And then there were more: Knives Out, Agatha Christie and nonstop murder mystery boom

Classic murder yarns are back on our screens, inspired by the queen of crime fiction, but given a fresh twist to keep audiences on their toes

A brilliant Greek sun beats down on Daniel Craig and his co-stars Kate Hudson, Edward Norton and Janelle Monáe in the follow-up to Knives Out, the surprise whodunnit hit of 2019.

When Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery arrives later this month in UK cinemas, audiences will be introduced to a handful of prime suspects in the time-honoured manner, while Craig’s gentlemanly sleuth Benoit Blanc sets out to solve an impending crime.

But the glossy Knives Out films are not the only recent releases to stretch the framework of the traditional whodunnit into blockbuster territory. Film producers are now prepared to risk huge sums on the sort of classic crime capers that were once the preserve of Sunday afternoon television specials.

Daniel Craig reprises his role as detective Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Daniel Craig reprises his role as detective Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Photograph: John Wilson/Netflix © 2022

“This kind of drama is a global phenomenon now,” said James Prichard, chairman and chief executive of Agatha Christie Ltd and the author’s great-grandson. “It all changed with Kenneth Branagh and his Murder on the Orient Express. Fox did something amazing when it put in all that money. It showed that people still want murder mysteries, and Netflix, among others, has picked up the idea quickly.”

Glass Onion – its title is taken from a Beatles song and from the transparent dome structure that dominates the film’s island location – comes out just months after Branagh’s stellar lineup of actors sailed downriver together in the second of his Christie remakes, Death on the Nile.

And in September British cinema audiences turned out in large numbers for See How They Run. A playful twist on the classic format, this mystery revolved around Christie’s long-running West End play The Mousetrap, and in the film’s denouement, its detective team, in the shape of police officers Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell, actually encounter Christie herself, played by Shirley Henderson.

Kathryn Hahn, Madelyn Cline, Edward Norton, Leslie Odom Jr and Kate Hudson oin Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Kathryn Hahn, Madelyn Cline, Edward Norton, Leslie Odom Jr and Kate Hudson in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Photograph: John Wilson/Netflix

The US director and writer of the Knives Out films, Rian Johnson, described Glass Onion optimistically as “an equal, not a sequel” at its London premiere, but this second film is no sedate drawing-room puzzle. Johnson claims that both screenplays were inspired by Christie’s work, but the new outing is clearly the direct result of the commercial success of the first.

The budget is spent on spectacle and the hi-tech world it creates brings Craig closer to the whizzy gadgetry he played with as James Bond than to the analogue deductive tools of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Prichard is right, though, about the new worldwide reach of the basic whodunnit template. This weekend sees the airing of a stylish French take on one of Christie’s most famous books – the one with the difficult original title, now known as And Then There Were None.

The French television series, brought to British screens by Channel 4’s Walter Presents strand, is called They Were Ten and places a group of suspects on another sunny island, this time a tropical resort. The seemingly random group quickly find they are cut off from the rest of the world. This summer also saw the release of a Chinese series called Checkmate, based on the Christie Poirot narratives.

Lucy Boynton and Will Poulter in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
Lucy Boynton and Will Poulter in Hugh Laurie’s recent TV version of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Photograph: BritBox

“If murder mystery is booming, then we inevitably play an important part in that. After all, my great-grandmother wrote 66 novels and 20 plays without really repeating herself or making many mistakes,” said Prichard. “But I hate the phrase ‘cosy crime’. Looking at the books with the writer Sarah Phelps for her recent BBC adaptations taught me a lot. They are not just crossword puzzles. The murders matter and are rarely excused. There are some very nasty people killed in her books, but it is not condoned.”

The violence tends to happen off-screen, however, and none of the grim tropes of Scandi noir, such as abandoned wells and dank cellars, seem to feature. Christie, though, did like a little dash of the sordid: greed, lust and sexual jealousy were all within her literary compass.

Nevertheless, at this comfier end of the murder market, Hugh Laurie successfully brought a fresh version of the Christie mystery Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? to BritBox in a three-part series earlier this year.

He adapted, directed and also appeared in the show, alongside Paul Whitehouse, Will Poulter and Lucy Boynton. Widely judged a sprightly venture, it proved that, a century on, the question in Christie’s title was still worth asking. Stars Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent were happy to join Laurie’s fun because whodunnits are now such a ratings draw.

Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution
Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution will run for another year. Photograph: Sam Barker

Their claustrophobic, often camp form of suspense competes ably with gritty police procedurals and the gore of true crime. After the pandemic and with economic troubles looming, viewers are seeking out the certainties of a neat, conventional mystery.

So if we gather around the fireplace, with the evidence laid out before us, what do we see? A sudden glut of screen reworkings of whodunnit formulas and new riffs on Christie classics.

And then there are other contributing factors: the real-life West End production of The Mousetrap celebrates its 70th anniversary later this month and an acclaimed, immersive London staging of the author’s Witness for the Prosecution – already five years old – announced last week that it is extending its run again until this time next year.

The verdict is clear for first-time crime writer Charlotte Vassell: murder mysteries are so popular now because they are an unbeatable way to scrutinise society. “A murder is an aberration of the social contract. So as a crime writer, you set up the part of society you want to study and then pull it all apart. We are all just nosey, really,” she said.

Vassell’s debut novel, The Other Half, is published next year by Faber and tells the contemporary story of the hidden wall of wealth behind a London murder. “As a reader, you look at all the characters’ motivations and are often confounded by your own prejudices. It allows you to look at class and at race,” she said, adding that Christie was always “meticulous” about setting up the social worlds she was about to destroy.

Vassell, 32, wrote her new mystery during lockdown “as an escape”. “It was a way to get me up in the mornings,” she said. And while we may not all have written our own whodunnits, Prichard suspects it is the tribulations of the last three years that have led readers and viewers back to the genre.

Shirley Henderson in the new comedy-mystery film See How They Run
Shirley Henderson in the new comedy-mystery film See How They Run. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

“One of the bizarre things is how the book sales absolutely took off in lockdown,” he said. “My father said at the beginning of it all that in times of trouble, people turn to Agatha Christie and he was right. There really is something cathartic there, considering she herself wrote them after the horrors of war.”

The recipe for a convincing mystery is harder to concoct than fans think, Prichard adds. But for those with children who might like to try, there is an opportunity coming up.

To celebrate the anniversary of The Mousetrap’s world-beating run, with more than 28,500 performances clocked up since that first night in the West End in November 1952 starring Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim, the production has just set up a Young Mystery Writers programme, designed to inspire the next generation.

Working with the National Literacy Trust and more than 30 secondary schools across Britain, the scheme will focus and support young students from disadvantaged backgrounds as they attempt to write their own short whodunnit. It will also offer them the chance to experience a West End show. Those who take part will later have the opportunity to be published in a celebratory anthology.

“This partnership will use Agatha Christie’s incredible legacy to encourage a love of writing – a key literacy skill – in 600 students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Tim Judge, head of schools programmes at the trust.

“Christie is the bestselling novelist of all time and Young Mystery Writers will continue to serve as an inspiration.”

Film director Johnson, now at the centre of the burgeoning international Knives Out movie franchise, started out just this way, he has revealed, reading Christie stories as a young person and then penning his own tentative efforts.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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