In keeping with our post-Easter celebrations, I’m thinking of giving this blog an unceremonious resurrection and posting again for the first time in–what?–four years? Has it really been that long? A few changes, for anyone interested: my favored genres have expanded (though–don’t fret!–detective stories are still one of them!), and I now have much less time for pleasure reading. The inevitable march of life, I suppose. Anyway, I have also changed in my tastes, so to speak: John Dickson Carr (JDC), for example, has overtaken Agatha Christie as my favorite detective-story writer, with Gladys Mitchell following close behind him. It has been that way for a while, interestingly enough (once I started to read more of their books!). Anyway, to get back on subject for this post, I’ve started watching, in that long four years, the British TV show Death in Paradise, which is an excellent detective-fiction program. One of my favorites. So–I was thinking, what would be a better way to resurrect this blog than a list? (Yeah, yeah, all blogs do that when the blogger can’t think of what else to do. Je comprends, et je regrette.) So–with all apologies to the late, great Andrew Sarris, whose The American Cinema should be the go-to guide for anyone and everyone who loves the movies–here are my favorite and least-favorite Death in Paradise episodes, organized in the Sarrisian categories of “Pantheon,” “Far Side of Paradise” (even more appropriate here, hm?), and my contribution, “Bottom of the Barrel,” with commentary as we go along. Whether you enjoy Death in Paradise or not (I hope you do!)–I hope you’ll have fun following along!
- “Wicked Wedding Night,” directed by Roger Goldby, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 1, Episode 2: The first four episodes of Death in Paradise, all except the fourth written by series creator Robert Thorogood, are some of the best detective programming we are likely to see on modern TV. This episode provides one of the cleverest plots that Mr. Thorogood created, with a particularly ingenious motive and method that remind one of middle-period Carr (in particular his novella “Terror’s Dark Tower”). Moreover, the show features Ben Miller’s delightful Insp. Richard Poole, who, from the moment he steps off the plane in the first episode, is already one of the great detectives. While the rest of the cast, particularly Sara Martins as DS Camille Bordey, have not yet hit their stride, they are as interesting and convincing as ever—though the brilliant plot is the main draw here! Luckily for us, there will be other excellent episodes of this excellent show, but “Wicked Wedding Night,” for me, is the absolute cleverest—at a caliber that competes with Jonathan Creek’s “The Black Canary” for the best hour (and change) in modern TV detective-show history.
- “Ye of Little Faith,” directed by Dusan Lazarevic, written by Ian Kershaw— Season 3, Episode 4: Also an excellent plot, and one of the best of the Humphrey Goodman episodes. (Kris Marshall’s Goodman is a fine character, especially after Marshall got more into his role [not all his fault—in the early episodes, they tried to make him the anti-Poole—understandable but undesirable and unbelievable—and quickly dropped], though I must confess I miss Ben Miller’s Poole!) The old cast—Sara Martins, Danny John-Jules, and Gary Carr—are all as uniformly excellent as always, and it is a joy to watch authentic detective work. This episode, an impossible poisoning, is one of the series’ best impossible crimes—quite ingenious, and equally ingeniously unravelled by Goodman. The characters work, the episode is light and fun, and the murder of the stewardess in the locked room is one of this show’s best jobs.
- “Stab in the Dark,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 4, Episode 1: Definitely one of the best—indeed, Nos. 2 and 3 are pretty much interchangeable. Thorogood has obviously been reading Carr—the situation is right out of JDC’s radio play “The Black Minute”—but his solution is completely different. This is one of the few episodes to bring forward the concept of the supernatural that one would think would be more exploited in this Caribbean-based show—extremely well-done, with appropriate eeriness. The séance and the killer’s plot are particularly good. By far the best episode of the very weak Season 4.
- “Predicting a Murder,” directed by Charles Palmer, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 1, Episode 3: Very, very good. By this point, Miller and the rest of the cast are getting into their roles, and the plots are uniformly clever. One wishes that Thorogood could have been writing during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction! This episode is a joy to watch, and, while the viewer may deduce one solution, there is not just one mystery in this episode, and the other solution is quite unexpected and brilliant!
- “Death of a Detective,” directed by Cilla Ward, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 3, Episode 1: A sad (though high) point for the series, and utterly indefensible as far as characterization goes—whither the character arc between Camille and Poole? Why go through the rigmarole with Poole’s decision to stay on St. Marie in S2:E8 only (SPOILER) to kill him off in the very next episode? Granted that Mr. Miller wanted to return to his family, couldn’t Thorogood at least have left his character alive? Or did he want to ensure that Poole could never return? Either way, if we move past the inexplicable “Poole dies” decision, we are left with a clever, middle-of-the-road episode with a quite ingenious plot. Thorogood borrows the central situation from Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, and the murderer is not too difficult to guess, but he gives us some delightfully gnomic clues left by the dying Poole—absolutely ingenious. Really, the cluing in this episode is what brings it to the Top 10. Granted that the program relies more on its plots than its characters, I think that Thorogood should analyze those characters in a wee bit more depth than he does.
