Category Archives: Andrea Camilleri

Do You Need Anybody?*

Kindness of StrangersLots of crime fiction tells stories of people who try to be kind to someone, only to have it end up going very, very badly. And there’s something to that sort of story; it can be a very suspenseful premise for a plot. You know the sort of thing I mean: driver stops to help when a car is stranded, only to find real trouble. And in deft hands, novels with that plot point can be memorable.

But sometimes it’s also nice to remember that kindness to strangers isn’t always dangerous. In fact, it’s part of the glue that holds us together. And it can lead in all sorts of directions. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny. He’s there to look into the death of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. But Superintendent Spence has begun to think that Bentley was innocent, so he’s asked Poirot to investigate. One of the people he meets is Deirdre Henderson, who is one of the few villagers with a kind word to say for Bentley. It seems that Bentley once helped her rescue her dog from a trap. She hasn’t forgotten, and that’s part of why she isn’t convinced Bentley is a killer. Fans of this series will know that that one kind act has repercussions, which are brought up in another book, Hallowe’en Party.

Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors begins with a gesture of kindness to a stranger. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a road trip one New Year’s Eve when they get into a car accident and left stranded. The Reverend Theodore Venables, vicar of a nearby church, comes upon the two men and helps them get their car to a repair shop. He even offers them lodging at the vicarage until the car can be fixed. Very grateful, Wimsey and Bunter accept, and are soon taken to the vicarage. That evening, Wimsey gets the chance to return the kindness. It seems that one of the church’s bell ringers has gotten ill and can’t do his part of the traditional change-ringing. So Wimsey takes his place, and the change-ringing goes off well. When Wimsey’s car is ready, he and Bunter go their way. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables, asking him to return, and help with the odd mystery of a corpse that has turned up unexpectedly at another person’s gravesite. Although this mystery is really sad in its way, one bright point is the friendship that strikes up between Wimsey and Venables, all because of one kind gesture.

In one plot thread of Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano and his team are raiding a brothel. Once they’ve made the arrests, Lescano does a final walk-through of the premises. That’s when he discovers a young woman, Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. Without really thinking too much about it, Lescano rescues her and shelters her in his home. Part of the reason is that she looks very much like his wife, Marisa, who has died. But he also doesn’t want to see Eva get into trouble. It’s late in the 1970’s, when just about anything can lead to a person ‘disappearing’ in Argentina. At first, Eva isn’t sure why Lescano hasn’t denounced her, nor what he wants. He doesn’t demand sexual ‘rewards,’ he doesn’t blackmail her, and he continues to protect her. That kind gesture turns out to be very important to the novel as we see what happens to both characters.

There’s also a kind gesture in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That’s the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who starts life on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. One day, when she’s about eight, she happens to meet a girl about her own age, who’s just gotten some money in a dare. Then, she notices Jodie.
 

‘‘Hi, there,’ she says breezily. ‘He’s given me a dollar. You can get fifty cobbers for that up at Rafferty’s. You want to share?’’
 

Jodie’s unaccustomed to such a treat, and happy to accept. The other girl turns out to be Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, who comes from more money than Jodie has, and much more freedom. The two become inseparable until Bridie moves away. Years later, Jodie has good cause to remember that friendship when Bridie comes into her life again. Jodie has become a social pariah, since a devastating news story has broken about her. It seems that she gave birth to a baby who, shortly afterwards, disappeared. Was the child simply adopted? If so, why are there no records? Did the child die? If so, did Jodie have something to do with it? In the worst of it all, she meets Bridie again, and the two pick up their friendship. In fact, Bridie’s the one person who helps Jodie keep sane, if I can put it that way.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. In one plot thread of this novel, a young boy named François gets into trouble for stealing food from other children. Ordinarily, such a child would end up in the hands of authorities, but this child is different. His mother Karima seems to have gone missing, and the boy is just doing the best he can to eat. It soon turns out, too, that she may be mixed up in a murder investigation that Inspector Salvo Montalbano is conducting. He has sympathy for the boy, and decides to try to take care of him. As it happens, his long-time lover Livia is visiting, and she helps him to look after François. The two bond; and in fact, Livia considers whether she might want to adopt the boy when it’s discovered that his mother has been killed. That plan doesn’t pan out, but the boy is given a good, safe home with the sister of Montalbano’s second-in-command Mimì Augello. The kind gesture of taking care of François ends happily both for himself and for the family who adopts him.

