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The Nollywood Mystery Thriller: Sometimes It’s Elementary, and Sometimes There’s None

The Nollywood Mystery Thriller: Sometimes It’s Elementary, and Sometimes There’s None

MYSTERYSUSPENSETHRILLER 2

The mystery genre requires a step-by-step layering of evidence, only somewhat contorted to create a sense of puzzlement. Nollywood’s offerings appear to swing either in the direction of obviousness… or towards total abstruseness...

By Victory Hayzard Solum

An old woman and her daughter who live on the fourth floor are the sole occupants of an apartment building. One night, neighbours and passersby are drawn to agonising screams emanating from the building, and force their way inside, accompanied by a police officer. Searching on arrival, they find the women murdered, their battered bodies at different areas of the building. The culprit(s), however, is nowhere to be found. The questions arise; who could have effected such a ghastly scene of violence against the women, and why? How did they escape when all points of egress were either locked or occupied by the neighbours? The year is 1841, and on the basis of these premises and the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Edgar Allan Poe ushers the Detective fiction genre into proper existence – the mystery genre had only been standing for slightly longer.

The mystery genre of storytelling nominally takes as its premise, the idea that crime, or other scenarios of a confounding nature, can be solved by carefully peeling back the layers of evidence to arrive at the truth. Originally labelled a story of ratiocination, The Murders at Rue Morgue contains a prologue where the author argues extensively for the superiority of analytical reasoning before buttressing his points with the unfolding narrative. It is, thus, an underlying feature of mystery – and most of its subgenres – that the mystery in question is tackled through processes that are mostly analytical, where premise leads unto conclusion, and evidence leads unto solution.

In its overlap with crime, suspense, and thriller genres, mystery titles produced across prose and cinematic media are almost innumerable. And it is a testament to the enduring appeal of the genre that the 1939 Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None, is listed among the top ten best-selling books of all time, and the detective, Sherlock Holmes, is one of Western fiction’s most enduring characters.

The Nigerian literary industry has seen successful mystery titles,  from Leye Adenle’s gritty 2016 take in Easy Motion Tourist to Tade Thompson’s Making Wolf published in 2015, to Toni Kan’s 2016 love letter to Lagos, The Carnivorous City. It is when we come to its cinematic offerings, however, that Nigerian mystery flounders.

Billed as a psychological thriller, Torn, the 2013 Moses Inwang-directed movie takes place under the pretext of an interrogation, and follows the event of an attempted murder.

Torn - Nollywood Mystery thriller - Afrocritik

In its gripping opening scene, Ovu (Iretiola Doyle) attempts to murder Nana by a public stabbing in broad daylight. She is, however, foiled and taken away by police officers on the scene. We are shocked to find upon interrogation that both women are best friends, with a longstanding relationship going back decades. Except, Ovu has decided to murder her best friend for having an affair with, and marrying her beloved husband, Olumide. The problem arises, however, when Nana presents her version of events, and it is she who is, in fact, married to Olumide. What’s more? Both women present pictures to back up their claims of marriage to the same man.

As, perhaps, the first Nollywood film to show how mental illness can alter one’s perception of reality, Torn succeeds in spades. However, once Olumide, the said husband, arrives on the scene, the matter of which of the two women is, in fact, his wife, becomes one of only a few questions, and once the troubling state of one character’s psyche is exposed, and very early on, Torn becomes one long road to a foreseen conclusion, bereft of any true surprises. Its quality as a puzzlement is thus diminished.

In the 2014 Kunle Afolayan-directed mystery thriller, October 1, Inspector Danladi Waziri (Sadiq Daba) arrives in the western Nigerian village of Akote from his home in northern Nigeria, on the instructions of the British colonial authorities. There have been two rape-murder incidents in quick succession in Akote. But with the handover to indigenous governance arriving in less than a month, the British authorities cannot afford to have such a blight on their record. Inspector Waziri is thus to solve the rape-murder incidences on or before Independence Day, October 1.

