Comic Mysteries

Welcome to April Fools Month: Comic mysteries.

Here’s the thing about mixing mystery and comedy: you’re trying to mesh a serious threat to humanity, real tragedy, with laughter.  It can certainly be done, but usually you have to sacrifice either the light-hearted part of comedy (see Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang) or the tragic part of murder (see Trenchcoat), and either choice kneecaps that part of the genre.  So while we’ll be sticking to our six main points, we’re also going to be looking at the choices the writers made as to what to sacrifice.  Mel Brooks let go of tragedy without a backward glance in High Anxiety (the next two aren’t really deep either, but then they didn’t want to be), but there’s some stuff going on in the last two movies that will hold up under a closer look.  Mostly we’ll be looking at how these movies did or did not make death a laughing matter in order to steal what works for our own books.  Just kidding.  Kinda.

Our schedule for posting podcasts:
(Ignore what we said in the podcast about doing Hot Fuzz first; this is the schedule.)

April 2: 1977 HIGH ANXIETY (streaming on Amazon)

April 9: 1982 DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (streaming on Amazon)

April 15: 1985 CLUE (streaming on Amazon)

April 22: 1998 THE BIG LEBOWSKI (streaming on Amazon and Netflix)

April 29: 2007 HOT FUZZ (streaming on Amazon) Warning: Lots of gore in this one

March: Romantic Mystery

Hey, it’s March.  And this post was supposed to be up yesterday.  Apologies.

Romantic mystery is a natural.  Mystery has plenty of plot but not much room for character development; romance is all about character but has a tougher time with plot; marry the two and you’ve got a winner.  Romantic suspense, woman-in-jeopardy, rom-crime, whatever you call it, this kind of story puts two people under a great deal of stress while they work together.  If there’s one thing we learned doing rom-com, it’s that working together is a great way to build a relationship in a story, and working together under life-or-death circumstances only heightens that bond.  Stress is great fuel for romance–that’s why there are so many office romances and war babies–because it provides one of the two basic emotions necessary for people to fall in love: pain.  If you have a story where your protagonist isn’t sure that the love interest isn’t the guilty party, the stress is even more heightened (see Laura, Charade, Trenchcoat, The Big Easy . . . uh, see the movies we’re watching this month).  The other emotion?  Joy.  The excitement of falling in love, the fun of flirting, the exhilaration of great sex . . . .  A good romantic mystery has it all.

So why are they so hard to find?  Once we’d identified our subgenre–a mystery with a subplot romance that is so strong it can’t be removed from the story without wrecking the primary mystery plot–we really had to scrounge to find films that were mysteries first with good romances second that didn’t have protagonists we wanted to strangle.  Laura was a no-brainer for me–I’d read the book ages ago and loved it and the premise has tremendous juice–and Charade is one of the greatest romantic mysteries of all time.   And The Big Easy . . . well, everybody should see “You’re luck’s about to change, cher” plus a truly good mystery plot (I think; it’s been awhile since I saw it and I’m a lot more critical these days).   Then one more.  I picked Trenchcoat because I’ve always loved it and because it has a mystery writer heroine; then I found out Roger Ebert called it one of the worst movies of all time.    Lani and I will be watching it soon; if she’s with Roger, we may switch to To Catch A Thief which was fun.   That’s two Cary Grant films, but if you’re going to wonder if the guy is going to kill you, it might as well be Grant.

So here’s the tentative schedule.  Lani and I will be previewing Trenchcoat tomorrow night to see if it makes the cut so stay tuned, there may be some changes:

March 5: Laura

March 12: Charade

March 19: Trenchcoat (or To Catch A Thief)

March 26: The Big Easy

The Maltese Falcon 1941

PODCAST WARNING: Lani and Jenny found it hard to discuss this movie as professionally as they should have; therefore if you’re interested in a serious discussion of The Maltese Falcon, you’ll probably want to skip this one.  If you want to hear two women laughing hysterically about a noir classic, tune in.

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Story: A private detective searches for his partner’s killer and the statue of a black bird, accompanied by a beautiful woman who lies to him a lot.

Sam Spade, the most famous hard-boiled detective ever.

Release Date: October 18, 1941

Writer: John Huston, Dashiell Hammett

Source: The novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett.

Mystery Analysis:
Detective as protagonist?

Jenny: Yep.  First character on the scene, owns the whole movie.
Lani: Yes, the first thing you see is Sam, it’s him all the way through.

Murderer as antagonist?
Jenny: Yep.  Shows up in the first scene, drives the protagonist crazy for the whole movie.
Lani: Also there right from the start, coordinating everything.

Conflict created by murder?
Jenny: It doesn’t seem so at first, but it does become evident at the end.
Lani: As soon as the murder happens, yes. Before that, it’s created by the fact that he doesn’t believe a word she says, right from the beginning. Which was good to discover, because neither did I.

Fair play with all the clues given?
Jenny: All the clues are given, but I think Sam makes a big deductive leap at the end, and there’s no way the police have enough evidence to prosecute.  Of course, it was shot in 1941; maybe back then you didn’t need much evidence.
Lani: I give a qualified yes. Some things Sam came to were based upon his deep knowledge of Miles Archer, and I’m not sure we got that knowledge as well in the first couple of seconds before Miles was plot meat.