And that’s the thing about kindness to strangers. You never know what will happen. And they happen in real life, too. Picture this – true story, as Wendy James’ Bridie Sullivan would say. It was a sweltering, and I mean sweltering, August day – my first full day of university. Never mind how long ago. I’d spent the morning unpacking my things, and was ready to go get something to eat. So I went to one of the university cafeterias. I was waiting my turn to get food when the heat overcame me and I began to get dizzy. Barely keeping my feet, I stumbled to the nearest table and slumped into a chair, arms on the table, head dropped onto them.  I sat there for a few moments that way, thoroughly embarrassed both at my dizziness and the attention I knew it would bring. I’d so wanted to make a good impression on that all-important first day ‘in public,’ and passing out was not what I’d had in mind. All of a sudden I heard a voice beside me, asking me if I was OK. I nodded, hoping desperately that whoever it was would leave me alone and let me slink away.

It didn’t happen. That person saw that I was in need, and went to get me a fruit juice, then sat beside me so I wouldn’t be alone, until I felt better. That glass of fruit juice, and the friendship that started because of it, made all the difference in the world to me. This many years later, we are still friends.

If you’re reading this, you know who you are. You may have forgotten that day, but I never will.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Dorothy Sayers, Ernesto Mallo, Wendy James

Nothing Really Matters to Me*

ApathySome people respond to life’s stresses and strains by becoming completely apathetic. They give up, if you want to put it that way, and just don’t seem to be passionate about anything. Sometimes it’s due to a particular trauma. Other times it’s the result of a gradual wearing down of that ‘spark of life.’ Either way, those people ‘go through the motions’ without really participating in life. It’s not easy to create characters like that, actually. It’s hard to make them interesting and memorable. But there are plenty of them in real life, and we see them in crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), for instance, we learn about Caroline Crale. Sixteen years earlier, she was convicted of poisoning her husband, famous painter Amyas Crale. A year later, she died in prison. Her daughter Carla Lemarchant has always been convinced her mother was innocent, and now she wants Hercule Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees, and interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from them. His interviews also include a few people such as attorneys and law clerks who attended the trial. From those interviews and accounts, Poirot deduces what really happened to Amyas Crale. Throughout the story, we learn a lot about Caroline Crale. She was lively and passionate, with a strong personality. But after her arrest, everything changed. As one character puts it,
 

‘…she retreated into her world of half lights and shadows.’
 

At that point, nothing much seemed to matter any more, and one character even mentions how difficult that made things in court. She wouldn’t defend herself or ‘come alive’ for the jurors.

K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page is the story of the murder of Janet Pisula, a student at Conemaugh County Community College. Rocksburg (Pennsylvania) Chief of Police Mario Balzic gets a call from Cynthia Sumner, who owns the rooming house where Janet lives. She hasn’t seen Janet lately and is concerned about her. When Balzic checks into the matter, he finds that Sumner’s concerns are more than justified: Janet’s body is found on the floor of her room. Oddly enough, there is a blank sheet of paper on the body. As Balzic begins to investigate, he finds out that the victim was rather detached from life. She didn’t make friends, didn’t date, and wasn’t involved in the college social scene. She struggled with her schoolwork, although one of her instructors thought of her as having a bright and original mind. Not much about this murder makes sense – especially not the motive – until Balzic checks into Janet’s background. He discovers that she lost her parents in a terrible car accident when she was young. After that, she had little interest in life and simply disengaged herself from it. And in the end, the effect of that trauma led to her murder.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. His body is discovered in a notorious place outside of the town of Vigàta. Called ‘The Pasture,’ it’s a place where prostitutes meet their clients and small-time drug deals are made. At first, Luparello’s death looks like the result of a massive heart attack that happened at a very inopportune moment. But Montalbano isn’t so sure, and wants to investigate further. He’s given two days to ask some questions. At one point, Luparello’s widow contacts Montalbano, asking to see him. She is neither broken up and devastated nor relieved, really, about her husband’s death. She’s more detached than that, and certainly objective about her husband. While she’s not apathetic in the sense of being withdrawn, she is disengaged from any sense of grief. But she’s interested in the investigation, and provides Montalbano with some valuable information.

In Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, Dorchester (Massachusetts) PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro take on a heartbreaking case: four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing. As you can imagine, there’s a massive effort to find her, with dozens of police, all sorts of media attention, and lots of public interest. But so far, no trace of the child has been found. Amanda’s uncle, Lionel McCready, and his wife Beatrice, ask Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate. At first, the PIs are reluctant; after all, what can they do that the police and media can’t? But Beatrice McCready, especially, is insistent. So Kenzie and Gennaro agree to at least meet with Amanda’s mother Helene. From the very first, she gives an unfortunate impression. She seems strangely apathetic about the whole thing, although at one point, she does give way to a tear or two when Amanda’s smile is mentioned. Eerily, her next conversation – almost immediately afterwards – is about whether O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder. In fact, Kenzie and Gennaro are so put off by Helene that they turn to leave. Beatrice blocks their way, begging them to stay for just one more hour. Here is Helene’s reaction:

 

‘‘Patrick, right?’ Helene looked up at me. ‘That’s your name?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Think you could move a little to your left, Patrick?’ Helene said. ‘You’re blocking the TV.’’