- “Death in Paradise,” directed by Charles Palmer, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 1, Episode 1: Watching this episode again, I’m struck by the relationship between Insp. Charlie Hume and the crew in the police station—a direct mirror of the relationships first between them and Poole and later between them and Goodman. (Maybe that’s why they’re not so broken up after Poole’s death? They’re so used to so many changes in DIs?) This episode, the pilot, tells a good story, though the characters are very loosely sketched, with the series’ first impossible crime (a dime a dozen on St. Marie). The plot’s cleverness is less in the “How,” however, than the “Who”: the decision to make (SPOILER) likeable and incredibly lovely DS Lily Thompson, played by likeable and incredibly lovely Lenora Crichlow, the murderer is quite brilliant, the viewer’s expectations for the romantic lead in a typical fish-out-of-water TV show being subverted almost immediately (though the likeable and lovely Camille soon fills Thompson’s shoes). Surprising how no one is dumbfounded over the sweet Sgt. Thompson’s capture… (I would be.) There is good detective work (the clue of the book is particularly smart) and good humor, though the locked-room angle is remarkably unremarkable. A good episode, though it will be bettered.
- “A Deadly Party,” directed by Alrick Riley, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 2, Episode 8: Memorable mostly for the quite clever alibi gimmick that Thorogood has cooked up, in spite of breaking Carr’s dictum that the point of a detective story is for one criminal to hoodwink one-hundred innocent rather than for one hundred criminals to hoodwink one innocent. Despite that, Thorogood neatly tricks the viewer into believing in (SPOILER) one criminal, so that the ending is a good surprise. Even better are the characterizations, perhaps the characters’ high points in (and at the end of) the Richard Poole episodes.
- “Missing a Body?” directed by Roger Goldby, written by James Payne—Season 1, Episode 4: The first of the show not written by Thorogood, this episode uses another ingenious alibi gimmick (a Death in Paradise specialty—the “disguised impossible crime”). The killer’s window of opportunity makes the enterprise seem minimalistic in a Queenian way (despite the lack of a Queenian minimalistic poisoning). Also enjoyable for Poole’s crush on the main suspect (the victim’s wife) and the sense of fun in these early episodes, riding on Thorogood’s coattails. Despite this, the episode is so low on this list because (1) the supporting cast are still developing their roles and (2) the number of coincidences involved in the spur-of-the-moment plot breaks the believability line, inviting comparisons to the similarly-plotted and even more ludicrous Jonathan Creek special The Judas Tree.
- “A Deadly Curse,” directed by Alrick Riley, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 2, Episode 4: This would be a run-of the-mill episode but for one thing: Thorogood neatly and brilliantly parodies the old Agatha Christie technique of making the “attempted victim” the killer, which makes the detective-story fan fall right into his trap (which makes it all the more disappointing when the Christie device is used in Season 3’s “The Wrong Man”—though, to be sure, that was not a Thorogood-penned episode!). Besides that, nothing quite remarkable except for (SPOILER) the interesting murder by emptying the EpiPen—a method that I cannot believe someone hadn’t thought of before!
- “Political Suicide,” directed by Robert Quinn, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 3, Episode 5: This is a tough call… The episode is really very clever, but the gimmick has been done to death (even in a Murder, She Wrote episode—albeit one of the best ones). Wherefore the placement here, then? The gimmick, usually used for impossible crimes, has been used for an alibi here, which is a welcome and unexpected change. Best parts are in examining Camille’s family and relationships. Plot-wise, however, the episode ties with S3:E3 (“An Artistic Murder”), which also has a done-before alibi gimmick.
10b. “An Unhelpful Aid,” directed by Alfred Lot, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 1, Episode 6: An out-of-left-field pick, though I know that I shouldn’t really put a No. 11! This episode ties with No. 10, however, because, while its plot is weaker than both “Political Suicide” and “An Artistic Murder,” it is a far more fun episode than either one. Even a weak Thorogood episode is better than some others penned by less inspired writers! The interplay between Fidel and Dwayne and the interim DI, played by Shirley Henderson of Harry Potter fame, is a highlight of the series, with Poole playing a good armchair detective role (more similar, it must be stated, to Dr. Fell in Carr’s The Blind Barber and The Arabian Nights Murder than to Nero Wolfe, Mycroft Holmes, or [in a few stories] Hercule Poirot!). The episode is so much fun that it makes up for the weak plot, which even a non-mystery buff may guess without much difficulty. Needless to say, though, this being a Thorogood episode, the whole thing is completely fair, well-clued, well-written, and well-paced.
