Why is it, do you think, that the British have such a penchant for murders? Or to be more precise, murder mysteries? It struck me a couple of weeks ago just how many British murder mystery series there are out there. A finds it most noticeable, especially as I seem to fill our Netflix queue up with hundreds of them! It’s true, I do love a good mystery more than anything, there doesn’t have to be a murder involved, just a good mystery. I love the intrigue, the settings, the red herrings, the characters, the plots. And I love trying to work it all out, who did what, when, how and why! Drives A insane when I hit the pause button on the dvd player 20 times an hour and say something like “d’you know what I think?” or “did you see what she did, that’ll be important near the end” or somesuch nonsense! Can’t help it, gets the old grey matter going!
But something else that got the old grey matter going was when I started to think about how many books and then TV shows were out there on the subject, it’s almost as if the British were famous for it. I hadn’t really stopped to think about it too much prior to this, but I sat myself down and came up with this list…. and I bet I’ve missed a good few out too!
One of the earliest I can think of is Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most well known detective in the entire world, he first appeared in publication in 1887. He still receives letters addressed to 221B Baker Street! I’ve read a number of the stories, we have a compendium of them at home. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories with Holmes as his central character. The quintessential TV portrayal for me, has to be the outstanding performance the late Jeremy Brett turned in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, there is no better Holmes that he, although oddly enough he absolutely hated the character. Saying at one point that Holmes was such a hideous personality that he (Brett) wouldn’t have crossed the road to meet him had he been a real living person!
Moving swiftly on to the so called “Golden Age” of the 1920’s and 1930’s, four female writers dominated the world of fictitious crime writing. Known as the Queens of Crime these were New Zealand born Ngaio Marsh, and three British ladies, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and the redoubtable Agatha Christie.
Let’s start with Marsh, she’s relatively unknown to the British public through her writing, although I own a number of her wonderful books, but she left us with a superb character in Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, in The Alleyn Mysteries, 32 mysteries written between 1932 and 1982 when she died. The character was perfectly cast for TV when they chose Patrick Malahide, after initially casting Simon Williams for the pilot episode. Alleyn was an upper crust detective, being the brother of a Lord in “real life”, but he has an exceptionally down to earth attitude about him that’s very endearing. Most of the mysteries are set in the period just after WWII, rather than the gay and frivolous twenties. Definitely worth checking out. There are a couple of recurring characters in his sidekick, Sergent Fox (on the left in the above photo) and his girlfriend Agatha Troy, which help to give the series depth. Sadly, they only filmed about 10 of the episodes, which I think is a great shame, but it’s well worth finishing off the entire series by reading the books.
On to Dorothy Leigh Sayers, perhaps the most interesting and enigmatic of the Queens of Crime. There are many very interesting aspects of her life that I won’t bore you with here, I’ve linked her name to the Wiki page about her and I encourage you to read it, she was a very liberal and liberated young women for 1920’s England. She graduated with first class honours from Oxford at a time when many women were denied a place at university, she had a child outside of marriage (but this didn’t come to light until after her death), and she worked as a successful copyright editor for a firm of advertisers in The City. She even came up with the advertising campaign for Guiness using zoo animals, most notably a Toucan! She wrote many types of literature during her career, poetry, detective fiction, translations and christian and academic works. You’ve probably sussed which bit interests me!! Her detective hero was amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, played to perfection in the early 1970’s dramatisation by Ian Carmichael. A lot of critics disliked Wimsey as a character, I just take it with a pinch of salt and never forget that I’m being “entertained”! He isn’t real. His circumstances aren’t real. He’s a Heinz 57 of many types of character depending on what his author wanted him to be at the time. He is however, clever, charming and rather amusing. I often find myself replying to people in a Wimsey-esque style.. “Ah, thankee, thankee” instead of thank you is quite often at the top of my list! I’ve stopped short of wearing the monocle and tweed suit though, I get enough weird looks as it is!!
Margery Allingham is next, another author I think most people would struggle to bring to mind anything she’s ever written, which is a great shame really. But, add the wonder of a well produced TV drama and suddenly everyone can remember her wonderful gentleman Private Detective of the 1920’s and 30’s…. Campion. Brilliantly portrayed by the charismatic Peter Davison, Campion is ably assisted by his manservant of dubious reputation, Lugg, and the series has the pair zipping off all over England, to stately homes and quaint cottages, Bohemian parties and hanging out with the free thinking arty set of the day. It’s a real gem of a show. Margery Allingham was born in to a family of writers, both of her parents made their careers from various aspects of writing, and her Aunt ran and published her own magazine, and it was from this magazine that the young Margery received her first payment for an article, published when she was just 8 years old. Campion made his appearance as a side character in an early novel, The Crime at Black Dudley, published in 1929 when Margery was 25. It was her American publishers who persuaded her to develop the character and so Albert Campion became the centerpiece of another 17 novels and 20 short stories, right up until her untimely and early death in 1966 from breast cancer.
The final Queen of Crime needs no introduction. Agatha Christie, known the world over for her 80 detective novels and her West End plays, played a huge role in the development of the genre, becoming one of the most important and innovative writers of detective novels. According to the Guiness Book of Records she is the best selling writer of books of all time, and along with William Shakespeare is the best selling writer of any kind. Only the bible is known to have outsold her collected sales of roughly four billion copies of novels. UNESCO states that she is the most translated author in the world, having been translated into at least 56 languages. On stage her play The Mousetrap, holds the record for the longest initial run in the world, opening originally in November of 1952, and as of 2009 is still running after more that 23,000 performances! Like Christie herself, her characters need no introduction either, most notably Miss Marple and the Belgian Private Detective, Hercule Poirot, although she created many others. If you don’t know anything about Agatha Christie you must have spent the last 100 years living under a rock in the middle of an African desert, it’s impossible not to know anything about this woman’s work. In fact, I don’t even need to continue talking about her or her novels, suffice to say that like any great author, I really do recommend reading some of her books at some point.
