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.