Warning: Mild spoilers follow for “Death and Other Details,” “Monsieur Spade,” “Criminal Record” and “The Woman in the Wall.”
Good news, mystery fans: We’re smack in the middle of what I’ve come to think of as Whodunit January, a month packed to the brim with TV sleuths. Besides the long-awaited fourth season of “True Detective,” this time with a female director and leads, there’s a deliciously wide range of crime stories and thrillers to splash around in, available in a variety of tones and styles.
If the luxe details and cozy reversals of “Only Murders in the Building” worked for you (even when the mysteries didn’t), you’ll probably enjoy Heidi Cole McAdams and Mike Weiss’ “Death and Other Details.” The stylish, 10-episode series premiered Jan. 16 on Hulu. Mandy Patinkin, always a delight, stars as Rufus Cotesworth, “the world’s greatest detective.” (You may see a pattern emerging here.) Violett Beane co-stars as Imogene Scott, a quick-witted blonde with a fantastic wardrobe. She has a bone to pick with Cotesworth, whom she first met as a child when he was hired to solve her mother’s murder. He never did. Imogene — now a spoiled and aimless adult — hangs out with the billionaire Collier family, who once employed her mother. She tags along when they rent a luxury cruise ship to close a deal with some Chinese investors for whom it turns out Cotesworth, now an alcoholic in reduced circumstances, is working private security. It is not, at least at first, a happy reunion.
“Death” has a few twists too many, but it’s a pleasant and surprisingly digestible watch despite some formally complicated flashbacks and an enormous cast. The sumptuous ship makes for a visually gratifying locked-room mystery, and Beane holds her own as Patinkin’s skeptical mentee and PI-in-training. Jere Burns puts in a memorable performance, as does “Only Murders” alum Linda Emond in her capacity as the formidably bureaucratic Agent Hilde Eriksen.
Also in the running for “prettiest mystery” is AMC Plus’s “Monsieur Spade.” Imagine a noir PI dropped into the world of the 2000 film “Chocolat.” That’s a rough approximation of the setup of Scott Frank and Tom Fontana’s curious sequel to “The Maltese Falcon,” which stars Clive Owen as Dashiell Hammett’s sleuth Sam Spade. Set in the picturesque French town of Bozouls, the series begins in 1955 with Spade trying — in comically broken French — to deliver a little girl named Teresa to her father at the request of her late mother, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. (Hammett fans will recognize the latter as the femme fatale from “Maltese Falcon.”)
It goes poorly. Teresa’s father is a malefactor named Philippe Saint Andre (Jonathan Zaccaï) whose whereabouts his own mother claims not to know, and when Spade seeks help from local chief of police Patrice Michaud (Denis Ménochet, extraordinarily good), Michaud advises him to leave town. Ever the contrarian, Spade instead meets and marries a rich, vivacious vineyard owner (Chiara Mastroianni), puts the girl in a convent and settles into a comfortable retirement in the French countryside.
The series picks up eight years later, with Spade’s wife dead and Teresa (Cara Bossom) a sullen teenager. Spade, now fluent in French, lives a becalmed existence as a faintly depressed widower. His days consist of nude swims in his pool, dead-end flirtations with a local club owner (Louise Bourgoin), spats with his disapproving housekeeper (Clotilde Mollet) and halfhearted attempts to quit smoking. A series of incidents yanks him out of retirement. These include the return of Teresa’s shady father Philippe, a mass murder at Teresa’s convent and the arrival of a garrulous young artist (Matthew Beard) who wants to paint his vineyard.
Despite its brevity, “Monsieur Spade” lets its world unfurl slowly, with continental ease. There’s lots of pleasantly acrimonious banter, much of it in French. Plenty of unexpected humor, too. Owen’s take on Spade conjures a little of Bogart’s world-weary charisma without ever quite seeming to imitate him (or resorting to his trademark monotone). The series sometimes underlines how comparatively innocent (compared to present-day crime) the so-called “hard-boiled” stuff really was. At one point Spade — who has been exchanging barbs with Teresa’s father over the phone — is halfway through a put-down when a gunshot rings out on the other end. “Philippe?” a nonplussed Owen says, packing the moment with shock and concern but also — and mainly — frustration at the undelivered insult.
There’s a serious side, too, of course; the show incorporates the bloody aftermath of World War II (as the French dealt with Nazi collaborators), the horrors of colonialism, the Algerian war and the rise of a far-right terrorist fringe determined to keep Algeria part of France.
Uneven but fun to watch, “Monsieur Spade” eventually yields a suitably baffling ending, delivered via an exceptional cameo I’d hate to ruin. The show’s main flaw is its MacGuffin, which turns out to be not an object (like the falcon) but rather a small and terrified Algerian boy (Ismaël Berqouch) whom everyone, including the Vatican, is trying to kidnap. “What if the MacGuffin was human?” could have been (and should have been) the show’s most pressing question. But while “Monsieur Spade” occasionally tries to address it, the series collapses, by the end, into a narrower, more parochial sense of its stakes.
