TV Review/First Impression: Mystery Queen
(This is will spoiler-free for anything major)
Mystery Queen (Queen of Mystery) is 2017’s newest contribution to the ongoing Sherlock Holmes zeitgeist. Produced by South Korea’s Public Broadcasting network (KBS, aired on KBS2), it’s far from being a rehash of familiar territory. Instead, it breaks new ground with a smile, a wink, and a refreshingly self-deprecating tone.
The opening episode wastes no time whatsoever in introducing the key players, beginning with an impressive action piece in which we see both the street smarts and physical prowess of our Watson (Wan-seung), played with rough charm by veteran star Kwon Sang-woo. Any fight that includes our hero breaking a clay flowerpot into a perp’s face is one I can get behind, and I particularly like the visceral quality of the action throughout the episode. This no pretty, choreographed martial arts-style combat. It’s about fists and survival.
In contrast, we’re subsequently introduced to our lady Sherlock (Seol-ok) through what appears to be a mundane instance in which a shopkeeper can’t figure out who is stealing from her, while the police refuse to take her seriously. In a sequence reminiscent of any number of Doyle’s Holmes stories, Seol-ok uses clues and security footage to put together a string of clever deductions that lead straight to the solution to the mystery. Played by Choi Kang-hee (one of my all-time favorite Korean actresses), this middle-aged, married female Holmes bears all the hallmarks of the character we love–she’s whip-smart, nonconformist, eccentric, and socially unusual. (Case in point: In oblivious Holmesian fashion, after solving this initial mystery, she asks the shopkeeper for a discount–apparently missing the ample social cues that indicate the woman is processing the personal emotional implications of what Seol-ok has just uncovered.)
Our third major player also comes into the picture during our convenience store case, the Inspector Lestrade character (Chief Hong), played by Lee Won-keun. The youngest Lestrade adaptation I’ve seen on screen to date, Chief Hong has an endearing younger-brother relationship with Seol-ok, whom he calls Seonsaengnim (a Korean title used for a respected mentor) . We are quickly shown that he’s risen to being precinct chief at an unusually young age, mostly because she’s been helping him solve difficult and perplexing cases for quite a while. Hong is no idiot, but he lacks Seol-ok’s speed of thought and ability to connect unusual clues. In this iteration, however, he’s humble enough to willingly look to the person who has the skills he lacks.
The episode’s central mystery, one with higher stakes that potentially sets up a series arc, is presented in a visually-engaging way by showing various characters’ different mental constructs of how the crime was committed. As clues are added and theories are refined, we see the changes reflected in these psychological reconstructions. Overused, this could be annoying, but in this episode, it’s relied upon sparingly and simply serves as a way to show rather than just telling, and it’s a welcome technique.
Mystery Queen is not a strictly procedural mystery show. The above is simply the setup, and as the story is fleshed out, it’s clear that we’ll be delving into the mysteries of our characters’ lives as much as the crimes they solve. Seol-ok is the wife of an absent prosecutor and daughter-in-law to his domineering, social-climbing mother. For years, she’s harbored a dream to become a police detective (and has the skills to pass the test) but has deferred her dream to further her husband’s career. Our closest equivalent to Mrs. Hudson is Seol-ok’s best friend, divorced chef Kyung-mi. Some of the episode’s strongest moments are between the two women, who have painfully honest conversations about love, marriage, and divorce. Their friendship, and the struggles they share, takes a charming series and provides it with emotional weight.
I’ve covered quite a bit of ground, but I’d be remiss in not mentioning that the series contains a hefty dose of comedy. It’s not a constant slapstick-fest, and it has plenty of dramatic moments, but the overall tone is light. I find that particularly refreshing after the slew of extremely serious and self-important Holmes adaptations that have come out in recent years. I love larger-than-life, superhero Holmes. I also love a Holmes who’s just trying her level best to keep her nosy relatives from finding out that she’s a super sleuth on the side. An added dollop of elderly ladies who lunch and do their own version of detective work is particularly hilarious.
Culturally speaking, Mystery Queen contains enough recognizable nods to Doyle’s Holmes that even viewers who are not aficionados of KDrama should be able to enjoy it and make it through some unfamiliar cultural territory. Thus far, the most jarring aspect for viewers from more individualistically-inclined cultures, I think, will be Seol-ok’s home situation. Simply, going into it with the understanding that in-laws are treated like immediate family and that social structure dictates a high level of respect for and obedience to family and societal elders would be helpful.
I’m pleasantly surprised by Mystery Queen. It’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s intelligent, and it re-adapts characters I know and love in familiar but fresh ways. Even more than that, as a feminist, I’m delighted to finally find a series that introduces a female Holmes with a realistic life. She’s brilliant, and she’s odd. As many brilliant and unusual women have found, society doesn’t usually reward those who choose to walk a different path. It would have been easy to give Seol-ok an easier life, to make her single, fabulously wealthy, and able to do whatever she wants. Instead, the writers of Mystery Queen have given us a far more complex gift, a woman with the mind of Sherlock Holmes and a life that looks a whole lot like that of many women around the world. Seol-ok is no superhero. She’s a real-life woman trying to juggle her talents and society’s expectations, and sometimes that’s even better.
Mystery Queen (Queen of Mystery) airs on KBS2 on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 10:00p.m. and will run for 16 episodes (barring an extension, which would be announced later).
(The above review was not sponsored, and all opinions expressed are the reviewer’s own.)
Amy Thomas is a book reviewer, freelance essayist, and author of The Detective and The Woman mystery novel series featuring Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, published by MX Publishing. She holds a degree in professional communication and is an avid knitter, geek, and grammar nerd. Amy blogs about Sherlock Holmes at Girlmeetssherlock.wordpress.