What is it?
The regular Thursday night staple on BBC 1 during those cold winter months. Death in Paradise is very much a cosy-style murder mystery series set on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie. First airing in 2011, it’s now up to ten seasons (with two more commissioned) and eighty episodes… and if you aren’t sure what to do with that information, neither am I. Death in Paradise gets a lot of rather unfair criticism from some reviewers (Private Eye once described it as ‘risible,) but with its generally low stakes it feels a stretch to describe it as a juggernaut like Silent Witness is, or Taggart was. It is what it is, and it does what it does very well.
Who’s in it?
It would be quicker to ask who hasn’t been in it at this point. The only two characters to have been in the show since season 1 are police commissioner Selwyn Patterson (Don Warrington) and bartender/Mayor Catherine Bordey (Elizabeth Bourgine). Lead characters have come and gone, being played in turn by Ben Miller (DI Richard Poole), Kris Marshall (DI Humphrey Goodman), Ardal O’Hanlon (DI Jack Mooney), and most recently Ralf Little (DI Neville Parker). Sidekicks have also appeared and left, with Josephine Joubert (DS Florence Cassell) being the longest-running, Sara Martins (DS Camille Bordey) being the first and Aude Legastelois-Bide filling in for a season and a half as DS Augustine Delmas. Danny John-Jules also starred for seven seasons as Officer Dwayne Myers.
What I like
The formulaic structure
Most of the criticism Death in Paradise receives comes from the structure of its episodes as, essentially, they’re all pretty much the same story. This has been picked at time and again (and was probably behind the ‘risible,’ comment in Private Eye), but, honestly, this is one of those things where if you don’t like it, you don’t get it.
Death in Paradise isn’t trying to be grim, gritty drama like The Bay or Line of Duty, it isn’t trying to do deep psychological exploration like Broadchurch, it isn’t as much a character study as a mystery like Prime Suspect. It’s a safe, cosy drama where we know what to expect, and actually it does what it does very well. Not all of its plots hang together too well (one murderer was relying on an ice cube melting at just the right time for both his murder and alibi to take place), but they are hard to guess. I can maybe fully work out one in a season ahead of time.
Basically, they fall into one of two types. First, we see a few scenes of the victim and their potential killers, and someone is dead before the opening credits. From there, it’s either a ‘locked-room,’ mystery in which no one could possibly have committed the murder because there was no way into the room where it happened, or all the suspects have apparently rock-solid alibis, as the time at which the murder appeared to take place has been altered. Occasionally they go for ‘No one has an alibi,’ but this is much rarer. The impossible nature of the murder is what stumps the DI, and also hooks in the audience, as we all try to work it out before they can. Sometimes this is possible, sometimes it isn’t (I worked out how the first murder of season 10 had been accomplished in about five minutes, and knew how the killer in the double-bill had managed it, but the one in the hospital had me absolutely stumped). There’s an investigation, secrets are revealed, and then some chance word or action causes a moment of revelation for the DI who’s able to put the entire plot together, and reveal it to the suspects, and audience, at the end of the episode.
Oh, and the Commissioner puts in an appearance, generally to deliver a couple of put-downs and remind everyone that he exists. It’s been nice to see him given a bit more heart in season 10.
And this structure is the point. It’s safe, it’s predictable, we know that, whatever murder and mayhem was committed at 9.05 p.m. will have been resolved by 9.55 without any armed standoffs or car chases, and you know what? That’s ok.
Not every show has to be genre-redefining. Not every story has to probe the darkest recesses of the human mind. Sometimes, all audiences want is a show that hits all the usual notes bang on. Cosies need a manipulative villain with a fiendishly complex plot, a detective who’s always just that little bit smarter to outwit them in the end, a loyal sidekick to act as a foil, and a super-efficient uniformed officer to do all the spadework. And the world needs to be put to right at the end of it all. That’s all Death in Paradise tries to do, and it does it very well, and there’s room for that as much as there’s room for Line of Duty, The Bay, and ITV’s riot-van full of high-quality true-crime dramas.