With chase sequences down winding village paths, and a clear ticking clock deadline, the spectacularly shot October 1 is a satisfying thriller which spotlights the rot of colonial leadership hidden behind its facade of propriety. It also dramatises the debilitating effects of the forced interaction of disparate peoples and cultures, along with its attendant paranoia and distrust. As the onscreen investigation moves from suspect to suspect, it becomes obvious that the movie thrives on a clear police procedure. However, the solution to the mystery presents itself, to the attentive viewer as a matter of fabric choices and colours, which is evident from the first scene of the movie. It becomes a question then if October 1 still qualifies as a whodunnit for the viewer or more of a whydunnit and howcatchem.

Two years after October 1, perhaps high off its commercial success, Kunle Afolayan hits us once again with The CEO. Here, five top executives of the telecommunications company, TransWire, are selected from across Africa for a bootcamp at a beach resort, where they vie for the position of CEO. However, death and calamity befall them one after the other, as they lose in a game of musical chairs overseen by the stoic Dr. Zimmerman (Angelique Kidjo), in a narrative device strikingly similar to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

The CEO offers us a treatise on the dog-eat-dog nature of the corporate world, along with a pseudo-warning about encroaching Asian interests in African corporations. We are treated to the wranglings of business executives in what amounts to a fight to the death, the majority of them with secrets and weaknesses capable of hampering their aspirations. But if October 1 was a tad obvious about the identity of its killer, The CEO shrouds its killer with motives far out of left field, with interests that never come into play until the grand reveal at the end. While one of the mystery genre’s ingenious rules is allowing the audience to meet the true culprit earlier on in the story, The CEO ensures that the viewer never gets a leg up, unless the mere presence of Asians at a beach resort is to be taken as evidence of sinister intent. This is quite a peculiar messaging.

Baba Risi’s face-me-I-face-you compound is a melting pot of characters from across disparate cultures and with contrasting interests. Things escalate into a hot mess when on sanitation day, the day set out for routine cleaning exercises, the corpse of a young man is discovered on the premises, and Police Inspectors Hassan and Stanley are brought in to investigate this apparent murder, in Seyi Babatope’s 2021 release, Sanitation Day.

Featuring the acting talents of Blossom Chukwujekwu, Elozonam, and Nse Ikpe-Etim amongst others, Sanitation Day presents itself as a mystery thriller, where the investigators must sort through an allotment of suspects, all with various motives and intents, for the identity of the murderer. Viewers are called to observe the contrasting temperaments of the investigators as well as their differences in tactics. But like a rude titillation, the audience is surprised to find that this is not a whodunnit, after all, but a heist movie, as Sanitation Day changes courses and abandons its premise abruptly in the final act.

More recently, in the 2023 Damola Ademola-directed mystery thriller, A Weekend to Forget, seven acquaintances, some of them with obvious grievances, hole up together for a weekend reunion. But things take a sudden turn for the nasty, when one of them, the daughter of a notorious mobster, winds up dead.

A Weekend to Forget serves up a satisfying thriller which keeps you in the grips of its fast pacing and turn-by-turn revelations as, in lieu of a detective, we are faced with accusations and counter-accusations by the suspects on their culpability for the murder. The film thrives in that the characters are given motives that aim to account for sufficient guilt in the murder. Where the film fails, however, is in the area of its casting, with a couple of actors putting up laughable performances, as well as a poor utilisation of certain characters. As to its credentials as a mystery, it falls to wonder whether the paper-thin motives ascribed to several of the characters are strong enough to misdirect the audience, and whatever punch the revelation packs, it does not lie in its capacity for surprise, but rather in the chill the culprit’s portrayal induces.

It can be noted, thus, that Nollywood’s offerings in the mystery genre are few and far between. This may be on account of the rigours required to create a mystery that is at once as entertaining as it is puzzling. Besides, it may be said that a mystery is only as strong or as good as its red herrings. 

