It probably begins with a murder
August 23, 2018 8:38 AM   Subscribe

You know this type of narrative. Everyone holds a secret and is not who they seem. There are several deliciously intricate conspiracies (to gain wealth or power or love or revenge) underneath the surface. Unknown enemies and allies. Plot twists. Likely set in a castle or manor or court, or in organized crime. Most crucially, characters engage in battles of wits instead of battles of strength- the person who 'wins' in the end (if there are winners) is the person who is most socially or intellectually adept, not the best fighter. I have some examples under the fold; help me find more (in any type of narrative media- books, movies, games, etc).

The Departed
The Handmaiden
The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful

Varicella (Adam Cadre)
Umineko No Naku Koro Ni
Phoenix Wright, sort of- doesn't have that kind of 'intrigue', dark suspenseful atmosphere, but does nail the 'battle of wits' feeling

The Name of the Rose
Hamlet (I know it's a play but)
An Instance of the Fingerpost

TV shows:
Death Note, also sort of- I'm typically looking for stuff that doesn't hinge on a fantastic plot element, but this also nails the 'battle of wits' feeling
posted by perplexion to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
There's a great movie that's a spoof of this: Murder by Death.
posted by FencingGal at 8:42 AM on August 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

Dangerous Liasons
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:44 AM on August 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

The Gormenghast trilogy: Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone. Bonus: utterly splendid prose.
posted by flabdablet at 8:44 AM on August 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

The Man Who Was Sunday.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:47 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of the Vorkosigan books by Lois M Bujold meet these criteria: mysteries in closed societies and/or spaceships, secret identities, double agents, conspiracies, and everything boiling down to the battle of wits.
posted by Aravis76 at 8:51 AM on August 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

Conclave by Robert Harris is about the intrigues behind closed doors during the election of a new pope.
posted by Heloise9 at 8:53 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People by John Le Carre all fit this bill.

Deathtrap by Ira Levin is also a fun, clever version of this story. The movie features Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.
posted by brookeb at 9:03 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
posted by azalea_chant at 9:09 AM on August 23, 2018 [10 favorites]

Stone's Fall, also by Iain Pears.

Dead Again, starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh.
posted by holborne at 9:14 AM on August 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Miller's Crossing.
posted by oh pollo! at 9:16 AM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

Liar Game
posted by betweenthebars at 9:18 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I just finished The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, which kinda fits the bill, in a dark, rather gruesome, and somewhat fantastical way. So not spot on what you're looking for, but a good read.
posted by Grither at 9:20 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Usual Suspects. Even though Kevin Spacey yuck.
posted by lyssabee at 9:20 AM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

Three more movies:
Gosford Park (worth watching for Stephen Fry as the bumbling inspector)
Ten Little Indians (classic adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None).
Murder on the Orient Express (another classic adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel). I'm linking to the 1974 version, which is the only one I can vouch for - amazing all-star cast.
posted by FencingGal at 9:22 AM on August 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Jennifer's Egan's novel The Keep is sort of a self-conscious play on this. It's very good.
posted by neroli at 9:23 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Clue, the comedic movie. Your question describes it perfectly and apparently there are alternate endings depending on which version you are seeing.
posted by blackjack514 at 9:25 AM on August 23, 2018 [7 favorites]

Related previous Ask

Also, nobody's mentioned Game of Thrones yet??
posted by phoenixy at 9:29 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

tv shows: Broadchurch, The Killing of Rosie Larson.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:32 AM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Wolf Hall.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:36 AM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

The first two seasons of Netflix HOUSE OF CARDS is the answer to this question, bonus points for the original BBC House of Cards and the book it was based on, written by someone who served under Thatcher.

If you know a bit about history in the 70’s and 80’s, holy shit was that bbc series shady. The understated brilliance of it all. The first 2 seasons of the Netflix series was a sensation at the time, and I remember acquaintances in Washington telling me that’s not how our government really works and I was like, “You are lying to yourself!”