In other words, critics, lay off the formula and get with the programme. 8 million viewers don’t tune in despite the formula, they tune in because of it.
The sidekick characters
Generally speaking, I’ve found the characters fulfilling the sidekick role to be the most interesting. Put another way, if the DI in Death in Paradise is Sherlock Holmes, then the DS is their Dr Watson. And in much the same way that Holmes is neither very relatable nor very likeable but Watson is usually both, the DSs in Death in Paradise are usually far more interesting.
Out of DS Florence Cassell and DS Camille Bordey, my favourite changed three times as I was trying to decide who my favourite was, and in writing this sentence I’ve realised why. Both characters were created to be foils to the lead detective at the time (Camille for Richard Poole, Florence for Humphrey Goodman), and in many respects are the opposite of the character they work opposite. On balance I’m leaning towards Camille, but not by much, but the reason they’re so likeable is that they round out and balance out some of the awkward flaws in either Poole or Humphrey. And, much like the execution of the story’s formula, it’s done in a competent and likeable way.
Camille in particular is the perfect counterpoint to Poole, who’s every inch the buttoned-down Englishman longing to return home to rain and predictability. Right from her introduction as an undercover cop who’s infiltrated a gun-running ring, she’s shown to be the maverick of the pair, with a zest for life and appreciation of the Caribbean that Poole lacks. Her frequent exasperation with him helps sell the audience on the fundamental of Poole’s character development (he needs to relax more), and Martins and Miller have some very believable on-screen chemistry. Some of her character leans into the racist Angry Black Woman trope at times, which, well, I’ll discuss in the ‘slightly racist elements,’ section below.
Florence fills a different role, being the organised one who brings some method to Humphrey’s frequent madness. She’s quite a bit softer than Camille and is given more character development, with a fiancée in seasons seven and eight (who gets murdered of course, because you can’t be a police officer’s fiancée and not get murdered on telly). Humphrey is quite chaotic, so Florence is the beacon of order and common sense, more low-key but just as much the foil complementing and balancing out the DI’s idiosyncrasies. In season 10, after a season-and-a-half’s break, she’s even taken over some of Camille’s role of introducing a reluctant, buttoned-down Brit to Caribbean life, and it’s felt very natural, showing how versatile her character actually is.
Camille’s relationship with her mother rounds her out and gives her an extra dimension, in the same way that Florence’s fiancée does for her. Both characters are likeable and engaging in their own way.
Augustine Dumas, as played by Aude Legastelois-Bide, is harder to describe because she only lasted a season and a half. This may be because she was clearly the straight-arrow foil to DI Jack Mooney, who in a role reversal from Poole and Camille’s dynamic from seasons 1 and 2 was himself a bit of a maverick, and she didn’t round out straight-arrow DI Neville Parker anything like as well. I liked her well enough in her appearances, but she honestly wasn’t around much to have made much of an impression.
Now, I should probably talk about the uniformed officers, because there’s always a hyper-efficient one who does everything by the book, (if the DI is Holmes and the DS is Watson, the hyper-efficient one is Lestrade of the Yard) and a lazier one who relies on their contacts and local knowledge. The hyper-efficient one has been Fidel (played by Gary Carr) and, for most of the show’s run, JP (Tobi Bakare), whilst the lazy one for the longest time was Dwayne (Danny John-Jules), before becoming the Commissioner’s niece Ruby (Shykos Amos) and more lately Marlon (Tahj Miles). The writers clearly like their duopolies as a way of creating drama for the characters, and, again, it’s done likeably and competently. The audience roots for Fidel and JP because they’re clearly just trying to do their jobs right and both are human enough to forgive their partners’ lapses. And we root for Dwayne, Ruby, and Marlon, because their plots usually involve some kind of screw-up that they have to set right. Yes, they’re simple dynamics, but they’re done well, and, I’ll say it again, there’s nothing wrong with doing simple things well.
The camera work is always gorgeous, for one thing, really showing Guadeloupe off and acting as a Caribbean tourist commercial throughout. You always get an urge to move to Saint Marie at some point, and then remember that it doesn’t exist which is a damn shame. Island life is depicted as laid-back and relaxed, and this is (usually) shown to be a positive, with the islanders frequently far happier than their British investigator. And, to be honest, amongst the long, cold nights of a British winter, a sun-drenched island is the perfect form of escapism.
