Written by: Heidi Shepler | January 15th, 2024
Death and Other Details (Heidi Cole McAdams/Mike Weiss, 2024) 4 out of 5 stars*
The Golden Age of Detective Fiction is seeing a resurgence, both in direct adaptations (Kenneth Branagh’s 2022 Death on the Nile) and in homage, carrying all the same tropes and mystery “rules” into the present (Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, also from 2022). Heidi Cole McAdams and Wike Weiss’ Hulu series Death and Other Details is a fun, stylish example of the latter.
The action takes place on a magnificent, enormous ship called the Varuna, which seems to be roughly the size of the Titanic. It’s an old vessel that has been fully restored with antiques predating 1955; everything is antique, including (to some characters’ amusement) the glassware and towels. This setting serves four distinct purposes: first, it keeps the mid-century aesthetic of classic detective fiction, while allowing for modern costuming and cell phones; second, it indicates the extravagant, vulgar level of wealth of some of the main characters; third, there is a sharp divide between the haves and the have-nots, as the crew’s quarters are very different from the guests’; and finally, it keeps everyone trapped on a floating crime scene. The characters are unable to escape the danger, their own frivolous vices, of the increasing tensions with each other.
The main character is twenty-eight-year-old Imogene (Violett Beane, Flay). She is connected to the ultra-wealthy Collier family, the patriarch of whom rented the Varuna to celebrate his retirement. When Imogene was ten years old, her mother, who was a secretary for the Colliers, died in a car-bomb attack. The Colliers took Imogene in, and ostensibly made all their resources available to famed detective Rufus Cotesworth (Mandy Patinkin, Before You Know It), in the hope that he could solve the crime.
He did not. He worked the case for several months, during which time he developed a paternal bond with Imogene, who was the only witness to her mother’s murder. But eventually he left with the case unsolved, which was profoundly traumatic for her. Almost twenty years later, she harbors a deep well of bitterness toward Rufus, and a chip on her shoulder about the Colliers’ and associates’ wealth. Rufus’ star, meanwhile, has dimmed: he is no longer working glamourous cases and is instead drinking heavily and recounting stories of his past exploits to anyone who will listen.
The two are unwillingly reunited aboard the Varuna. Imogene is a guest of the Colliers and Rufus is working security for a family the Colliers are trying to close a business deal with. When Imogene plays a prank on one of the Colliers’ other guests and he turns up murdered only a few hours later, she is forced to accept Rufus’ help to avoid becoming the prime suspect. Thus, the game is set.
Death and Other Details is visually lush, with a sophisticated color palette, excellent costuming, and impeccable set design. The cinematography also feeds the uncertainty of the mystery. In one scene, Imogene tries to recount where she put a room keycard. The camera first shows her putting it one place, but then she remembers that she put it somewhere else, and the scene changes, but both versions have the hazy, dream-like quality of unreliable memory. This is done without breaking the assumed rule that the narrator must not lie to the audience. Imogene isn’t lying, she just can’t remember, and therefore we can’t be certain, either.
Another very refreshing way Death and Other Details updates classic detective fiction is through its portrayal of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The show has a diverse cast, including characters that are white, Black, East Asian, and South Asian. All of the characters are suspects in the murder, because the victim irritated absolutely everyone on the day he died. But while all of the characters’ races and nationalities are acknowledged, none of the characters are portrayed as stereotypes or suspected because of their race or nationality. Likewise, there are same-sex relationships which fall prey to the same ups and downs as the other relationships. And the crew are individuals with intelligence and depth, not the classic incompetent servants. The ensemble cast is full of characters who are complex and not always sympathetic, but always extremely interesting.
Death and Other Details is a fun, tropey homage to a timeless genre. The twists are unpredictable but believable when they arrive, and the relationships are very well worth investing in. The acting is a treat to watch, with Mandy Patinkin and Lauren Patten (Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol with a Twist), especially, at their best.
*Starting in 2024, all Film Festival Today reviews will now be rated out of 5 stars, rather than the previous 4-star system.