Against contrived surprise endings to crime mysteries

I have long been a big fan of mystery stories in the British style, starting as a young age by reading all the Sherlock Holmes stories and as many books as I could get my hands on by Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy L. Sayers. I have continued this into my adult years, though less so with books and more with TV shows and films.

One of the staples of the genre is the surprise ending, where the killer (there is usually at least one murder) is revealed to be someone wholly unexpected. In order to create the surprise, there have to be red herrings along the way that point to other people as possible suspects with motives and opportunity. The best stories are those where the ending is plausible and the various loose ends are tied up. This is not easy to do which is why writing good mystery crime fiction is hard.

What I have noticed recently is that writers sacrifice plausibility in their attempt to keep the big reveal until the very end. They also tend to pile on the murders. In my opinion, any story that has more than two murders and piles on their gruesome elements is likely to due to lack of imagination by the writer and an attempt to create excitement when other means fail. I recently watched the much praised British police drama Marcella and the plot holes were simply outrageous. The revelation of the murderer was a big surprise no doubt but it was also totally unbelievable.

There are three necessary conditions that crime investigators look for: motive, opportunity, and means. The writers of Marcella sacrificed opportunity, and the motive and means were also shaky. Also, there were a huge number of coincidences, inexplicable events, and lack of consistency in character behavior, always a sign of poor plot construction. Furthermore, there was no likable central character to hold things together. Pretty much every major character was either unpleasant or sleazy or psychotic. It reminded me of the recent series Sherlock in going over-the-top and becoming almost a self-parody in its attempts to shock and amaze.

In contrast, season four of the show Shetland was far superior. It was tightly constructed and the characters were well drawn and consistent. The ending was a surprise but not far-fetched as it was in Marcella. And there was no gratuitous violence, with the murders taking place off-screen and the bodies not even shown. Good drama does not need those prurient elements.

One of the things that the Sherlock Holmes stories showed was that the fascination mostly lies in how the detectives figure out the case, not in the surprise. This was a feature of the Columbo series too where you knew the murderer right from the start. In the Holmes stories, you did not need a murder or even any crime at all to find the story gripping. What is really necessary are central characters who are well-drawn and act consistently. The few episodes that I saw of the other Sherlock Holmes TV series Elementary was pretty good but unfortunately they are not streamed on Netflix.


  1. says

    I suspect that when a good many of these crime dramas are commissioned nowadays, the writers have no more clue than the audience who the murderer is-- they’re hoping to make it up as they go along, or pull some “the killer is the friends we made along the way” bullshit, figuring if it worked for JJ Abrams on Lost, it can work for them… 🙄

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Cat Mara @1:

    figuring if it worked for JJ Abrams on Lost

    It also worked for Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, etc ad nauseam. I blame The X-Files* and their silly aliens episodes. Or at least that’s the earliest example I can think of, of this sort of pull-it-from-their-arse-as-they-go-along crap.

    *I loved most of the other episodes.

  3. nowamfound says

    shetland is streaming on either netflix or amazon. you can find good mysteries on britbox too. you might like Vera

  4. fentex says

    I recently watched New Zealand’s home grown variant (The Brokenwood Mysteries) and quite liked it -- I enjoyed the way stories tended to be built around one aspect of NZ life(Wineries, hunting, rugby, golf club -- one a bit funny about cashing in on Lord Of The Rings). They did try a little hard to be quirky at the start but pulled back from it quickly.

    I wish there were more mysteries that didn’t involve murders -- as I remember in ‘Shoestring’ (a 1970’s brit show) where the problems were missing people, fraud etc -- as a well written story doesn’t need the DRAMA! of death.

  5. fentex says

    P.s Elementary is excellent -- the first series is very rewarding to watch as the last episode pays off work done earlier very well.

    I’m not sure there will be more as the sixth season ends in a way that could be considered conclusive, while also happening to offer a revitalising opportunity for more.

  6. says

    Opposition to contrived mystery endings is the whole point of the 1976 movie Murder by Death, if you can get past all the racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism to watch it.

  7. Trickster Goddess says

    I’m not really into the murder mystery genre (I don’t really find death entertaining), however I seem to always follow one series. Previously it was The Mentalist and now it is Elementary. My one pet peeve though is that when the killer is finally confronted, they always break down and give a full and detailed confession without even having a lawyer present just so the writers can neatly wrap up all the loose ends.

    fentex — Elementary has been renewed for a seventh and final season of 13 episodes.

  8. Mano Singham says

    raym @#2,

    I subscribe to Netflix both streaming and DVD and season 4 was on DVD. They may stream it later, since they did stream the first three seasons.

  9. RationalismRules says

    @Trickster Goddess
    I too enjoyed The Mentalist (as light entertainment, rather than gripping crime drama), but for me it’s the ultimate example of what Mano is talking about -- the Red John reveal, after being built up over multiple series, was the laziest, and worst, ‘twist’ I’ve ever seen.

  10. RationalismRules says

    I can thoroughly recommend Broadchurch, particularly the first series. Great writing, great acting, and character-driven more than mystery-driven, although the mystery remains strong and the final reveal is surprising without feeling contrived.

    I disagree with you about Sherlock, by the way. I don’t see that it sought to shock and amaze the viewers -- the only twist I’m aware of was Holmes’ death, in accordance with the original books. I can understand that the bold stylistic approach wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but for me it was some of the best TV I’ve ever seen.

  11. Mano Singham says

    RationalismRules @#12,

    All three seasons of Broadchurch were excellent, and I have said so elsewhere.

    As for Sherlock, the first series was fine but after that I think the writers got carried away and started going over the top. I found the whole storyline about Sherlock’s sister to be utterly preposterous and the Moriarty angle was overdone. The series became style over substance.

  12. raym says

    @nowamfound & @Mano… thanks for the hints and pointers. I managed to find Shetland S4 on Britbox, and have already watched the first episode. And we have been watching Vera for many years -- Britbox will be streaming the very latest series on Sundays, just hours after each episode airs for the first time in the UK.

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