The Far Side of Paradise:
- “Rue Morgue,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Robert Thorogood—Season 3, Episode 8: A really good episode, with Thorogood’s twists to the old Israel Zangwill gimmick (which he’d used in Episode 1) combined with a method Dr. Fell cites in the Locked-Room Lecture. Two big problems, however, flaw this episode: (1) the stuff with Goodman’s wife, which is really actually annoying and irrelevant, is so hyped up that Fidel’s more important story is scarcely given a moment and (2) there is really no need for the clever locked room gimmick. Despite that, the show’s most ingenious impossible murders tend to be poisonings, and this is no exception.
- “A Murder on the Plantation,” directed by Keith Boak, written by Delinda Jacobs—Season 2, Episode 1: An above-par episode (which, with a show as good as this, is saying a lot), but I had to leave it off, despite smart alibis and a dying message, because (1) the usage of the (SPOILER) secret passage, while fairly clued, disappoints and (2) there is no shock in the identity of the murderer(s). A good episode, but lacking a smash finish (just imagine if Thorogood had written it!)—to quote mystery critic Nick Fuller from his comments on Carr’s The White Priory Murders, this episode, like that book, “…has that quality of lost ingenuity, of needless vulgarity—in short, the murderer’s identity lacks inevitability.” The best parts have to do with Camille and the “ghost girl.”
- “The Man with the Golden Gun,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Jack Lothian—Season 3, Episode 7: An excellent episode, with good suspects and good atmosphere (shades of Christie’s Ten Little Indians), but for one thing: the most ingenious aspect of the plot is completely plagiarized from Carr’s “The Proverbial Murder.” Too bad.
- “Death in the Clinic,” directed by David O’Neill, written by Dan Sefton—Season 2, Episode 3: An ingenious method and intelligent clues complement always-excellent acting. But—that’s all there is. The “Who” and “Why,” unfortunately, are sub-par, and the episode slogs along more than the series’ best (for which we should more fault Mr. O’Neill than Mr. Sefton, I suppose).
- “Until Death Do Us Part,” directed by David O’Neill, written by Rebecca Wojciechowski—Season 4, Episode 4: Worth watching for the salt gimmick, which is ingenious (and should be put to use in a better story), and the fact that it’s Camille’s last episode, with the writer having given her an appropriate send-off (far more appropriate, in fact, than Poole’s murder in “Death of a Detective”!). Besides that, ehh, especially plot-wise.
Bottom of the Barrel (no order here):
- “Hidden Secrets,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Simon Winstone—Season 4, Episode 2: The team thinks that it’s a suicide and (SPOILER) it is a suicide. Capitally disappointing—and the gimmick is liberally borrowed both from Agatha Christie’s “Murder in the Mews” and Ed Hoch’s (far superior) “The Leopold Locked Room.”
- “The Wrong Man,” directed by Cilla Ware, written by Daisy Coulam—Season 3, Episode 2: Guessable from the beginning, completely plagiarized from Christie’s much-plagiarized Peril at End House, and not fun in the slightest. Only redeeming quality is the very beginning, and even the twist there is guessable.
- “A Stormy Occurrence,” directed by David O’Neill, written by James Payne—Season 1, Episode 7: Just boring. That’s about it. It’s a boring, uninteresting episode with a gimmick that everyone (even the characters) guesses halfway through. What’s the point of the other half…? Beats me, except to continue the Camille-Poole arc, of which this episode is its most embarrassing point.
- “Unlike Father, Unlike Son,” directed by Richard Signy, written by Matthew Barry—Season 4, Episode 8: Good for watching the interactions between Kris Marshall and the always-enjoyable James Fox, but that’s about it. The plot is instantly guessable (despite some OK clues) and taken from Zangwill’s The Big Bow Mystery, with liberal amounts of this show’s own pilot thrown in for good measure.
- “Unholy Death,” directed by Alrick Riley, written by Colin Blytheway—Season 2, Episode 2: The series’ low. The nasty, vicious anti-Catholic sniping is unforgivable, our heroes act wildly out of character, and the locked room is a joke (and taken in its entirety from a solution in the Locked-Room Lecture). An awful episode, one that we can thankfully write off as a one-time disaster. (Note that Blytheway only wrote for the show one time more.)
Well, there are some categories and some favorite and not-so-favorite episodes! I think it’s really an excellent show, and I can’t wait for Season 5 to premiere here in the U.S.! All the best to everyone reading, and Happy Easter!