And Then There Was More: Knives Out, Agatha Christie and the Nonstop Murder Mystery Boom | Detective movies, detective films

A bright Greek sun descends on Daniel Craig and his co-stars Kate Hudson, Edward Norton and Janelle Monáe in the sequel to Knives outthe surprise thriller of 2019.

When Glass onion: a mystery at loggerheads hits UK cinemas later this month, audiences will be introduced to a handful of prime suspects in time-honoured fashion, as Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc sets out to solve an impending crime.

But the shine Knives out the movies aren’t the only recent releases to expand the traditional thriller setting into blockbuster territory. Movie producers are now willing to risk huge sums on the kind of classic detective capers that were once the preserve of Sunday afternoon TV specials.

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

“This kind of drama is now a global phenomenon,” said James Prichard, Chairman and CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd and the author’s great-grandson. “Everything changed with Kenneth Branagh and his Murder on the Orient Express. Fox did something amazing when he invested all that money. It showed that people still want murder mysteries, and Netflix and others were quick to pick up on the idea.

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

And in September, British cinema audiences turned out in droves to See how they work. A playful twist on the classic format, this mystery revolved around Christie’s long-running West End play The Mouse Trapand in the film’s denouement, her team of detectives, in the form 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 in 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. Photography: John Wilson/Netflix

American director and screenwriter Knives out movies, Rian Johnson, describes Glass Onion optimistically as “an equal, not a sequel” when it premieres in London, but this second film is no quiet parlor puzzle. Johnson claims both storylines were inspired by Christie’s work, but the new release is clearly a direct result of the first’s commercial success.

The budget is spent on spectacle, and the high-tech world it creates brings Craig closer to the whimsical gadgets he played with as James Bond rather than the analog deductive tools of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Prichard is correct, however, about the new global reach of the basic thriller model. This weekend sees the release of a slick French version of one of Christie’s most famous books – the one with the difficult original title, now known as And then there was no more.

The French TV series, brought to UK screens by Channel 4’s Walter Presents, 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 discovers that they are cut off from the rest of the world. This summer also saw the release of a Chinese series titled Checkmatebased on the stories of Christie Poirot.

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? Photography: BritBox

“If the murder mystery is in full swing, we inevitably play an important role in it. After all, my great-grandmother wrote 66 novels and 20 plays without really repeating herself or making many mistakes,” Prichard said. “But I hate the phrase ‘comfortable crime’. Watching the books with writer Sarah Phelps for her recent BBC adaptations taught me a lot. It’s not just crossword puzzles. Murders matter and are rarely excused .There are some really bad people being killed off in his books, but it’s not tolerated.”

However, the violence tends to happen off-screen, and none of the dark Scandi noir tropes, such as abandoned wells and dank cellars, seem to feature. Christie, however, was a bit fond of the sleazy: greed, lust, and sexual jealousy were all in her literary compass.

Nonetheless, at this more comfortable end of the murder market, Hugh Laurie has managed to bring a new spin on the Christie mystery. Why didn’t they ask Evans? to BritBox in a three-part series earlier this year.

He adapted, directed and also starred in the series, alongside Paul Whitehouse, Will Poulter and Lucy Boynton. Widely judged as a playful enterprise, it proved that a century later, the question in Christie’s title was still worth asking. Stars Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent were thrilled to join in on Laurie’s fun, as thrillers are now so popular.

Witness for Agatha Christie for the Prosecution
Agatha Christie’s prosecution witness will last another year. Photography: Sam Barker

Their form of claustrophobic, often campy suspense deftly competes with the gritty police procedurals and gore of true crime. Post-pandemic and with economic troubles looming, viewers are looking for the certainties of a neat, conventional mystery.

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

And then there are other contributing factors: the actual West End production of The Mouse Trap celebrates its 70th birthday later this month and an immersive and acclaimed London staging of the author prosecution witness – already five years old – announced last week that he was once again extending his run until this time next year.

The verdict is clear for first-time mystery writer Charlotte Vassell: crime stories are so popular now because they’re an unbeatable way to peer into society. “Murder is an aberration of the social contract. So, as a mystery writer, you create the part of society you want to study, and then you dismantle it. We’re all nosy, really,” she said.

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

Vassell, 32, wrote his new mystery during lockdown ‘like an escape’. “It was a way of getting up in the morning,” she said. And while we may not all have written our own thrillers, Prichard suspects it’s the tribulations of the past three years that have brought readers and viewers back to the genre.

Shirley Henderson in 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 weird things is how book sales have absolutely taken off during lockdown,” he said. “My dad said at the beginning of it all that in difficult times people turn to Agatha Christie and he was right. There’s definitely something cathartic about that, considering she wrote them herself after the horrors of war.

The recipe for a compelling mystery is harder to whip up than fans realize, adds Prichard. But for those who have children and would like to try, an opportunity presents itself.

To celebrate the birthday of The Mouse TrapWith over 28,500 performances recorded since that first night in the West End in November 1952 with Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim, the production has just put together a Young Mystery Writers programme, designed to inspire the Next Generation.

Working with the National Literacy Trust and over 30 secondary schools across Britain, the program will target and support young students from disadvantaged backgrounds as they attempt to write their own thriller. It will also offer them the chance to experience a West End spectacle. Those who participate will later have the opportunity to be published in a festive anthology.

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

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

Director Johnson, now at the center of the nascent international Knives out film franchise, started out that way, he revealed, reading stories of Christie as a youngster and then writing his own attempts.

About Cecil Cobb

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