WARNING: this post contains spoilers for ITV’s Broadchurch… oh and maybe the original Danish version of The Killing and Twin Peaks too.
9 million people tuned in to see who killed Danny Latimer at the end of ITV’s Broadchurch, guaranteeing the crime drama a second series and sparking conversations by watercoolers all across the country. But the big reveal, when it came, felt more than a little contrived — mild-mannered stay-at-home dad Joe is in fact a murderer with a dangerous temper and a habit for meeting his son’s friends for late-night hugging sessions.
There’s nothing wrong with a twist, but based on my extensive study of the modern-day whodunnit (i.e. watching quite a few of them) it seems there’s a trend to simply toss out everything that’s gone before in order to achieve a finale that’s as dramatic as possible. Popular Danish whodunnit The Killing had a plausible enough killer by the end of series 1, but evidence was uncovered and then dismissed with an alarming pace, and characters were looking wholesome and friendly in one episode and then tortured and sinister in the next. In series 2, plot and character integrity played distant second and third fiddles to the big twist at the end — like Broadchurch, you may as well have thrown a dart at a board full of faces to try and guess who the culprit was. Well it wasn’t quite that bad, but you get the idea.
With its “who killed Laura Palmer?” tagline, Twin Peaks can be seen as the forerunner of many modern-day whodunnit tropes, and here is a murder mystery that managed to be truly shocking and truly plausible at the same time (as long as you don’t mind a little bit of the supernatural). I certainly find it easier to believe in evil spirits wandering through the woods (especially as a metaphor for the dark side within all of us) than some of the 180-degree personality pivoting foisted upon us by many of the more modern shows.
Quaint and old-fashioned their stories may be, but Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle certainly knew a thing or two about building a mystery and dropping clues along the way. Sit down, think hard and you have a half a chance of working out why there are thirteen stab wounds in the victim in Murder On The Orient Express. Read through the evidence, use your imagination and it is possible to work out what’s happening in The Hound Of The Baskervilles before Sherlock Holmes does. Today’s television writers would do well to borrow some of these techniques and subtleties before every crime drama whodunnit turns into an impossibly random guessing game.