Prescient. Hold your nose over Spacey, or just enjoy him playing himself. Both viewing experiences work.
posted by jbenben at 9:51 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Doesn't check all the boxes, but Midsomer Murders (British TV show, viewable on Netflix or Britbox in the USA) is built around the "everyone in this small country village has a secret" idea.

The mysteries are played out in a nice long fashion, although the police always win which may or may not be what you want in an ending.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:53 AM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Julia Roberts-Clive Owen film Duplicity.

The BBC adaptation of I, Claudius (although I believe that goes in the "no winners" category).
posted by praemunire at 9:55 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Traitor Baru Cormorant
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:56 AM on August 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

book series: Pendergast series by Lincoln & Child
posted by alchemist at 10:01 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sunburn by Laura Lippmann is a great example of this.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 10:01 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Side Effects
Intolerable Cruelty
posted by rollick at 10:04 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

You might consider the film which was the inspiration for The Departed, Infernal Affairs.

Other possibilities: Sleuth (1972).
Frost/Nixon (2008) might meet your criteria, its about the real life interviews of Nixon by journalist David Frost, where one is trying to salvage his reputation and the other trying for a confession.
Possibly Fracture (2007), an intellectual possible murderer (Anthony Hopkins) trying to outwit a detective (Ryan Gosling).
American Hustle (2013) is a strong ensemble piece with different characters with different motivations using all sorts of leverage to get one over on each other.
posted by biffa at 10:14 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

If ridiculous nonsense is okay to include, this is pretty much the whole thing with Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Both of these were book series before they were television shows, although the TV version is probably more popular in both cases.
posted by something something at 10:24 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

The movie Red Sparrow starring Jennifer Lawrence is like this.
posted by ejs at 10:35 AM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Doesn’t tick every box, but the boxes it does tick are in bright red neon... Mike Nichols’ 2004 film Closer.
posted by jbenben at 10:55 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Night Manager miniseries (and, I'm assuming, the book on which it was based) had a lot of great spy/organized crime thriller elements and also an AMAZING cast. The ending felt a little rushed to me, which was a bit of a letdown after all the amazing tension they'd built up, but it really was fantastic up until then.

I've never read the graphic novel, but Atomic Blonde was also loads of fun to watch, featured some awesome spy movie twists, and had the most incredible soundtrack. Having it set in Berlin in November 1989 also added some amazing tension and set pieces. It's definitely a kick ass action flick, but it is also heavy on the spy-versus-spy battle of wits. Bonus: it definitely begins with a murder.
posted by helloimjennsco at 11:00 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's not an exact fit, but Inside Man might hit some of the notes you're looking for.
posted by Lexica at 11:04 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

also, the "Ocean's" 11, 12, 13 series of films
posted by alchemist at 11:37 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Last of Sheila is pretty much exactly what you're looking for.
posted by googly at 11:46 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Goblin Emperor is an unusually moral, optimistic version of this story.
posted by Iridic at 12:09 PM on August 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

There are come nifty Korean TV dramas that might suit your interests. Yi San, Jumong, and Dae Jang Geum. They were quite popular and crazy watchable with lots of interesting characters and intrigue fit into clear longish storylines. I guess, for comparison, you could liken them to being a bit like a gentler, soapier Game of Thrones minus the fantastic elements and where the story follows the same main character until the end.

Johnie To's crime movies are hella fun, Election, Triad Election, PTU, Exiled, and if any of them strike your fancy, the rest of his filmography is great too. He's both an exciting visual director and has some really enjoyable stories and characters that often bend genre expectations.

There are lot's of really good Japanese movies based around cops and the Yakuza. Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine and Fireworks/Hana-bi among others. Kinji Fukasaku's (The director of Battle Royale), Battles without Honor and Humanity later followed by a three part series, New Battles of Honor and Humanity, and Yakuza Graveyard and Cops vs Thugs. Hideo Gosha's Onimasa, and The Wolves.
Some of the characters aren't necessarily the brightest, so perhaps more a test of wits and will at their lower limits than anything remotely Holmes/Moriarity-like and sometimes plenty violent as well.

