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Sleuths, Spies and Sorcerers: Andrew Marr's Paperback Heroes

Andrew Marr deconstructs detective fiction, fantasy epics and spy novels. He unpicks their conventions to show how these books keep us turning the page

About the series

In this three-part series, Andrew Marr explores the works of George RR Martin, Agatha Christie, John le Carré and others as he deconstructs three of the most popular genres of best-selling fiction: detective stories, fantasy epics, and spy thrillers.

In the past, genre fiction was looked down on as low-rent lit. But not anymore. The best of these books are intricately constructed: powered by plot and narrative, they are page-turners capable of conveying big ideas. No longer the embarrassing cousin of literary fiction, genre fiction is now considered clever and cool, not to mention intelligent and well-written literature.

What these genres share is that they rely on a set of rules to tell their stories. At one level, these conventions provide a comforting reassurance to readers but the rules also present the skillful writer with a set of parameters that can be twisted, subverted, or reinvented with fiendish ingenuity.  We hear from Neil Gaiman, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and Frederick Forsyth who let us into the tricks of their craft, and reveal how they keep us compulsively turning the pages.

To find out more about this series, you can go to the BBC programme page.

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

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A pair of glasses with a streak of blood splattered on them. In their lenses, the reflection of two people fighting can be seen, and one of them is holding a knife in a stabbing motion.

Create your perfect "whodunit"

Could you give Miss Marple or Poirot a run for their money? Answer our quiz questions to find out your perfect whodunit plot and which crime fiction writer this matches.

1. Choose a crime

  • A: Dozens of teenaged girls are going missing around the country. The authorities think they are runaways but then one is found murdered.
  • B: Ten people are lured to an island under different pretexts. One by one they are bumped off.
  • C: A male corpse, the victim of poisoning, is found in a room in an abandoned house.

2. Who investigates?

An illustration depicting the shape of a stereotypical "inspector" figure, holding a magnifying glass
  • A: Two police profilers.
  • B: Two Scotland Yard officials.
  • C: A consulting detective with some odd personal habits.

3. Who is the murderer?

A silhouette of an unidentifiable person with a knife raised above their head
  • A: A man with a pronounced similarity to a popular presenter recently convicted of paedophilia, necrophilia and other unsavoury habits.
  • B: A retired judge with a lust for blood.
  • C: A Protestant hunter.

What are your clues?

  • A: The murderer’s identity is initially an outrageous theory by a police officer. As his background is investigated, the murder’s guilt becomes clear.
  • B: A bottle containing a letter written by the killer.    
  • C: The German word for ‘revenge’ is scrawled on the wall where the victim is discovered.

And the ending?

A chalk drawing on a blackboard of a man in a tie. He has a sheet of paper in front of him, a pen in his hand, and a number of question marks above his head.
  • A: Will make you question the justice system, the establishment and your own safety.
  • B: Will make you sigh with relief that the killer only chose victims who were themselves morally reprehensible.
  • C: Will make you roll your eyes when the wrong people get the credit for solving the murder.

You chose...

Mostly As:

Your whodunit resembles Val McDermid’s 1997 novel, Wire in the Blood, her story of the murderous activities of a famous charity worker and media darling. Val had cut her teeth as a journalist and dramatist before turning her hand to novel writing. Her first successful novel was Report for Murder: The First Lindsay Gordon Mystery in 1987.

Mostly Bs

Your whodunit has a lot in common with Agatha Christie’s And then there were None. This was originally serialised in The Daily Express in 1939. The book was originally called Ten Little Niggers after the American rhyme of the same name – a copy of which hangs in the bedroom of each of the victims. This was amended variously to Indians or Soldiers until it was given its current title in the eighties.

Mostly Cs

Your whodunit shares its themes with A Study in Scarlett by Arthur Conan Doyle. Written when Doyle was a stripling of twenty-seven, this was Sherlock’s first introduction to the public. The author received only £25 for publication in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887.

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