Those wanting a little more realism might turn to “Criminal Record,” the Apple TV Plus thriller starring Peter Capaldi and Cush Jumbo that premiered Jan. 10. Unglamorous in the extreme, the series explores the grubby gears of police bureaucracy — and the racist results they generate — through a psychodrama that develops between two detectives working for the Metropolitan police. That might sound predictable. The show is not.
The action begins when an anonymous caller claims that an innocent man is serving time for a murder her abusive boyfriend claims to have committed. The call, dismissed by many as a hoax, spurs rookie Detective Sergeant June Lenker (Jumbo) to track down the allegedly innocent convict, a man named Errol Mathis (Tom Moutchi), and the detective who obtained his confession, Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Hegarty (Capaldi). Her efforts to enlist Hegarty’s aid in determining whether a mistake was made backfire. The show escalates into a bizarre but compelling chess match between the grizzled White senior detective and the mixed-race newcomer determined to reopen the case he declared solved.
The core mystery of the series turns out not to be the murder the detectives are re-litigating. Nor is it whether racism contributes to unjust outcomes (the answer is yes). The question is, rather, whether Hegarty, the senior detective — surrounded as he is by racist peers and far-right subordinates and even would-be criminals who want to keep him happy — knows that the results he’s obtaining are tainted. “Criminal Record” turns out to be a targeted investigation of the contents of Daniel Hegarty’s soul.
While the show dutifully dedicates time and energy to the parties who matter — such as the innocent incarcerated man and his family — and addresses the ways racism and colorism further isolate officers of color, the meat of the story is the strange dynamic that develops between Lensker and Hegarty, who circle each other with a mix of hostility, distrust and real professional respect. Jumbo and Capaldi are powerhouses and the crackle of their work together here, much of which they refused to rehearse in advance, elevates a relatively simple question — is Hegarty a Nazi? — into something much murkier that could, at least in theory, allow for nuance.
Should you be in the mood for a sadder but bolder experiment, Showtime’s “The Woman in the Wall” premieres Jan. 21. The six-part miniseries, which first aired on BBC One in August, is a police procedural set in 2015 that lapses into horror whenever it slips into the sleep-starved perspective of its protagonist.
Lorna (Ruth Wilson), a woman in her forties, survived being sent (as a pregnant teenager) to one of the infamous Catholic-run Magdalene laundries where she was put to work, abused, and parted from her baby. A grouchy, unpredictable oddball with a “Joan of Arc haircut,” Lorna sleepwalks (and does worrying things when she does). When she goes to meet someone claiming to have information about what happened to her child, Lorna blacks out and wakes up at home, unaware of how she got there, and finds a blond woman lying on her floor, dead. She resolves to stay awake, dreading what else she might do if she lets herself sleep.
Meanwhile, a bright young detective named Colman Akande (Daryl McCormack) starts the series quibbling with his mother that the long-running TV series “Columbo” cannot qualify as a whodunit since you see, at the beginning, who did it. That cozy discussion (and loud hint) is interrupted by the murder of a priest in Dublin. Akande tracks the dead priest’s car to Lorna’s Irish town, Kilkinure — which happens to be home to a hitherto unrecognized “laundry,” to a former guard now working with police (Simon Delaney), and to several other women who were victimized there. When Lorna torches the dead priest’s car, Akande focuses his investigation on her. Lorna and the detective end up circling each other as Lorna doggedly tries to figure out what the dead woman knew about her child and Akade tries to sort Lorna’s eccentricity from her criminality — and ends up unearthing a much bigger and uglier conspiracy.
The experimental aspect concerns Wilson’s courage as a performer and creator Joe Murtagh’s refreshing but genuinely challenging lack of interest in making traumatized people palatable. Lorna starts off a little hard to take, but her reaction to the dead woman on the floor is a nightmare — for the viewer. She eventually smashes a wall in her house, laboriously shoves the body into the hole, and seals it back up. It’s horrifying and detailed, a point of no return for any protagonist, and it happens extremely early in the series. One of the meta-mysteries that emerges for audiences to solve is therefore technical — and personal: How can I, the viewer, keep following a protagonist who does such a thing? I won’t say more for fear of getting deeper into spoiler territory.
On the sillier end of things — if you’re partial to cartoons, you’re in luck. Having spent most of last year revisiting and revising his role in defining the “alpha” man, Jon Hamm begins 2024 voice-acting as “the world’s most smartest detective” — a schlubby fellow named Marvin Flute — in “Grimsburg,” an animated sitcom on Fox.
For those who prefer their crime shows with a pinch of the supernatural, AMC Plus’s “Sanctuary: A Witch’s Tale” serves up a mystery in which, when a teenage rugby player dies in an apparent accident, suspicion falls on a (literal) witch.
We’re seven shows in. That’s a ton of crime. A heap of mysteries. A cornucopia of heavily psychologized, handsomely narrated death. Enough to make “Poker Face,” which premiered around this same time last year, seem like a harbinger of the whodunit resurrection to come.
Believe it or not, there are even more. But also — surely — that’s enough?