The Undoing: How I Knew Whodunnit Before I Saw It


How did a second-rate potboiler become a global phenomenon?

(Spoilers galore)

This week ‘The Undoing’ undid itself in the final episode of the six-part limited series from HBO. The hybrid murder mystery/courtroom drama, very similar to the much better novel and film ‘Presumed Innocent’ by Scott Turow, is a compendium of scenes from other crime novels and shows, with early tiger-mum scenes reminding us of ‘Big Little Lies’. It’s from the kind of paperback you’d find lurking in WH Smith Gatwick or a Majorcan hotel that you’d read on a sunny afternoon and chuck away.

But in lockdown it became a virtual water cooler moment thanks to its starry cast, bizarrely gigantic Ivanka-style NYC apartments, Kidman’s coats (she’s had her colours done, leaving her with a beautiful but somewhat regimented choice of red or green) and the fact that it aired day and date around the world. HBO’s smart move was to drop the episodes one at a time, teasing out the tension, which was just as well, as all tension vanished in the last ten minutes of the drama. That’s no crime, of course; most mystery novels evaporate when the outcome becomes clear.

The plot is straightforward: Hugh Grant is a Uriah Heep-like pediatric oncologist, Nicole Kidman is a psychotherapist with an immobile Botox face, their boy goes to an exclusive (ie expensive and hateful) school and Grant’s mistress, when she’s not inappropriately swanning around nude for no reason, is a married artist who gets hammered to death. Who did it? The roster of suspects parade and we have our suspicions manipulated scene by scene, sometimes shot by shot. 

Believe me I’m not bragging about this because I wanted to be surprised, but the killer’s identity was obvious before I saw a single frame of the series. But not just me, presumably every crime writer knew the answer. We’ll get to that. 

The action: Kidman breathes heavily and wafts about the New York streets, a bony clothes horse at sea in a role that requires nothing from her other than extreme ambivalence for six hours. Grant peddles charm, gradually becoming wizened, like a Celtic tree. Underused Sophie Grabol from ‘The Killing’ pops in for a few lines as the prosecutor, Noma Dumezweni is brilliant as the stern, unscrupulous defence lawyer and Donald Sutherland phones in a role as Kidman’s wealthy father, who at least gets a speech to the school principal banning his grandson; ‘I’m a cocksucker. Not in the gay belittlement sense, an old-fashioned cocksucker who will fuck you over’.

Random shock moments are inserted that signify nothing. A scene where the mistress suddenly kisses the wife is never mentioned again. Nor is the fact that she spends most of her thankless role without clothes on. Repeated shots of the girl being bludgeoned add nothing but gratuitously violent punctuation points.

Battle lines are drawn, Grant charms and hugs and demands love from everyone and Kidman has a last-minute revelation because she’s a psychotherapist. The story is very now, very much what you would expect, so that when the denouement arrives it’s what you knew already. And here’s how I knew who done it;

The title of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s original book is ‘You Should Have Known’, which instantly reveals the killer’s identity because the title can only be addressed to Kidman about her husband, and it fits with current suspicions about male privilege. Also, there’s a rule of thumb we mystery writers work by;

The killer is the person you know the most about after the detective.

We’ve gone full circle; this is where I came in. When I started out writing the racks were awash with B-movie plotted paperbacks. In this novel the killer husband barely features, but you can’t cast big and not give them anything to work with (on this basis Sophie Grabol should sue) so we get a lot of shamefaced hang-dog emoting from the Aztec statue Mr Grant, while the unwrinkleable Ms Kidman has the camera lens repeatedly shoved into her eyeballs, the only part of her face that hasn’t been ironed out.

It never entirely matters who done it so long as the ride is fun, and fun here is a cheesy lifestyle magazine. Sutherland’s ludicrously high-ceilinged home has rooms big enough to land aircraft in – luckily he owns his own helicopter, so he can participate in a preposterous eleventh-hour chase. But nothing adds up or feels remotely real. Would a child be allowed in a courtroom showing graphic scenes of his mother’s death? Why hide the murder weapon at home when you live beside a river? Witnesses pop out of the woodwork and revelations abound but basic police work is non-existent.

Then it dawns on you; this is a murder mystery for the new world order, where feelings and emotions and beliefs carry more weight than truth or data or facts, a touchy-feely puzzle where the characters are more likely to ask, ‘But how do you feel about what happened?’ instead of ‘Why has the murderer left his DNA everywhere?’

As a middle-aged man I’m increasingly drawn to the real, the factual, the statistic-heavy. I’ll end up being one of those readers who only buys books about the Crimean war or Oliver Cromwell. But on the evidence of the alternative, that’s fine with me.


13 comments on “The Undoing: How I Knew Whodunnit Before I Saw It”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    One reason why I love the 1930-50s crime novels, they aren’t touchy-feely new age/world contaminated. And I can’t imagine Bryant or May getting into that territory either. I suppose films are worse since nothing is really left to the imagination or the eye of the beholder, but either way, please don’t “update” your approach Mr Fowler.

  2. Wayne Mook says:

    Well fake news in courts don’t seem to cut the mustard. Trump is saying his allegations have not been properly investigated, and the reply is where’s your proof as we can’t see any.

