Death and Other Details borrows from Christie’s clever tropes: a mysterious murder in luxurious surroundings, a group of morally suspect characters, and a genius detective to solve it all.
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ONE OF MY first memories of being consumed by the need to finish a book in one sitting was reading an Agatha Christie mystery from my grandfather’s alphabetically arranged set. For me, the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries have never been dazzling in their resolution but rather the result of a dogged attention to details. It is no wonder that their recent big screen outings — A Death on the Nile, and A Haunting in Venice (based on the book Hallowe’en Party) — despite their ensemble star casts were dull and unremarkable. Hulu’s Death and Other Details, streaming on Disney+ Hotstar in India, obviously heavily borrows from Christie’s crafted, clever tropes in her Poirot series: a mysterious murder takes places in luxurious surroundings, a group of morally suspect characters and a genius detective to solve it all. And unlike its movie brethren, it actually manages to be funny in parts — another key element of Christie’s many mysteries.
In Death and Other Details, “the world’s greatest detective” Rufus Cotesworth is played by Mandy Patinkin (of Homeland fame). In every sentence, Patinkin’s (or is it Cotesworth’s?) speech pattern fluctuates — never allowing us to quite place him in the world. Over the three released episodes so far, I’ve come to read it as an affectation that works — although it will annoy you in the premiere episode for sure. As is the case with these kinds of mysteries, Cotesworth used to be good but now he’s relying on his reputation. At the moment, he’s sozzled all the time on Cutty Sark and has engaging dinner party stories to regale his fellow diners with. But he’s on this luxurious liner called the SS Varuna working security for the Chuns, a Chinese billionaire family, who are in the process of finalising a major deal with the shady Collier family. Suddenly, there’s a murder by harpoon in a locked room and all the skeletons begin to tumble out of the closet.
In case this premise wasn’t exciting enough: Cotesworth knows the Colliers. He previously failed to solve the mystery behind the death of a much-loved employee of the Colliers; the victim’s daughter Imogene Scott (played by Violett Beane) hasn’t forgiven Cotesworth for abandoning her mother’s case. Obviously, Scott ends up playing second fiddle to Cotesworth helpfully annotated by Patinkin’s voiceover: “You’ll never succeed with just one pair of eyes. That’s why I always work with an assistant.” These kinds of throwaway lines that underscore the narrative action in the series work at heightening the humour of these scenes. They also pay direct homage to the structure of the mystery novel format.
With the ‘den-ners’ chosen, the cat-and-mouse game begins. There’s an obvious “eat-the-rich” element to this series — a trend that could be traced to HBO’s White Lotus and Succession. The rich on the upper decks are corrupt/bankrupt billionaires, wily lawyers, TikTok influencers, and a kingmaking political priest, besides the Chuns and the Colliers. On the lower decks are the quarters of the ship’s staff, who are mostly members of the tight-lipped Goh family, shady security guards, and Sunil Bhandari (played by Rahul Kohli) — the owner of the SS Varuna. As with Christie’s mysteries, here too, everyone is a suspect till they are proven innocent. Cotesworth and Scott switch between being intrepid interrogators to a twosome whispering in dark corners. However, the motives they’ve hinted at in the first three episodes don’t have enough of a bite, and perhaps, there might not be enough of a payoff.
But, as I learned a long time ago, reading an Agatha Christie mystery isn’t about silly things like motive and means; the crime in question could have been caused by any number of reasons. You’ve just got to pick one. Along the way though, as Cotesworth says in this series, “If you want to solve a crime, any crime, you must first learn to see through the illusion.” So if you look past the illusion of the murder mystery, Death and Other Details remains a show that’s invested in testing the relationships between people during their hardest times. And I’ll always tune in for that.