And the fictional nature of the setting is used effectively to set up different kinds of mysteries. Saint Marie has a volcano, a rainforest, a zoo, recording studioes, a radio station, a TV station, every kind of survivalist holiday, beaches and hotels and holiday homes as far as the eye can see, sugar and coffee plantations from its colonialist past, and every one of them has seen some kind of murder. Because it’s fictional, Saint Marie can have all these (and more) and it not seem out of place, as it would have if they’d used a real setting like the British Virgin Islands. It also means that, unlike all real British Overseas Territories which tend to make their ways as tax havens, Saint Marie doesn’t have any baggage linked to major international corruption for the writers to awkwardly have to ignore.
Some murders are used to look at life on a small Caribbean island, where money is often tight and secrets are kept for years between close-knit friends and neighbours. Others expose the hypocrisies and lies that fester just below the surface of apparently respectable Brits as they take their problems abroad, and then start murdering each other (and seriously, Saint Marie makes Midsomer look safe). Either way, the setting is used efficiently and interestingly to allow for a variety of stories to be told.
And it’s used to either challenge, or to send up, the DI. Richard Poole, for all that he was clearly an ace crime-solver, always looked ridiculous in his suit and tie demanding cups of tea, and the show’s message for him was that he needed to lighten up and loosen up and that it was possible for him to be a good detective and have some personality. This has also been the approach taken to Neville Parker, although the writers have avoided a re-tread by having Neville show more willingness to experiment with island life even if the results are mostly about poking fun at him for being risk-averse. Humphrey and Jack, however, really tried to leap into island culture and experiment with it and try things out, and it was always fun to watch them try. The writers understand how to use their setting effectively, and when the setting is the main unique selling point of the show, that’s important.
The deviations from the formula
Death in Paradise doesn’t deviate from its formula often, but when it does, the results are amongst its more memorable episodes. The season finale (season 7), for instance, where all the other characters got to have a Revelation moment, was nice purely because it let all the other characters have moments. And the opener to season 10 broke the mould because, although there were a couple of efforts at misdirection, Neville more or less knew who the murderer was right away, but had to spend most of the story working out how he could have committed it when he’d been broadcasting live on TV at the time of death. The whole episode felt different, a little like an early Prime Suspect in the sense that the killer’s identity was obvious, but still very Death in Paradise with the murder seemingly being impossible.
The two-parters have also always been memorable episodes, because of the ways they’ve broken the formula. Season six took us to London and flipped the ‘fish-out-of-water,’ aspect of the show on its head. Seeing Dwayne try to reconnect with his father, and for the first time ever start to look flustered, was fun. It was a nice inversion to watch Humphrey get to be the guide for once. Season eight broke the mould by putting the characters in danger – Florence was shot and left for dead. It also had lasting stakes, as her fiancée was killed and Florence left devastated, even leaving the island to cope with the damage done. And season ten created a mystery that Neville wasn’t actually sure he could solve, gave the Commissioner some frontline policing to do (and reminded us that he too was once a detective who solved cases), brought Camille back for a welcome cameo, and again put a much-loved character in danger (this time Catherine). It was fun to see Neville put the blues and twos on and race to the rescue precisely because this happens so rarely.
But, in each case, the DI solved the case and put the world to rights again by the end of the second episode. The two-parters and formula breaks work partly because they challenge the characters with different cases and events, and partly because the formula is re-established by the end. You never have to worry too much with Death in Paradise. That’s an important part of its charm.