    A think in the above series would have been called touchy feely, and in a kind way.

    In the old days you could always muddy the water with a butler or an obsessive personal assistant. I guess to go against the grain you could write a book featuring the league of butlers, the butler did it but which one or ones?

    I was watching a film last night and the bad guys said we need to kill everyone so there are no witnesses, but they left so much DNA evidence and they had pretty much signposted what they were going to anyway. There was a neat twist but it appears the writer was so happy with that, that they forgot the basics. And to a witness being told no one will believe you, even though there is a shed load of evidence pointing to what happened.


  3. John Griffin says:

    Two coppers and a SOC snapper in my siblings – real crime is largely grubby, smelly, unpleasant, unresolved. Real murderers largely report themselves, real thieves own up when nicked, most crimes are solved by confession or another crim dropping some info, the most dangerous crims are armed robber types (proactively aggressive aka tooled up) and real police work is interminable form filling and detail-accruing.
    Best literary scenarios – a dead drug dealer, probably murdered, who was discovered some weeks later during a heat wave so rotted into the bed he was found on that when they tried to move him, an arm and a leg dropped off (and a rookie copper honked on some potential evidence); entering my middle brother’s local pub after his wedding with my copper siblings and seeing people vault the bar to exit the back door or crash the fire doors (dealers and bail dodgers); youngest bro relating his favourite coppering moment when in charge of a major armed operation to crash a dealers meeting in a club – shouting ‘Game On’ into the radio and watching the ensuing mayhem (almost as good as sex, he opined). Worst moment – picking up the pieces after a multiply-fatal car crash when both kids in one car had gone through the windscreen, not one for the cosy crime writers.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks for the tip-off admin. I’ll give it a miss.

  5. Wild Edric says:

    Excellent summary and the description of Hugh Grant is spot-on, his eyes appeared to be at 45° angles like a pitched roof. Couldn’t take our eyes off Donald Sutherland’s eyebrows too – a murder weapon in themselves.

    Nicole’s had so much work done it made her part in the courtroom episode laughable. We had no idea what emotion she was trying to convey. Realisation? Smugness? Dread? Pleasure at finally getting one over on Hugh? And Noma Dumezweni was captivating throughout, the best performance in the show, really needs her own spin-off.

    A few loose ends… Jonathan’s first affair that he revealed in prison – who was that with? What did he do with the $500k he took from Mr Eyebrows? What did Grace ask Sylvie to do for her in the last episode – the bit where they walked back through the park? And why when Jonathan was in the witness box saying he’d never been violent in the past did the prosecution not mention the bitten finger in the riot?

    At least it was only six episodes and it was mildly entertaining. I hear there’s talk of a sequel…

  6. Rob Lloyd says:

    The writing room must have been abuzz with excitement when David E. Kelly looked around and said ‘I can’t be bothered writing a twist, can you?’
    At first I thought it was going to be the head teacher wot done it. Otherwise, why was he there?
    Something very meta about grimly sticking with the first and obvious suspect.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Glad I don’t have to watch that one.
    John Griffin – with all that real life crime around you, why would you spend time with the fake stuff? Or is it to take your mind off the real stuff? I did like the baddies leaping out of doors after the wedding and can certainly imagine the action that occurred following “Game on!”

  8. Paul C says:

    Sophie Grabol was wasted in a cameo in ‘Us’ as well. She deserves far better………

  9. Adam says:

    I thought it was hugely enjoyable (if a bit cheesy) until the last episode where it all fell apart. A non-annoying child actor helped, and I think Hugh Grant is pretty decent beyond his befuddled Englishman routine. A good whodunnit is difficult to pull off on TV, where book nuances can’t really be replicated.

  10. Jonah says:

    I wonder. Can a person in their sixties be considered middle-aged? I’m not knocking our host, because I’m only a few years behind. I’ve just never forgotten the exchange in Carrie Fisher’s “Postcards from the Edge” (at least the screenplay) between 60-year-old Shirley MacLaine and 35-ish daughter Meryl Streep.
    Meryl: Ma, I’m middle-aged.
    Shirley: Dear, *I’m* middle-aged.
    Meryl: Really. And how many one-hundred-and-twenty year old woman do *you* know?

  11. Diane says:

    The walking aimlessly around the city at night, and in a long green coat was what got me. What woman in her right mind…but regardless, those were the moments I said to my husband: ‘I want one! I want one!’ and he’d smirk and say I want one, too; but really, what was that about? I live in a (fairly) safe small town and would prob be able to walk (fairly) safely at night in my small town, but in a major city? WTH? Still entertaining. Husband will watch anything with HER in it, sandpaper-smoothed face and all.

  12. admin says:

    I think most women I know would be quite happy wandering about in London at night but not NYC, Diane, only because New York can suddenly turn and bite you. I like Nicole Kidman because I was in a press junket and she took us all to the pub, which was above and beyond the call of duty.

  13. Lucy Waghorn says:

    In answer to what she asked Sylvie to do… She asked her to tell the prosecutor about the husband’s lack of remorse about his sister being killed, in fact, lack of anything. She couldn’t tell the prosecutor herself because she was supposed to be on his side to avoid that clause that stops her being cross examined when called by the prosecution.

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