When a holiday becomes crime time: Why do we love exotic murder mysteries so much?

·4-min read
 (BBC / Red Planet / Amelia Troubridge)
(BBC / Red Planet / Amelia Troubridge)

It’s the opening episode of Sky’s new series The Resort and things are afoot.

Married couple Emma and Noah want nothing more than to enjoy a relaxing holiday to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary – but what’s this? The discovery of an old mobile phone reopens the cold case of two missing tourists who disappeared fifteen years ago, never to be seen again.

It is, in short, time for Emma and Noah to grab their magnifying glasses and set to work on cracking the case under the hot Mexican sunshine.

If this premise sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been enjoying a glut of excellent crime television recently, albeit with a twist. Though murder mysteries have been a stalwart of the small screen ever since it was invented, today’s detectives (and amateur enthusiasts) are jetting off to ever-more exotic locations to seek the truth and dole out justice.

Think Death in Paradise; Murder in Provence; the glut of Agatha Christie adaptions such as Death on the Nile: we just can’t get enough of the stuff. So what’s behind its rise?

“The idea that it’s set in an exotic location was one hundred per cent why I thought Death in Paradise would be a fun show to watch,” Robert Thorogood explains.

As the show’s creator, he’s watched the rise of the exotic murder mystery on our screens – a genre for which Death in Paradise (now an astonishing eleven years into its run, and still going strong) was arguably the forerunner.

Amateur enthusiasts: The Resort (Peacock)
Amateur enthusiasts: The Resort (Peacock)

“Back in 2007, a foreign show was something like Ballykissangel, which was set in Ireland or Monarch of the Glen, which was set in Scotland. And I just thought we should be doing more things abroad.

“With Death in Paradise we create this heightened world that’s exotic and sunny and fun, and make sure that the murders are always palatable. Because we like to be delighted and titillated by the idea of murder and the idea of solving the crime.”

In the world of murder mysteries, says Thorogood, the key to delivering a good show is closing the narrative loop, ensuring that a killer is found and that the detectives mete out justice to the guilty parties.

Indeed, that sense of predictability is integral to why audiences are tuning in – as they have ever since Agatha Christie committed her murder mysteries to print in the 1920s, sparking a ‘Golden Age’ of detective novels whose format he (and many other crime shows) is still following today.

“I think it’s no coincidence that Golden Age mysteries were very popular in the late 20s, and 30s, and 40s and 50s, when life was quite grim. If you’re having quite a tough time, then you can turn to this glorious piece of escapism,” he says.

“I’ve also spoken to a lot of people who during the COVID lockdowns went back to the beginning of Death in Paradise, and watched it all the way through. When times are tough, you want something fun that will take you out of yourself. I mean, literally, to the other side of the world, to the Caribbean, where yes, there’ll be a murder, but it’s a safe murder.

“The killer will be caught. And then there’ll be a fun scene at the end that will make everyone feel happy and good about life.”

Alison Owen agrees. As the executive producer of new ITV murder mystery show Murder in Provence, she’s taken inspiration from the UK’s rich crime heritage to develop the new show – which follows the capers of couple Antoine Verlaque and Marine Bonnet as they solve a murder under the hot Provençal sun.

 (Robert Thorogood)
(Robert Thorogood)

“I think Brits do murder mysteries particularly well,” she tells me. “I suppose originally, it’s that whole idea of a sleepy little English village where you find a dead body. And it’s always solved by an old lady or eccentric detective or somebody who just works very well in that traditional biscuit-box cottage kind of landscape.

“That’s where it originated. And it’s just expanded to include lots of other beautiful locales as well, because then you get the double pleasure of watching the murder and mystery unfold, but also watching the beautiful backdrop.”

And don’t think this very niche subgenre is going anywhere anytime soon.

“There have been some wonderful cosy crime writers for years and years who’ve been told: ‘We really like your books, but they’ll never get on the telly because they’re not fashionable,’” Robert Thorogood says.

“But because Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club was so brilliant, I think it opens the door to a lot of other cosy crime writers being commissioned and a whole chunk of stuff coming to our television screens. There’s a lot of Golden-Age style murder mysteries coming down the pipe.”

Grab your magnifying glass: let the identity parade commence.

The first three episodes of The Resort are available July 29 on Peacock exclusively on Sky and NOW, with new episodes dropping weekly

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