There are also some US Political thrillers/conspiracy films like Chinatown and The Manchurian Candidate that might suit your interests as tests of wits against the shadowy unknown.
The Parallax View
The Conversation
The Quiet American
Cutter's Way
Three Days of the Condor

If John LeCarre (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) does fit your criteria, many of his books have been made into films. Among others,
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
The Russia House
The Constant Gardener (which was directed by Fernando Meirelles, who also directed City of God, another movie that might kinda fit made in Brazil.)

The Long Good Friday is a British gangster movie that seems as if it might be in the right vein.

Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower is lovely looking excess that might fit. Other of his films might as well, like Raise the Red Lantern.

If you're interested in things based on or around real life events, then
United Red Army
Baader Mienhof Complex
Mesrine(A two part movie)
Army of Shadows (A number of other Melville movies also may fit your interests like Le Cercle Rouge.)
Le Trou
A Man Escaped

I could add more, but I'm sure I've gone overboard already and while I would say these films fit what I take as the core of your criteria, I could be wrong and they might not fit exactly what you're looking for. I also feel a bit bad for not branching out to list more films with women, but most I knew that were good didn't quite seem to fit the criteria for being outside the usual genres> Some movies like The Portrait of a Lady might fit, but I wasn't sure if that was at the heart of what you're looking for.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:37 PM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've been reading like crazy the last few months and I can think of several things I've read just recently that fit the bill. For instance, I just finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last night, and I think it'd fit this. You may also enjoy the Lincoln Lawyer books--most of them have these twisty little plots. The Eight would work. The Window would too. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of these except for #5 of the Lincoln Laywer books (Gods of Guilt) which I'd give probably a C.
posted by phunniemee at 1:53 PM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

A number of Agatha Christie Poirot novels have this format-ish, although it feels a bit formulaic now. Apart from 'Murder on the Orient Express' and 'And Then There Were None', 'Cards on the Table' is sort of like this, as is 'Curtain'. For adaptations for screen, the quintessential Poirot is David Suchet so if you can get hold of those you might like them.
posted by plonkee at 3:09 PM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Serial Box serial The Witch Who Came In From The Cold
posted by azalea_chant at 3:54 PM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Alfred Hitchcock programs are great for this kind of thing. One episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that stands out to me is "See the Monkey Dance"(because I just watched it), but many episodes of his shows are likely to have this flavour. I think Tales of the Unexpected did this from time to time as well.
posted by windykites at 7:55 AM on August 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

> The Man Who Was Sunday.

The Man Who Was Thursday. Sunday was his foe. Great story, though.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:05 AM on August 24, 2018

You might also enjoy Sarah Water’s Fingersmith, the book on which the movie The Handmaiden is based. (The movie follows many of the book’s core plot points faithfully but is even MORE twisty, if you can believe it. Also it’s set in Victorian England and wondering at how well the themes in the story translate into two such seemingly-disparate milieus was pretty interesting/fun if you like that sort of thing. Which I did.)

I also just finished reading Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon which has some of that same “everyone is not who they seem” feel threaded through the unfolding of the main mystery, both BECAUSE of the mystery and also because of the novel’s central scifi premise of “resleeving,” wherein personalities can be downloaded into new bodies and thus you really can’t always know who a person is inside, in the most literal sense. Brute force and Awesome Fighting Skills do make a difference but the “victory” is still a matter of outthinking the opposition. (I haven’t watched the Netflix adaption but I’m told they don’t totally track.)

And lastly, I think the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, fits this to a T. The others in the series have markedly different tones but that one is basically a long con/heist caper by a master thief and his crew, set in a wonderfully-detailed sort of pseudo-European (Venetian?) renaissance world. With a hint of magic. I thought it was excellent worldbuilding, though I should warn that that world is quite brutal at times.
posted by alleycat01 at 8:11 PM on August 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

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