by Janice Law
I realized lately that I am ready for a new man – at least in the realm of mystery fiction. Oh, there’s lots of good ones around, although I’ve never really forgiven Henning Mankel for saddling poor Kurt Wallander with Alzheimer’s. Some other good detectives have unfortunate habits, especially with regard to wives and girl friends. Aside from James Bond, it used to be safe for a woman to date a sleuth. No more; death or divorce are surely in her future.
Consider the poor spouses of Inspector Lynley and George Gently, bumped off by villains. Shetland’s Jimmy Perez lost his wife to illness, Jackson Brody of Case Histories lost his to divorce, as did Wallander, while other significant others have faced assault, kidnapping, and worse. As for handsome Sidney Chambers of Grantchester, who carries a torch for his former girlfriend, he doesn’t recognize a promising woman when he finally meets one.
But there is a bright spot for me and, although my Calvinist ancestors will be stirring in their chilly Scots graves, it is Father Brown. Created before WWI by G.K. Chesterton, the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the Cotswolds, started out as a hyper-observant, hyper-logical sleuth in the Sherlock Holmes mold – if one can imagine the aloof and acerbic Holmes as a small, innocuous looking Catholic priest.
The stories are short, puzzle pieces, very clever but longer on ingenuity than on characterization or psychology. The good Father is basically an observer with not a lot of personality, odd, given that he was apparently based on a real priest, indeed, the one who converted Chesterton. The stories are old fashioned with a fair number based on interest in, and fears of, ideas and people from the rest of the Empire – shades of Wilkie Collins’ great The Moonstone. Published from before the war up through the 1920’s they are very much period pieces, mostly in a good way.
Television, which so often spoils good stories, has in this case made something quite attractive. Cognizant of our bloodthirsty tastes, Father Brown now investigates mostly murders in contrast to the robberies that seem to have been a staple of the originals. The series has been moved into the post WW2 era, provided Father Brown with a supporting cast, and, thanks to Mark Williams, made him a dynamic and sympathetic character.
There’s more than a touch of Friar Tuck in this iteration of the sleuthing cleric. Rotund but energetic, Williams’ Father Brown likes to eat and drink, despite the efforts of his parish secretary, Mrs. McCarthy, to watch his waistline. He likes any kind of merriment, he is an indefatigable cyclist, and he has friendships with a wide range of characters, respectable and not. Is he full of angst and doubt? No way. Is he tormented by what one must say is a rather too enthusiastic pursuit of crime? Not at all. Confident that he serves a higher power, Father Brown is free to indulge his curiosity and to enlist the rest of his little circle in the pursuit of justice.
They are an odd bunch. Mrs. McCarthy is a self-important, narrow minded woman with a heart of gold, especially when pointed in the right direction by Father Brown. Lady Felicia, glamorous and intrepid with a wandering eye, manages to stay just on the right side of respectability. Sid, her chauffeur and a man who can turn his hand to everything from righting a motor to impersonating a seminarian, is an invaluable, if not always honest, assistant for Father Brown.
Add the usual bumbling officers – the ones in this series are addicted to the quick solution, a habit that opens the door wide for Father Brown’s interference – and you have a nice grade of cozy mystery.
What takes the best of the episodes out of the cute range, though, is something else, Father Brown’s optimism about people and about the ever present possibility for repentance and salvation. Not particularly orthodox and certainly not at all cowed by his ecclesiastical superiors, he nonetheless suggests that a deep and genuine faith is behind his joy in living and his patience with and pleasure in his neighbors. As such, the good father is a nice corrective to the doubt and depression that have become almost de rigueur for popular detectives.
13 July 2015
24 November 2011
by Janice Law
by Janice Law
I've been watching the first episodes of Case Histories on Masterpiece Mysteries. I should say that Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite writers, and that I approached the BBC production with mingled hope and trepidation. Would Atkinson turn out to be one of the lucky writers whose work thrives on tape or celluloid or would the gods of mystery turn against both her and Jackson Brodie?
No sure thing either way. Some writers and some detectives have famously been improved by the tube. John Mortimer is a good writer, but I suspect that I am not the only reader to find the Rumpole stories a tad on the thin side without Leo McKern's rotund person and orotund phrasing, not to mention the wonderful supporting case embodying Gutherie Featherstone, Claude Erskine-Brown, The Portia of Our Chambers and, of course, She Who Must Be Obeyed.
More recently I felt that Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen was more effective digitally than on the page. Rufus Sewell's stubbornness, his watchful passivity and sudden violence made sense of a character who is too often opaque in print. The screen plays of Vendetta, Cabal and Ratking streamlined Dibdin's meandering plots and produced good drama.
Of course, some popular writers have been, like good horses, virtually bomb-proof. Every decade brings another series of Miss Marples from across the water, and I imagine that there is a queue of actresses of a certain age waiting to play the elderly sleuth of St. Mary Mead. But only one to my mind has suggested a really exceptional intellect. Joan Hickson, who was genuinely old when she essayed the part, played Miss Marple in 12 eisodes and got an OBE and plaudits from the Queen for her efforts.
Christie's Hercule Poirot has been lucky, too. He's had some heavy weight interpreters, including Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm and Albert Finney, but it is safe to say that David Suchet has made the part his own with the long running series on Masterpiece.
Other writers have had mixed fortunes. Tony Hillerman was most unlucky with the 2004 series, starring Adam Beach as Jim Chee and Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn. I don't remember them being particularly poor, but the bleached out colors and dusty landscape on the tube captured none of the splendor of Navaho territory in the novels. Background counts, especially in Hillerman's work, where the harsh but beautiful landscape grounds so many of his detective's attitudes and beliefs.
Even successful series with admirable production and good scripts depend heavily on the charisma of the leading characters. P.D. James' Inspector Dalgliesh novels have been beloved both on the page and on Masterpiece, but there is no doubt that it was Roy Marsden who made the ideal inspector. Sensitive but chilly, gangly, bright-eyed and reflective, Marsden really was believable as both poet and detective. A subsequent performance by Martin Shaw in the role showed the difference.
Sometimes a performer simply seems miscast. Elizabeth George, like P.D. James, has been popular across platforms, but the transition to the small screen has produced a shift in the balance between her two detectives.On screen Sharon Small makes Sergeant Barbara Havers much more appealing and attractive than she is in print, attractive enough so that Lynley seems a bit of a dolt not to notice. Nathaniel Parker, who has been funny and effective in other roles, is either miscast or seriously misdirected as the stiff and rather stodgy inspector.
So where does my favorite Kate Atkinson fall on the metamorphosis scale? Somewhere in the middle, I'm afraid. Edinburgh and its environs are beautiful, as might be expected, and Jason Isaacs certainly looks the part, although he has a Brando-ish tendency to mumble that we could do without.
The minor parts are lively and some of the dialogue has the real northern humor, but I am not sure that Atkinson's work is destined to be transferred smoothly to visuals. The strength of her novels lie in her eccentric and unexpected characters and in a plotting talent to rival Christie's. She also has a lightness of touch that is hard to mesh with the realism demanded by TV.
The script, alas, has only one of these virtues. The production seems to fear that we will forget Jackson's lamentable childhood and the traumas which have made him obsessive about protecting the vulnerable. Clips of his discovery of his dead sister appear with almost tedious regularity and serve not to deepen his character but to give a too easy explanation for his sometimes irrational reactions.
So Case Histories is entertaining and handsome but not to be compared to the novels. Read them first and then enjoy the more modestly successful efforts of Jason Isaacs and the rest of the cast.