Solved using deduction, not luck?
Jenny: Yep.  Spade’s a real detective, digging constantly.
Lani: Absolutely. The entire movie is him picking at people for clues. He’s a great example of an active protagonist.

Story Analysis & Ratings:

Jenny says: 5 Pops: Solid mystery, well told.  The romance gets a 1 because that was sex, honey, not love, but then The Maltese Falcon isn’t a romance, so who cares?  The comedy, though: It’s not supposed to be funny but we were on the floor.  We NEED a gif of Brigid kicking Joel Cairo.
Mystery: 4, Craft: 5, Suspense: 4, Romance: 1, Comedy: 5

Lani says: 5 Pops – As a mystery, it’s a five. It does all the things a mystery is supposed to do. The ridiculous things we laughed hysterically about didn’t take away from that, so neither will I. I do have to say, it hasn’t aged well, in that I was laughing at a lot of things I don’t think they intended to be funny. On the other hand, it’s a movie I would absolutely watch again, if for nothing more than the moment he takes the gun away from Cairo, only to give it back loaded. And then, when he does it again with Wilmer. It’s the again that makes it funny.
Mystery: 5, Craft: 4, Suspense: 3 (I was laughing too hard and didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of them), Romance: 1, Comedy: 5

February: Noir/Hardboiled Mystery

Welcome to February, the Valentine’s month, full of hearts and roses.   Yeah, I’ve never understood that because in Ohio, February is the month of the dead, so we’re doing film noir, the genre that says life is grim and hopeless and women are evil betrayers, but thank god there are some men who go down those mean streets who are not themselves mean . . .

Hardboiled mystery was popularized by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich and a host of other cynical, sardonic, hard-drinking, mostly male authors (Craig Rice is one female standout).  Noir is technically a subset of the hardboiled mystery, its main difference being that the detective is not a professional but an ordinary man thrust into dangerous and violent circumstances.   The terms have blurred now, probably because when hardboiled fiction is brought to the screen, it’s usually called “film noir.”   The four noir mystery films we’ll be watching include two adaptations of hardboiled novels, a modern noir film, and a darkly comic homage to genre:

Feb. 6: THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)  (streaming on Amazon) based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett

Feb. 13: THE BIG SLEEP (1946) (streaming free on Amazon Prime) based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler

Feb. 20: LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997) (streaming on Amazon) based on the novel of the same name by James Ellroy
Feb. 27: KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005) (streaming on Amazon) based in part on the novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them by Brett Halliday

So we won’t play the sap for you, sweethearts, but we’ll be podcasting every Monday, still trying to figure out what makes a good mystery story.

[Note: I promised a chat at the end of every month, but this month I’ve been blindsided by some big stuff and I just didn’t get my act together.  Those of you who want to chat, please discuss in the comments and pick a good day and time and I’ll try to set it up for this month and the months to come.]


Sherlock: A Study in Pink 2010

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Story: The British police are baffled by a series of suicides until DI Lestrade hires Sherlock Holmes who shows them that they have a serial killer on their hands.

Detective: Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective the world has ever known, here interpreted as a modern man, but very faithful to Doyle’s original character.

Release Date: July 25, 2010

Writers: Steven Moffat

Source: Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”


Detective as protagonist?

Jenny: Yes, definitely.  He fills the screen and yet is true to the original character of Holmes.

Lani: Absolutely, although I think there might be some argument to be made that Watson and Holmes share the protagonist role in this one, although I’m not sure. More a question than a set theory.

Murderer as antagonist?

Jenny: Yes.  Once he knows Holmes is investigating, it becomes personal.

Lani: Absolutely. Holmes sees the murder as a puzzle, but the murderer is personally targeting Holmes, trying to get his attention.

Conflict created by murder?

Jenny: Yes.  Holmes is drawn into the story by the intellectual puzzle, and the rest of they mystery is played out almost as a chess match.

Lani: Yes. Holmes is already engaged in the murders right from the start, as evidenced in the taunting of the cops in the press conference.

Fair play with all the clues given?

Jenny: Yes.  In fact, the viewer may figure out who the murderer is before Holmes does because he’s particularly blind at one point in a way the original Holmes never would have been.

Lani: Moffat takes special care to add text clues on the screen for anything that might be vague; he is absolutely faithful to the viewer as participant.

Solved using deduction, not luck?

Jenny: Yes.  It’s Holmes’s specialty.

Lani: Absolutely. Although the cabbie got there and revealed himself, Holmes had him tracked down already with the phone GPS.


Jenny says: 5 Pops.  I’d give it 6 if I could.

Mystery: 5, Craft: 5, , Suspense: 5, Comic Relief: 5

Lani says: 5 Pops. I’m leaving the romance score in, because there’s a definite romance between these guys. It may be a just-friends romance, but it’s a romance all the same, and I’m loving it.

Mystery:5 , Craft: 5, , Suspense: 5, Romance: 5, Comic Relief: 5