Doctor Who: Short Trips: The Mistpuddle Murders – Narrated & Performed by Sarah Sutton, Written by Simon A. Forward & Directed by Lisa Bowerman – Download (Big Finish)
This world is divided into two kinds of people. People who read the stories of Beatrix Potter and go ‘Awww,’ and people who read the stories of Beatrix Potter and want to claw their own eyes out while simultaneously giving each and every cutesy-wutesy properly-dressed little fluffball a right good drubbing.
Simon A Forward, writer of The Mistpuddle Murders, might yet fall into either camp, but here he contrives a story which smashes talking, properly-dressed human-sized woodland creatures together with a touch of biomechanics and a heaping helping of the likes of Agatha Christie or The Midsomer Murders (from which the title seems gloriously stolen and twisted), to give us murder among the cutesy-wutesies.
Not just murder, as it turns out, but rather a cunning, devious murder, with Tegan and Nyssa playing Poirot or Chief Inspector Barnaby, gathering a roomful of furry, flappy and prickly suspects and reconstructing the reality of boiling passions and tensions among them, leading up to the murder.
It’s very much a Doctor-lite story, and it doesn’t stray far beyond the tight, claustrophobic, twitchy-nosed remit it sets itself, but there’s tremendous fun to be had here, with Sarah Sutton giving the reading a headlong run as she delivers not only Nyssa but a not-half-bad and likely-to-get-her-glowered-at Tegan, as well as the full range of cosy-crime stereotypes – the timid village lady, the bumptious military man, the blinking academic or scientist etc – all within the cute-creature concept.
From Beatrix Potter to Alison Uttley, to Wind in the Willows, to Rupert the Bear and Paddington Bear and onward, children’s fiction is littered with anthropomorphic animals. Simon Forward takes us beyond the cute, to give us a laugh while examining what it would be like if animals really had human characteristics.
In a village seemingly created or at least populated by author and bio-engineer Lyndsay Wood, the animals are particularly human – there are burglars…burgling, clandestine affairs to keep quiet, dark double-dealings and seething resentments, all among the fluffy folk. Wood herself has passed on – and who, retrospectively, can say whether that was all it seems? – but her cottage has been bequeathed to Ginger Hopkins, smart bio-bunny of the parish.
The Doctor has gone bounding ahead to meet the multi-talented Ms Wood, unaware of her premature demise. Nyssa and Tegan, in an effort to catch him up, almost run over the hedgehog Professor Pricklethwart with their car. Concerned they’ve turned him into roadkill, they take him to the nearest cottage they can find, and meet Ginger, who offers them help, tea and biscuits.
Minutes later, Ginger Hopkins lies dead in her chair.
Is there bryony in the biscuit barrel? Cyanide in the sugar bowl? Or is something altogether darker going on in the village and its surrounding woodlands?
Without the mysteriously absent Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa investigate – Nyssa analysing the body of the bio-engineered bunny and the toxin that undoubtedly killed her, and Tegan…well, being Tegan.
But who among the locals has the motive for murder?
Colonel Fortingbrush, the fox with a penchant for grouse-shooting?
Professor Pricklethwart, the scientist who wouldn’t say boo to a goose if there happened to be one?
Miss Tabitha Nutkins, the squirrel who keeps herself to herself – or does she?
Reverend Brockley, the badger keen to minister to his flock?
Or Miss Felicity Nightheart, the bat with a very precise sweet ‘tooth’?
It could be any of them – but who has abandoned the morality with which they were written and bio-engineered?
It’s all gloriously tongue in animal cheek, this story, but Forward does his job with care – he creates a murder mystery with motive, complication, misdirection, touches of darkness and an unusual problem, to which the Doctor, emerging when most of the hard work’s already been done, provides a rather straightforward solution – though whether he actually does or not is another strand of philosophical pondering altogether.
It probably shouldn’t work, this smashing together of anthropomorphic animals and cosy crime. Forward almost dances you through it though – clue by clue, motive by motive, suspect by suspect, ending with perhaps the best image of Tegan you’ll have had in a while, and the Doctor throwing in a dark dilemma: if you know you’re a created creature, where does your morality lie? With your creator’s example, or in your own self-determination? Do the animals of Lyndsay Wood have free will? And if they do, where does the animal end and the human begin?
The Mistpuddle Murders is terrific fun with a thought or two provoked at the end, just to give you something to ponder after you finish it. With his previous Short Trip, Mel-Evolent twisting Disney, and this story taking the traditions of anthropomorphic animal stories and cosy villain crime novels and smashing them together till they blend, Simon A Forward’s becoming a go-to writer for pithy social and philosophical shenanigans, but always with a perfectly Doctor Who-appropriate story underneath. Get yourself The Mistpuddle Murders today – it’s the right thing to do. Tony Fyler