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Robert Thorogood On Death In Paradise And A Murder Mystery In Marlow


Novelist and TV scriptwriter Robert Thorogood talks to Rebecca Pitcairn about Death in Paradise and why he chose his Buckinghamshire home town as the backdrop for his latest cosy crime mystery

What does Marlow have in common with Guadeloupe? For Robert Thorogood, the small town on the edge of the Thames in Buckinghamshire and the collection of French islands in the Caribbean both provide the perfect backdrop for a good murder mystery. 

Robert, who has lived in Marlow for almost 10 years with his wife, radio broadcaster Katie Breathwick, their two teenage sons and whippets Wally and Evie, is the writer and creator of the hit BBC One television show Death in Paradise.

The family-friendly detective crime series, which has been entertaining audiences across the globe since 2011 and began its 12th series in January 2023, is now shown in over 200 countries around the world and is one of the BBC’s biggest commercial successes. But it took Robert, who went to Cambridge University and was part of the Footlights ensemble with David Mitchell, Robert Webb and Oscar-winner Olivia Colman, years of hard graft and disappointment before he got his big break. 

Robert Thorogood In Front Of The Marlow Bookshop
Robert Thorogood in front of Marlow Bookshop

“As a screenwriter, you’d have good years and then really bad years, but it was completely piecemeal, you couldn’t make any plans on it – it was really hard,” remembers the 51-year-old, who worked as a secretary in London to supplement his screenwriting income before his big break. “So, following 16 years of really scraping the barrel, it went from 0 to 100 pretty much overnight.”

The popularity of Death in Paradise not only enabled Robert to finally earn a decent, regular scriptwriter’s wage, but it also gave him the opportunity to follow his dream of becoming a novelist. “Novels have always been my first love, particularly murder mystery,” he says. “I’ve loved it my whole life, ever since I read my first Agatha Christie novel, Peril at End House, when I was ten.” 

Robert’s first four books follow Death in Paradise’s original on-screen detective, DI Richard Poole (played by Ben Miller), in a spin-off series, which sees the detective tackle yet more murders on the fictional Caribbean island of Sainte Marie.

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“I was not a very successful teenager when it came to academics and I didn’t really do well at English so I thought ‘I’ve got to learn how to write and how to write murder mysteries’, which sounds absurd when I’d written them for TV but it is very different,” Robert explains. “Because I knew the Death in Paradise characters inside out, I thought that if I do a DI Poole mystery, at least I’ll know the setting, the characters and the dynamics.” 

But the Brits love nothing more than a good murder mystery and so it was somewhat inevitable that Robert might one day bring murder a little closer to home – and he landed it right on his doorstep. 

The Marlow Murder Club series follows 77-year-old Judith Potts, who lives on her own in a faded mansion just outside Marlow, keeping herself busy setting crosswords for The Times newspaper and taking the occasional dip in the Thames. When one night while out swimming she witnesses the murder of her neighbour across the river, it sparks a series of events that see no-nonsense Judith joined by two other local women – Suzie, a dog walker, and the vicar’s wife, Becks – to try and solve the mystery of ‘whodunnit’. 

“Marlow is the perfect place for the style of murder mystery I like because, on the surface, it’s quite posh, it has bunting, Michelin-starred restaurants and a beautiful church it just looks so smart. Then you peel away at the layers of all that pretention and reveal that actually everyone has a dark heart of murder within,” Robert explains. “That’s what Agatha Christie was so great at doing, she’d take you to a very smart country house and show all of these people who you thought of as being your betters, but then you’d discover, during the course of the book, that they were much worse than all of us.” 

While the main protagonists fighting crime in Death in Paradise have all been men (alongside Ben Miller, the lead detective has been played by Kris Marshall, Ardal O’Hanlon and Ralf Little), Robert says it was important for his Marlow-based sleuths to be women and drew on characteristics of his own family members to create his new team of crime fighters.

“I’d been in this world of male detectives for so long and I just wanted to do something that was far more conversational,” he explains. “I wanted to do a love letter to all these wonderful women who helped raise me. From my mother to my great aunts to my grandmother, who were all very eccentric women and much brighter than their husbands.” 

Robert adds that he wanted the heroines of his novels to investigate matters “the old-fashioned way”. “They solve the murders without reference to any forensics or post mortems or the science that goes behind it all,” he says. “It’s proper old-fashioned Agatha Christie, walking around a town and solving the crime by talking to people.” 

Death Comes To Marlow Jacket

Death Comes to Marlow, the second book in the series, sees the trio jump into action again when one of the town’s VIPs, Sir Peter Bailey, is killed during a party at his mansion on the Thames, which, Robert tells me, is based on the home of a rather famous Buckinghamshire comedian.

“I’ve taken Ricky Gervais’ house, which is a beautiful Georgian white stucco house just outside Marlow, as the idea for the setting and imagined a very posh family living there and written an old school, country house, locked-room murder mystery,” he says.

It’s not just Marlow’s rich and famous who have had an influence on Robert’s cosy crime novels either. “Fred, our postie, when he found out I was writing a book set in Marlow, he insisted he be in it and I knew if I didn’t then he’d stop delivering our post and you really don’t want to cross your postie,” Robert jokes. “So, one of the main characters in the first book is a postman called Fred Smith. At the moment I’m having to deal with the fact that he’s quite cross that I haven’t put him in book two, but I am writing book three and Fred is back because I can’t handle his disappointment.” 

While setting the books in a real town, rather than somewhere fictional like his TV series, has its merits – “for research I literally just have to step out my front door,” Richard professes – there are some minor challenges.  

“I did a talk at Marlow Rotary Club about the first book and when I asked for questions at the end, all I got was grief about the few changes I’d made to the geography of the town,” he says. “I’ve kept it 95% correct, but in order to put Judith’s house where I wanted it, I’ve had to put it where there isn’t an access road. And I know I’m going to get grief for book two as well because I’ve set part of it at the local radio station, Marlow FM, which I’ve had to relocate. So, it is funny setting something in your own town, but it’s also lovely because Marlow really is quite wonderful.”

Death Comes to Marlow is published by HQ Harper Collins and is out now in hardback RRP £16.99

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Picture of Mark Kebble

Mark Kebble

Mark's career in journalism started in 2001 when he landed a role on a small lifestyle magazine in Angel, North London. Soon enough, the magazine was purchased by a larger organisation and Mark found himself promoted to editor at the tender age of 23. He later became group editor, working on magazines for Angel, Crouch End, Muswell Hill and Highgate. He was also involved in a launch in Hadley Wood and a major new group website, later becoming Group Hub Editor. In 2021, Mark joined Zest Media Group and oversaw the launch of many Absolutely titles across the UK. To date, Mark has launched in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Essex, Yorkshire and Cheshire. When he does have some free time, Mark is also the Chairman of an amateur football club in Surrey and is also a fully qualified FA football coach.
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