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Experience April/May 2023

Love and Murder in a Streaming World

Stephen M Terrell


  • Explore the British fascination with murder mysteries, both in literature and television, their enduring popularity, and the diverse range of shows and characters within the genre.
  • British murder mysteries have global appeal due to their unique qualities such as intricate plots and neatly arrayed suspects.
Love and Murder in a Streaming World Mann

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Over the years, pundits and muckrakers have dubbed several metropolitan areas Murder Capital, USA. Some would expand that globally, although others argue that less-publicized murder rates in certain places in Mexico, South America, and Asia exceed any location in the United States.

To use an old expression, I think it’s all a bunch of hooey.

This is truly dangerous

There’s no question that the highest murder per capita in the world belongs now and for the past 25 years to the bucolic Midsomer County somewhere in south-central England, just a bit west of London. You see, the fictional Midsomer County doesn’t contain any major cities. Instead, small villages dot the pastoral countryside, populated with historic homes, shops, serene town squares, and county fairs—lots and lots of county fairs.

And murders—often three or four at a time.

Rarely are the deaths a result of gun violence. It’s just, well, un-British. Rather, Chief Inspector Barnaby (first or second—they’re cousins, you know) faces murders committed with knives, stones, poisons, falling bookcases, vats of wine, or numerous other ingenious methods.

Nor is it a matter of looking for one of the local bad guys with a violent past. There don’t seem to be any. Rather, it’s a jealous baker, a malicious estate agent, a local photography society member, a vicar, or maybe a distant cousin with an axe to grind—and use.

“Midsomer Murders” is royalty in the quirkiest of infatuations—the British murder mystery. For a quarter of a century, Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, then his cousin, Chief Inspector John Barnaby (they do look like relatives), have brought the delightful but murderous citizens of Midsomer to justice. And like Sergeant Preston of the Mounties, they always get their man—or woman.

For some peculiar reason, the British seem to delight in murder mysteries, even more than baking shows with proper sponges and biscuits. Indeed, it seems the British crave murders as much as tea—which is the British cure-all for everything from being hit over the head, to finding your spouse dead, to being arrested for murder.

“Cream or sugar?”

But take heart. If anyone but the hero detective makes the arrest, you can be assured they’re innocent.

Why the murderous bent?

Some date the mystery story to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” But the classic British mystery evolved quickly into the golden age of mysteries with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and P.D. James, all masters of the craft. They and their compatriots created hundreds of mysteries, always with a crime that, while perhaps horrendous, is seldom described in the blood and guts of American detective fiction.

Then there are the suspects, always neatly arrayed and all with a motive to want Mr. Body dead. Then follows the chase—clues and red herrings swirled together so that only a master detective can sort them. Finally, there’s the “ta-da!” reveal of the killer, often in a room with all the suspects listening as the detective reveals brilliance in deduction.

British television mysteries follow the same path as their literary cousins. And in fact, many are drawn directly from characters created by books. For example, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet, ran for 13 seasons over 24 years.

Christie’s character Miss Marple resulted in two separate series: “Miss Marple” ran for 12 seasons from 1984 to 1992, and “Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple” ran six seasons between 2004 and 2013. (British television’s concept of seasons is almost as mysterious as the shows themselves.)

But that’s just the start of the British obsession. Among the vast array of British mysteries are “Foyle’s War,” a fascinating series about a British detective on the home front during WWII; “Pie in the Sky,” featuring “Harry Potter” veteran the late Richard Griffiths as a semi-retired detective running a restaurant specializing in meat pies; “A Touch of Frost” featuring a gruff detective with little tolerance for bureaucrats, which ran for 18 years; “The Last Detective,” about a detective shunned by his fellow police officers, starring Peter Davidson; “New Tricks,” about three old-school detectives brought in from retirement to solve cold cases; “Rosemary and Thyme,” about two gardeners who solve murders; “Broadchurch”; “Shetland”; “DCI Banks”; “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries,” featuring an investigator who happens to be an earl; and “Dalgliesh,” the poet-detective created by P.D. James.

For a harder edge, there’s two-time Oscar winner Helen Mirren in the 1970s “Prime Suspect” and two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn in the still-running “Vera.” Finally, for a clerical perspective, there are the crime-fighting clergy in “Father Brown,” “Sister Boniface,” and “Grantchester.”

Murder mania goes global

Maybe the king of British mysteries is the “Inspector Morse” line of shows, which lives on through its progeny. First, there was “Inspector Morse,” which ran from 1987 to 2000. Then, when Morse retired, we got his long-time assistant, “Inspector Lewis.” That program ran from 2006 to 2015. But even before Lewis retired, British TV went back to the beginning with “Endeavor,” set in the early 1970s. It follows Morse as a young policeman.

Oh, and the British have passed on the lethal gene to the rest of the British Commonwealth. Canada has produced long-running “Murdoch Mysteries” and “Frankie Drake Mysteries.” Australia has “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” “The Doctor Blake Mysteries,” and “Mr & Mrs Murder.” New Zealand provides in quality what it lacks in quantity with “The Brokenwood Mysteries” and “My Life Is Murder” starring Xena, the Warrior Princess herself, Lucy Lawless.

The list doesn’t stop there. “Death in Paradise” is set in the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie with both British and French inspectors. “Murder in Provence” is set exactly where you’d expect—France. There’s more, but you get the picture.

All streaming to your home

How do I know about all these murder mysteries and many more? The answer lies in streaming. Back when I was growing up, we had three television stations. If I fiddled with the reception enough, I could sometimes get a fuzzy image for independent Channel 4, where I could see Popeye and horror movies with marvelous local host Sammy Terry. (Say it out loud. You’ll get it.)

Now dozens of streaming service options inundate our homes. Tens of thousands of programs are available at a single touch, from the dawn of television to movies still playing in theaters. Amazon Prime provides access to BritBox and Acorn, services specializing in British murder mysteries, but they’re also available without Prime. PBS is also a great source.

For my wife and me, murder has become a comforting ritual. Nearly every night, we cuddle up on the loveseat and take our pick of a murder or two for the night. Yes, having turned 70, we still cuddle up. Nothing says love like murder.

Sometimes we guess whodunit. After years of doing this, we’ve gotten pretty good at it. But most of all, we find it comforting and relaxing. We’ve laughed about it, and we try to analyze why watching murders is enjoyable. We’ve concluded that it’s the puzzle aspect, not the crime, that seems endlessly fascinating.

But as we sit watching sleuths try to solve the latest murder, we can’t help but wonder about ourselves a little, too. At least we haven’t started drinking tea. Yet.