In The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Sherlock Holmes quoted Shakespeare and declared: “The game is afoot!” Meanwhile, the master creator of ‘locked room’ mysteries, John Dickson Carr, wrote a classic essay on detective fiction called The Grandest Game in the World. And both SS Van Dine and Father Ronald Knox famously compiled lists of ‘rules’ that must be followed if detective stories are to ‘play fair’.
No genre is more of a game than the detective story, challenging its audience to lean in and look closely, keeping sharp-eyed watch over every detail and participating actively in piecing together the puzzle. But what has almost always proven tricky is making this game accessible for younger viewers. Mysteries pitched at family audiences need to adopt a rather delicate balance between clarity and hammering a honking great beacon onto every clue.
The little miracle of The InBESTigators is in how well it walks this tightrope. Netflix’s series, co-produced with the Australian Broadcast Corporation and Screen Australia, was created by Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope – also known as Gristmill, the actor-writer-director-producers behind hit sitcoms such as Upper Middle Bogan, Back in Very Small Business and Little Lunch.
It’s the last of those – a schoolyard comedy for and about kids, also on Netflix – that has the most in common with The Inbestigators. What Little Lunch didn’t have, however, was the mystery plotting.
And it didn’t have Maudie Miller.
Maudie (Anna Cooke) is an instant-classic character, a 10-year-old puzzle prodigy who comes in through the classroom window and solves her first lateral thinking puzzle before even appearing on screen. She’s immediately pitched as a Holmes-ish eccentric – her first appearance ends with another character asking “What just happened?” – but the show doesn’t wait long to start letting us know more about what makes her tick.
Indeed, the four lead characters, who come together in the first episode to form the improbable-but-delightful InBESTigators detective agency, are well drawn and beautifully complementary. There’s Ezra (Aston Droomer), who likes tech and has an entrepreneurial spirit, as well as a charming relationship with his little sister, Poppy; there’s Kyle (Jamil Smyth-Secka), who isn’t in a hurry to think too deeply, has energy to burn, and who is effortlessly warm and disarming; and there’s Ava (Abby Bergman), who brings the most emotional intelligence and sensitivity into the mix, going some way to offsetting Maudie’s more brusque behaviour.
Casting this quartet of pint-sized private eyes wouldn’t have been easy, but each of them is comfortably up to the task, even when taking turns to host through the framing device of to-camera vlogs. Maybe these are something like Doctor Watson’s biography of Holmes, but more importantly, they’re a wonderful device to replace what could have been clunky exposition with lovely comedy bits and up-close, intimate character work – and they really keep things zipping along.
The series is packaged as 10 separate 30-minute episodes on Netflix, but this is a red herring: in truth, this is a 20-part series comprised of 15-minute mysteries, jammed together in pairs. These tightly-woven plots give each story a sleek shape, but many of their beats also pack emotional resonance, or hit the audience hard on their funny bones. This is a crime show – albeit one with crimes at the cosiest, gentlest end of the scale – that makes it a priority to be tolerant and open-minded about how people make mistakes and find themselves doing wrong.
Even if you don’t have kids who are too young for Columbo or too modern and cynical for Jonathan Creek, and you’re just looking to play along with The Grandest Game by yourself, there’s a lot to love in The InBESTigators. Aside from the annoyingly overenthusiastic musical stings, which you quickly learn to ignore, the show is nicely crafted, makes a lot of its modest budget and focuses all of its efforts on storytelling. Fully recommended.
The InBESTigators: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.