 

Only the thought that Amanda may be in grave danger or worse keeps the detectives going after they’ve met Helene.

And then there’s Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall.  Early one morning, Gurdial Singh is on his regular rounds, delivering the Globe and Mail to his regular customers in Toronto’s exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. When he gets to the home of popular radio host Kevin Brace, he notices right away that something is different. The door is half-open and Brace himself is not there as usual to get the paper and say hello. Singh knocks on the door, and when Brace gets there, he says,
 

‘‘I killed her, Mr. Singh. I killed her.’’
 

After that, he says nothing else. Shortly afterwards, Singh discovers the body of Brace’s common law wife Katherine Thorn in a bathtub, and alerts the police. Brace goes quietly when he’s arrested, doesn’t try to defend himself, and seems to stop caring completely. The only thing he does do is request that solicitor Nancy Parish represent him. She takes the case, but almost immediately finds that her client isn’t going to be much help. He doesn’t even deny his guilt or offer any explanation for anything. Parish has her work cut out for her as she tries to clear Brace and find out what really happened to his wife.

There are other characters, too, who simply don’t seem to care. Creating them and making them interesting isn’t easy, but they can add to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Dennis Lehane, K.C. Constantine, Robert Rotenberg

This is a Showdown*

Confrontations and ShowdownsIn many (certainly not all!) crime novels, there’s an element of suspense that comes from that final confrontation between the sleuth and the criminal. It can be a very cathartic moment; after all, the sleuth has probably worked long and hard to catch the criminal. It can also add tension to the story (i.e. Is the criminal going to admit everything?). And there can be a real poignancy to this confrontation, especially if the sleuth has a sort of sympathy for the killer.

These confrontations vary of course, depending on the characters and the style of the story. And they need to be done thoughtfully, or there’s a risk of melodrama. But when they are done well, they can add much to a story.

Some confrontations are quiet and even moving. That’s what we see at the end of G.K. Chesterton’s The Invisible Man. In that story, Father Brown and his friend Hercule Flambeau investigate the mysterious murder of Isidore Smythe. One strange thing about this case is that the murderer seems to have got into Smythe’s home and killed him without anyone seeing a person go in or out. After Father Brown works out how and by whom the crime was committed, he has a confrontation – well, an interaction – with the killer:
 

‘But Father Brown walked these snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.’
 

When we know the truth behind the murder, it’s logical that Father Brown wouldn’t force a loud, public sort of confrontation. And he’s not that sort of person, anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has had his moments of very public, even dramatic, unmasking of murderers (there’s one, for instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead). And even he will admit that he likes being the focus of everyone’s attention as he points out the guilty person. But he also has some quieter, poignant confrontations with killers. Everyone’s different, but for my money, the interaction between Poirot and the killer in Death on the Nile is a good example of this. Poirot is taking what’s supposed to be a relaxing cruise of the Nile when he gets drawn into the shooting death of fellow passenger Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also on the cruise, investigate, and Poirot discovers who’s behind that murder and two others. At one point, after revealing the killer’s identity, Poirot has a quiet conversation with that person:
 

‘‘Don’t mind so much, Monsieur Poirot! About me, I mean. You do mind, don’t you?’
‘Yes…’
‘But it wouldn’t have occurred to you to let me off?’
Hercule Poirot said quietly, ‘No.’’
 

In this case, Poirot admits that he has sympathy for the murderer, and that comes through in this conversation.

We know from the beginning of L.R. Wright’s The Suspect that eighty-year-old George Wilcox kills eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. When the murder is reported, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg takes the case. There is more than one possible explanation for the killing, so Alberg doesn’t immediately focus on Wilcox. But it’s not long before he does. As the story goes on, he has some interesting confrontations with Wilcox. Little by little, we learn the history behind the murder and the motive for it. It adds to the suspense of the story to follow the two men’s interactions as the novel goes on.

Sometimes, there are more dramatic confrontations between sleuths and criminals. When they’re done well, they can certainly add to the story. For instance, in Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon has been assigned to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. One day, she discovers the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. At first, all signs point to a mountain lion as the killer. Pigeon is hoping this isn’t true, because she’s afraid that there will be a wholesale slaughter of these endangered animals if word gets out that a lion killed Drury. There are little signs, too, that suggest that this death is the work of a human. So Pigeon starts to ask some questions. The more she digs into the matter, the more possibilities she finds. She also discovers that someone wants very much to keep her from finding out the truth. Eventually, though, Pigeon learns who killed Sheila Drury and why. When she does, there is a dramatic confrontation between her and the murderer.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in investigating the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. It turns out that more than one person could have wanted him dead, and the investigation isn’t easy. But after some time (and another death), Kilbourn finds out who the murderer is. After she’s made it clear who the person is, she has a very suspenseful confrontation with that person during an elevator ride. It’s a tense scene in part because Kilbourn is in danger. But it’s also tense because of the history behind the deaths.