What I don’t like
Some procedural niggles
Ok, if procedural niggles in Death in Paradise bother you, you really are watching it wrong. This show isn’t trying to depict police work with any degree of realism. In the real world, reveal the killer in front of all the other suspects and you’re basically begging for a case to be tossed out as unsafe, but in a cosy murder mystery, it’s the expected resolution, the detective revealing to the world that they are, in fact, smarter and better than the killer. But, ok, if I must…
Background checks are done very easily and efficiently for a tiny Caribbean island police force, and they also seem to manage forensic processing with a speed that would make Horatio Caine jealous. The Saint Marie Police Force has a very top-heavy command structure, and nobody ever seems to record interviews. I mean, there are loads of others, but they aren’t, well, niggling. Again for those at the back, but, Death in Paradise is a cosy. I don’t want a duty solicitor getting in the way of the DI proving how much cleverer than the murderer he is.
The whole ‘white-saviour,’ thing (and other slightly racist elements)
The ‘white saviour,’ trope is one where, to put it bluntly, the brown-skinned people can’t sort their own problems out and need a White Man to do the noble paternalistic thing and save the day. Or catch the killer that the Caribbean police force can’t find themselves. Death in Paradise at least partly owes its existence to the awful lack of on-screen diversity around ten years ago. Many British drama were so white the only reason you knew the actors weren’t ghosts was because they didn’t pass through things, and criticism of this was starting to mount, so the BBC reacted by commissioning a show where almost all of the regular cast were black. Actors like Tobi Bakare and Josephine Joubert got far more of a chance to show their talent than they might otherwise have had (I’ve seen Kingsman a dozen times and I didn’t realise Bakare played one of Eggsie’s friends until about the tenth. I didn’t recognise him from The Shadow Line at all. Being almost unrecognisable in wildly different roles is a sign of a good actor). All of which is great… but does every episode have to end with the black characters gazing adoringly at the White Saviour as he so cleverly solves the case?
I don’t think this is intentional, I just think you have a lot of white writers who actually don’t realise how their formula means that they hit the White Saviour head-on trope in pretty much every episode as well as all the cosy story beats. The fact that the detective has to realise the murderer’s identity several steps ahead of the audience means that he also has to be ahead of his team, but with the racial dynamics of Death in Paradise, this becomes problematic. Maybe it could be resolved, or mitigated, if the breakthrough came with some discovery by one of the team rather than the DI making a connection from a random event (like a chance remark of Marlon’s in a recent episode). Maybe more of a team effort to hash things out where the DI is first among equals rather than the lead singer in a band called White Saviour and Some Black People. Maybe they just need to hire some black writers (now there’s a shocking and controversial thought, black people writing black people) who would bring a different perspective on how to avoid the trope whilst still hitting the required beats of the cosy-style story. I’m familiar enough with the White Saviour trope to identify it, but honestly not enough to suggest how to remedy it in this story structure.
What about promoting Florence to DI and giving her a white sidekick if and when Ralf Little decides to move on? NB if that idea made you want to throw things at me, this site isn’t for you.
Other issues revolve around the racial dynamics in the murders, as, basically, white people murdering black people has always been the least common. White people murdering white people is probably the most common, to be fair, but on the whole if the victim is black, the killer will be too. If they’re white, the killer is more likely to be black, and those dynamics are not ok and need to be changed.
Some reviewers have complained that the show’s depiction of island life is also racist, as the laid-back, happy-go-lucky islanders can’t solve their own murders without their White Saviour. I think that this is an unintended side effect of the cosy story format, to me it feels like the various DIs’ interactions with island life are used more to try and push them to lighten up and loosen up (especially Poole and Neville), and that island life in general is treated as superior to what they left behind in Britain. Humphrey’s comment to his ex-wife that he’s evolved and embraced new experiences whilst she’s remained the same in Britain at the end of season 4 I think confirms that this is the intent. But I can see how this approach might again fall into the White Saviour trope, and the writers need to take greater care to avoid this.
A lot of this could certainly be improved by hiring some black writers, even if not fixed. Having a majority black-cast show on the BBC is great, but it would be better if it wasn’t largely about one white guy’s genius.