Of course, there are many other great authors out there who have written excellent detective novels, not all of which have made it onto our TV screens, and many made for TV shows specifically written and developed for TV, such as Z-Cars and VanDerVelk in the 60’s and The Sweeney and The Professionals in the 70’s.
Some of my favourite shows though have been developed from books. I think this gives the script writers and actors so much more to work with in order to develop the main characters, you can really get your teeth into them and bring them alive. Stand out shows for me include:
Inspector Morse – Cerebral, sarcastic, depressing even, John Thaw’s portrayal of the central character of Colin Dexters novels is a stunning piece of acting. It’s worth pointing out that Dexter only wrote 13 Inspector Morse novels, yet due to the popularity of the show, the script writers took over where Dexter left off and Morse and his sidekick Lewis, appeared in 33 TV episodes all told. Morse was a heavy drinker and this led to the characters eventual downfall and death from liver failure, but that did not deter the TV producers one little bit. Sergent Lewis received a promotion on Morse’s death and he now has his own TV show “Lewis”.
Cadfael – An unusual tale this one. Cadfael was written by the late Edith Pargeter writing under the pseudonym of Ellis Peters, the main character is a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey during the 12th century. In all 20 books were published between 1977 and 1994, and they were all subsequently adapted into both radio episodes and a TV series starring Derek Jacobi.
Midsomer Murders – What’s not to like about this one? Likable characters, bucolic “chocolate box” locations, even likable villains sometimes! This series just goes to show that it’s not all afternoon teas and cricket on the green in the English countryside. Despite the sinister, atmospheric edge that runs through the show, it still manages to maintain a consistent sense of humour. This is another show whose popularity far outstripped the writers novels available for adaptation to the screen. Caroline Graham has only actually written six Inspector Barnaby novels, yet the show is currently in it’s eleventh season and has 66 episodes under its belt, and it still shows no sign of slowing down at all!
George Gently – This is a brand new series created from the 46 crime novels by the English author Alan Hunter. Martin Shaw plays the title character and both the books and the TV show are set in 1960’s England. The setting for the books is Hunters native Norfolk, but the TV show is set in the rugged wilds of Northumberland, although it’s actually filmed in Southern Ireland, perhaps because it’s easier to achieve the effect of being in the 1960’s in rural Ireland than in over crowded and over populated England. There are only three episodes available so far, with more being filmed as we speak. I think this one will develop into a really good police drama.
Wire In The Blood – This one completely breaks away from the cozy settings, nice characters and arm chair murders of the other series I’ve listed so far. It’s brutal, twisted, bloody, depraved and psychological. Even the theme music is loud, choppy and edgy. Most of the episodes contain scenes of torture or abuse, not for them the leafy green, cricket playing, chocolate box cottages and curtain twitching characters of a Midsomer Murders episode, this is in your face modern brutality. Torturers, rapists, child molesters and serial killers, they’re all here. Scottish author, journalist and dramatist, Val McDermid initially developed the characters of Psychologist Dr Tony Hill and police Chief Inspector Carol Jordan and they appear together in four of her books, but only two have been dramtised, although the script writers provided quite a few more stories. The series title is taken from one of the non-dramatised books “The Wire In The Blood”, and it’s produced by Robson Greens own production company, and of course, it’s Green playing the lead character, Dr Hill.
A Touch of Frost – Ah, now here’s a good series. Frost is a good old fashioned, work the beat, know your patch, ignore the rules, salt of the earth kind of copper. He hates bureaucracy in all it’s forms, paperwork in particular, and often becomes too emotionally involved in his cases, but he gets results, often when everyone else in running around like a chicken with its head cut off! Frost is portrayed by one of the best character actors in England, David Jason, and he imbues Frost with a warmth nobody else would manage to find. Frost has had a very difficult home life, caring for his terminally sick wife who passes away in the first episode. This probably accounts for his seemingly gruff and unapproachable character, which starts to melt away as the episodes progress until we see his gentle humour and deep sarcasm shining through. Well worth seeking out.
Wow, quite a list! Almost done.
Back in the early days of Midsomer Murders, one of the early writers was Anthony Horowitz, who left to create his own show with his own character. The show turned out to be one of the best and most loved TV dramas of the day….. Foyle’s War. The story revolves around the central character, Inspector Christopher Foyle, considered a little too old to re-join the military at the outbreak of the Second World War, he is unhappy with his lot in life running his small town police Department, but the war manages to come to him and shows him that there is still a need for good polie work, even during the time of war, perhaps more so than ever before. He, and his small team, have to deal with being on the front line of the UK, the show is set in Hastings in Sussex, German prisoners of war, German bombings, refugees, spies, secrecy stonewalling his investigations, top secret experiments on his patch and a son in the heat of the action flying Spitfires on dangerous missions. It’s absolutely riveting stuff, incredibly believable, beautifully executed and portrays a very different side to the effect war has on the people left behind and how it touches their lives. Michael Kitchen turns in a stunning performance and is very ably supported by an excellent cast. This is definitely one of the most outstanding shows this decade.
I think I better wrap it up here or this post will stay in draft for ever and a day! I’ll leave the final words though to my Mother in law, Shirley, a huge fan of Midsomer Murders, she owns some of the series on dvd and watches them quite frequently. She has strong views on what an English murder/mystery should contain and she really dislikes modern shows like Wire In The Blood. When I asked her why she was so particularly fond of MM, she replied… “Well, they such nice murders”!!! Nothing else to be said really!!