A Review Of A Murder Mystery By Someone Who Writes Them

Film

I published a short review of this film a couple of months back, but now that it’s on general release I’ve revisited it with some further thoughts.

NO SPOILERS

There’s an in-built snobbery about the crime novel, a look of disdain from literary writers who disregard genre writing as having nothing to say. They should check out ‘Knives Out’, because here’s another example of the murder mystery acting as a Trojan horse for more intriguing ideas.

At first glance Rian Johnson’s film is a throwback to the Golden Age of the paperback whodunnit, complete with a baroque mansion, barking dogs, the murder of a curmudgeonly patriarch, dubious relatives awaiting the reading of a will and a freelancing detective who’s helping out the slower-witted police.

Such enterprises are usually pastiches or homages, but even parodies like Neil Simon’s ‘Murder By Death’ and ‘Clue’ arrived dead in the water because the genre had been knifed in the back by decades of mediocrity and cliché. By the time we reached the dramatically inert remake of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, two terrible films carved from a weak novel, it seemed there was nowhere left to go. If audiences had any suspicions they were not about lurking killers but about the entire genre now being moribund.

The problem, in hindsight, was that nobody took the whodunnit seriously anymore. The last perfect movie whodunnits that did not rely on a franchised character were ‘The Last of Sheila’ and ‘Sleuth’ (although you may care to try and think of others – there are a couple of French and Spanish ones, and the excellent ‘Loft’ from Holland; avoid the remake). ‘Knives Out’ is no pastiche, homage or satire. It features an original detective, Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, showing a surprising lightness of touch here and affecting such am outrageous Southern drawl that someone asks of him, ‘What is this, CSI:KFC?’

Johnson takes the whodunnit seriously because he knows his murder mysteries, but he raises the game by keeping it contemporary, so there are pop-cultural references and the suspects have very modern careers and motives. 85 year-old Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) seemingly cuts his own throat after his birthday party. His grasping children are selfish, over-privileged and convinced they’re in line for his inheritance until it starts to look like murder – but the chief suspect is also the only person who couldn’t have done it…

We’re presented with a paradoxical problem that’s like one of those puzzles in which one person always lies and the other only tells the truth (Johnson somewhat outrageously comes up with a twist to this conundrum) and stays one step ahead of his audience so that whenever we think we’ve cracked it there’s another twist in the tale.

But there’s something more at work here. Just because the drama plays out without irony doesn’t mean it can’t be stuffed to the gills with knowing tropes. The house is filled with games in a nod to both ‘Sleuth’ and ‘The Last of Sheila’. Each element of a Golden Age murder plot is present, blackmail, arson, murder, secret doors, poison, footprints, Holmes references, even ‘Murder, She Wrote’.

And something new; a political dimension that brings greater depth to the whole.

The rules to whodunnits started to crystalize as early as 1862, when ‘The Notting Hill Mystery’ by Charles Warren Adams began serialization. They were set in stone soon after and remained in place for the next century – but there were always mavericks who tested them.

EC Bentley, the inventor of a peculiar form of satiric poetry, the Clerihew, first ignored the crime guidelines in 1913 with ‘Trent’s Last Case’. Thirteen years later Agatha Christie committed the sin of omission in ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, which caused a public outcry for not playing fair with readers. The French essayist Pierre Bayard pushed the boundaries of the author/reader relationship further in ‘Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’, his brilliant dissection of Christie’s book.

It was the Catholic priest Ronald Knox who really set the cat among the pigeons with his ‘Decalogue’, a set of tongue-in-cheek fair-play rules for the crime reader of 1929. His seventh rule is, in fact, the one that Christie first traduced. Whodunnits lacked topicality and became increasingly abstract, blank pieces on a board to be shuffled about. ‘Knives Out’ performs the great service of pulling the whodunnit free from this algorithmic limbo and making it pertinent once more. The suspects – here including Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Toni Collete and Michael Shannon – exist in the real world and are all the better for it.

Agatha Christie has been on film since 1928. Her books were intended as serious murder mysteries, but during her long run of productivity the country houses fell (knocked down at a rate of one every two weeks), servants vanished, the class system became greatly reduced, the female workforce was mobilised and the nature of policing changed, with the result that the books became cheap camp, ripe for parody.