The lead characters
Speaking of those white guys…
I mean, I don’t dislike any of them. I just find them all a bit… boring. They’re all (with the possible exception of Jack Mooney) fairly one dimensional, and you can sum up their characters quite easily. Poole is the stereotypical uptight Brit, Humphrey is the stereotypical eccentric Brit, Mooney is the stereotypical cheerful Irishman, Neville is the stereotypical unadventurous Northerner. Now, there is of course a purpose to this; they’re all British archetypes taken out of their comfort zones and placed in a new setting, and the idea is that a British audience can relate to them because they’re such familiar characters. Again, the characterisations are fairly simple but likeable (even Poole in the end), I just wish they all had a bit more depth.
Mooney is the outlier because he was a widower with a young daughter, which gave him a level of complexity that Poole, and Neville in particular, lacked. Neville especially is quite a thin character, unadventurous because he’s allergic to everything, so it’s a real credit to Ralf Little’s performance that he manages to make Neville as likeable as he is. Mooney always had a bit of an underlying sadness to him that meant that the audience knew that his ‘Cheerful Irishman,’ persona was a bit of an act. The others never really had any of this.
We don’t need tonnes of complexity for each character, that wouldn’t be in keeping with the ‘keep it light,’ tone of the show. But it would round the characters out a bit more if they got a bit more than they currently do. As it stands, Camille, Florence, Fidel, JP, and even Dwayne have received more development than any of the main characters bar Mooney, and Camille and Florence remain, for me, more interesting. I’d basically like to see them given a bit more than ‘British stereotype abroad,’ and for future leads, starting with Neville, to become a bit more memorable that they currently are.
The writers don’t appear to really know much about the setting
Now, I know I wrote a whole paragraph earlier about how much I liked the setting, and to be honest this is less of a dislike, and more of a, ahem, ‘professional,’ disagreement (to be clear, however much I’d like to be I am not a professional writer).
The writers use the setting of Saint Marie very effectively, but they often seem sketchy on the specifics of the island. I have a fictional crime thriller universe set in a fictional mid-Atlantic city called Fairways, and you can bet I can tell you whereabouts in the Atlantic it is, how big the population is (12,000,000), how big the police force is (49,500), how many divisions and sub-divisions it has, which street the City Hall is on, how many universities there are, which parts of the city tourists steer clear of, what the murder rate is, who the big crime bosses are… almost none of which bleeds into my writing. Because the audience doesn’t need to know it. But, as a writer, I do.
Now, Death in Paradise wouldn’t be as good if the writers had decided exactly what the island did and did not have in episode 1 of series 1, and decided that no, it couldn’t have coffee and sugar plantations, or a TV station, or a newspaper. But, some specific details of the island they seem to be hazy on. Saint Marie’s population is unclear, for instance, it’s believed to be about 10,000 but the island itself is one-tenth the size of Guadeloupe, which would lead towards a population of around 40,000. We maybe don’t need to know that… but the writers do, and I don’t get the sense that they actually are sure. Similarly, the island should have more than four police officers (even with a population of 10,000, they should have a force of between 10 and 20), but it regularly seems like they don’t. It’s not clear how its government functions either. In one episode, Humphrey Goodman investigates the murder of the Governor… but at the end of the following series, Catherine is elected mayor, apparently of the entire island.
This doesn’t really matter in terms of audience enjoyment. I’d just personally prefer the writers to be less loosey-goosey in their approach.
You’ll like this if…
You like low-stakes, cosy murder mysteries where figuring it out before the detective is part of the fun, and you’ll like it ever better if you like lashings of sun as well. Appreciate it for what it is, and you’ll enjoy it just fine.
If you’ve enjoyed this review and want my, erm, unique take on other crime fiction, look at my reviews page here: https://attemptedmurder.uk/reviews/
Or maybe even the main attraction – some of my own short stories, at https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/. Go on, see if I can actually write anything myself, instead of just criticise the noble efforts of others. One of them is even a cosy, Stephen Henry-style, check out https://attemptedmurder.uk/shortstories/7-little-grey-cells/. Some shameless plugs below…
And, if you want to get some behind-the-scenes looks at my creative process, and further elaborations on points I make in my blogs and reviews, https://www.patreon.com/stephenhenry is the place to look. Or, if you feel I deserve a coffee (I actually detest it and prefer tea) then go to https://ko-fi.com/stephenhenry. Or don’t. No pressure.