the screens!” But I don’t think I will.


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