Take the example of the 2019 Rian Johnson mystery thriller, Knives Out. Aged mystery author, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), is catered to by his faithful and diligent nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas). On the night of his 85th birthday party, Marta injects Rian with a lethal dose of morphine, after mistaking it for ketorolac. Unable to find the required antidote, Harlan comes up with a plan to save his nurse from the complications of an investigation into his death; he creates her a feasible alibi, then slits his throat to rule his death as a suicide. But in the complex ingeniousness of this plan and all the excitement of the investigation which follows regardless, we do not realise that we have been pointed in the wrong direction by this seeming firsthand reveal of the culprit. We never remember to ask; why would an otherwise competent nurse with years of experience mistake morphine for ketorolac, when she is not under any state of inebriation?

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The construction of the puzzles in a mystery thriller requires some level of proficiency in analysis and critical thought. But this is not a skill often exercised by the average Nigerian whose response to most scenarios is a resort to lazy stereotypes or non-answers. Faced with the death of a wealthy man, even in the presence of telling medical records, one might hear the charges, “his wife killed him” or “village people were after his wealth”.

One might wonder, what do mystery novels and movies have to do with the general intellect of a people? The astuteness or cynicism of this line of questioning is undercut by the revelation in the book, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, by  John E. Douglas, a retired FBI agent, and Mark Olshaker. In it, the writers reveal that the real-life behavioural analysis developments of the FBI and most other crime detection agencies were inspired by the famous detectives of mystery fiction, C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, etc, by adopting most of their modes of deduction. Art informs life.

This contrasts the brutal techniques employed by members of the Nigerian Police Force which renders a person guilty until proven innocent. This lack of refinement and investigative rigour might be an offshoot of a failure in the aspects of critical thinking and analysis, amongst other things. And Nollywood’s failings in the mystery genre might just be another symptom.

Another related aspect might be what the average Nigerian includes in the scope of reality. In the aforementioned The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Edgar Allan Poe has the detective character, Dupin, utter these lines when faced with a room with seemingly impossible routes of escape; “It is not too much to say that neither of us believe in praeternatural events. Madame and Mademoiselle L’Espanaye were not destroyed by spirits. The doers of the deed were material, and escaped materially.”

The average Nigerian does believe in preternatural events, and faced with such a room as Dupin was, will include the possibility that the culprits were, in fact, immaterial, and escaped immaterially. This might be evidenced in the fact that one of the first Nollywood film series to deal with crime deterrence, Issakaba, featured not characters who pursued criminal investigations with procedural or logical deductions, but ones who waited around to storm robbery scenes, relying on their spiritual fortification against bullets, and their ability to pull disappearing armed robbers out of the firmament, before proceeding to extract the truth from them using charms akin to comic book character, Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. It will not be out of place to situate the Issakaba film series in the superhero film genre rather than in the genre of crime/mystery thriller. I am yet tempted to add that Superman, the quintessential superhero, sometimes uses skills of deduction in his investigation of wrongdoing, and that Batman is also referred to as The World’s Greatest Detective.

Issakaba_Poster - Afrocritik

The mystery genre requires a step-by-step layering of evidence, only somewhat contorted to create a sense of puzzlement. Nollywood’s offerings appear to swing either in the direction of obviousness as with October 1 and A Weekend to Forget, or towards total abstruseness as in The CEO. In the strangest of moments, sometimes, said offerings will abandon all pretences to mystery altogether, as observed in Sanitation Day.

Whatever the source of these failures, the mystery genre offers exquisite delights as a source of entertainment, and there is nothing more satisfactory than discovering that one has either been right or wrong about the clues all along, while acknowledging that the filmmaker has done their due diligence in creating this artistic object of confoundment. It is thus worthy of commendation that, at least, as recently as 2023, we saw one more attempt at surmounting the hurdles of the genre. One hopes, however, that Nollywood is not dissuaded from the attempt by criticism, and that even more attempts will be made with increasing devotion, rigour, and intellectualism, as the industry soars on towards a sustained and certifiable artistic competence.

Victory Hayzard Solum is a freelance writer with an irrepressible passion for the cinematic arts. Here he explores the sights, sounds, and magic of the shadow-making medium and their enrichment of the human experience. A longstanding ghostwriter, he may have authored the last bestselling novel you read.

Cover Photo: Almost An Author

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