‘Knives Out’ returns the genre to being proper ensemble murder mysteries again, play-fair, funny, alarming and very nearly unguessable. But underneath this seemingly playful folly the script has sharp teeth.

12 comments on “A Review Of A Murder Mystery By Someone Who Writes Them”

  1. Polly Dymock says:

    So glad you have reviewed it: I couldn’t make up my mind about going. A friend damned it with faint praise but I will take your word.

  2. Anne Billson says:

    Great piece, putting Knives Out in context.

    But Loft (2008) is Belgian, not Dutch! Language is Flemish-Dutch, cast includes Flemish actors Matthias Schoenaerts and the increasingly ubiquitous Veerle Baetens (Broken Circle Breakdown, Tabula Rasa) and the building where the loft is set is in Antwerp, where I am sitting right this minute, after yesterday’s fraught house move including surprisingly agreeable parking-related encounter with two adorable chain-smoking Antwerp cops – male and female – who barely stopped to remove their cigarettes from their mouths when they spoke. They were characters from a TV cop show!

  3. admin says:

    Oops. Can you think of any other great murder mysteries from Europe, Anne?

  4. Jan says:

    I went to see this on Friday afternoon because the maths class ( graphs and pie charts) finished late. I ‘d have been better off going to the library. But didn’t. I am a fool.

    I really liked this picture. It was the quietest inside the cinema I remembered for ages and was surprisingly well attended for a matinee – mainly with older people. People seemed to really engage with the film I suppose like reading detective stories to follow this sort of script you have to really engage with the story to a greater extent than with most films. Detective stuff requires a lot of attention if you are interested in finding out whodunnit. And why.

    Was a very clever film really I was happy with the story as presented and quite happy with the person I fully accepted did it and the extra twists towards the end played out very well.

    This guy did sort of play with the format. God it’s hard to talk about this film without spoiling it! He made it work on different levels being a commentary on what’s happening in the US, a little game concerning honest reactions and people’s behaviour. There was a also a clever little side game going on ‘re this actor’s playing the various roles it seemed to me. The guy played by Christopher Plummer was interesting – the arch manipulator ….

    Surprised how interesting Daniel Craig made the detective character and how you saw him work through the clues. I really don’t like D. C much but he surprised me in this film. Yes it’s proper good. It’s sort of reassuring that someone is still making films to appeal to old grumpies and has assumed that this part of the audience can think stuff through work through information and draw conclusions. A task which I should really have being doing gathering information from graphs + pie charts. I’m not that clever then.

  5. Jan says:

    That should read ‘re the actors playing the various roles. Sorry

  6. Matthew Davis says:

    Pretty much no one ever reads Chekov’s 1884 novel “The Shooting Party”, which is a shame as it’s a crime novel which employs the same formal trick as “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. Strangely enough it was first translated into English in 1926, the same year Christie’s novel was published. I don’t know what the crossover of the two audiences was like in those days, but I like to imagine at least a couple of people were led to go hmmmmm. Or one could imagine Christie using the confusion of the ’26 General Strike to eliminate all copies of the rival novel. If she could try to frame her husband for murder after his philandering what wouldn’t she do.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Have been wondering but this settles it. Now if I can just convince the in-house knowledge fount to go – the new hearing aids need a theatre try-out.

  8. admin says:

    I always enjoyed the Christie meta-whodunnit ‘Agatha’ by Kathleen Tynan (I think). Simultaneously biographical and a perfect Christie pastiche, turned into a film with Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman.

  9. Jan says:

    Yeovil library has the new Hercule Poirot novel.

    Is it true that the Christie family has licensed/permitted / selected an author to continue A.Cs work?

    That seems very odd as A.C produced “Curtain” the definitive end to the Poirot novels. Have they done the same with the Marple mysteries? I did note that it had gone to a female author but it all seems very odd.

  10. Peter Crussell says:

    Loved the film, well scripted and we’ll acted.

    Have you read The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne? Fun book and all of his characters turn up a few years later in the 100 Acre Wood, with different names ☺

  11. admin says:

    I remember owning the reprint, Peter, but I weirdly don’t remember reading it – I’ll have to take another look…

  12. Lauren C says:

    Excellent review. For anyone interested in tracing trends in classic crime novels, try Martin Edwards’ “The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books”. Very readable.

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