There’s another interesting, and more dramatic, confrontation between Inspector Salvo Montalbano and a very highly-placed criminal in Dance of the Seagull. In that novel, Montalbano’s teammate Giuseppe Fazio is investigating a dangerous smuggling ring when he goes missing. Montalbano and the rest of the team know that the longer it takes them to find Fazio, the more danger there will be for him. So they follow the trail that Fazio has left, hoping it will help them find him. They’re up against a particularly ruthless group of people, so Montalbano knows that he and his team have to work quickly. In the end, and after the murder of their primary witness, they do catch the criminal. And there’s a very public (and for the culprit, a very embarrassing) scene when Montalbano faces this enemy.

There are, of course, plenty of crime novels in which there really is no confrontation between sleuth and criminal (that’s the stuff of another post). But confrontations that are done well can add layers of suspense and tension to a story. Which confrontations have you thought particularly well done? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this aspect of your crime stories?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, G.K. Chesterton, Gail Bowen, L.R. Wright, Nevada Barr

I Know There’s Fish Out There*

FishingFishing has been woven into our human experience since people first learned how to catch fish. Although people all over the world eat seafood, you really see the fishing culture in seaside or lakeside areas, for obvious reasons.

Fishing is big business, too. Whether it’s sport fishing or commercial fishing, there’s a lot of money to be made in the industry. Fishing is so deeply ingrained into human history that it makes complete sense that it’s also an important part of crime fiction. There’s no possible way for me to mention all of the novels in which fishing plays a role; but here are a few examples.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Mystery, Reverend Dodd, vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Sea, takes an interest in the shooting murder of Julius Tregarthan. Dodd’s friend Dr. Pendrill has been called to the scene, and Dodd comes along. Soon enough, it’s clear that this case isn’t going to be easy. The victim was shot through the open window of his sitting room. Three shots seem to have been fired, all from slightly different angles. So one possibility is that there were actually three assailants. Other evidence, though, makes that unlikely. It doesn’t help matters that more than one person had a motive for murder, so there are several suspects. As he follows leads, Dodd finds that he gets some very valuable information from a local man who sometimes takes his fishing boat out.

Lots of people depend on fishing for a living, even if they don’t work for a large commercial outfit. For instance, in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the death of a local fisherman, Justo Castelo. In many ways, the death looks like a suicide. But little clues suggest to Caldas that Castelo might have been murdered. The only problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much motive. Castelo wasn’t wealthy, and he lived a quiet life. In fact, he preferred not to mix very much socially. Then, Caldas discovers something important. In 1996, Castelo and two other fishermen were on board a boat with Captain Antonio Sousa when a terrible storm struck. Sousa was lost in the storm, but the other three made it back to land. They’ve never spoken of the incident since, but Caldas finds that it plays a role in Castelo’s death. This novel offers an interesting look at the small-time fishing life, with boats coming in early in the morning to sell their catch at the local warehouses, and the area restaurants and individual buyers coming in later to make their choices. It’s not an easy life.

We also see that in Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton has captained his Brisbane-based family boat Sea Mistress for quite a long time. But he’s got a broken leg from an incident that ended in the murder of Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. Bretton’s daughter Samantha ‘Sam’ wants very much to take her father’s place as skipper until he’s back on duty. Her logic is that if Sea Mistress doesn’t go out, the family fishing business will suffer and may fail. Her father finally agrees, and Sam prepares to gather her crew. Her new deckhand is Chayse Garrett, an undercover police officer who’s investigating McKay’s death. The police suspect that Bretton killed McKay, and that he might be involved in the drugs smuggling trade; Garrett’s job is to find evidence bearing on that theory. Sam’s not aware of Garrett’s identity as a detective, but she has her own reasons for wanting to bring down McKay’s killer and clear her father’s name. As Sea Mistress’ crew looks for answers, we learn a lot about life on a modern trawler. We also learn how the small-time fishing industry can sometimes be useful to the smuggling trade.

Smuggling also happens in the larger commercial fishing trade. In Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, for instance, Arkady Renko has been assigned to work as a crew member on the Soviet fishing ship Polar Star. It’s a punishment for his pursuit of highly-placed Party officials (read Gorky Park for the details). Renko is fed up anyway with policing, especially if it doesn’t really change things. But he’s drawn into a case of murder when one of his crew mates, Zina Patiashvili, is hauled out of the ocean with the day’s catch. At first, there seems no motive for the murder. The victim was a galley worker, like everyone else, and hadn’t any obvious enemies or wealth. But soon enough, Renko learns that there was another side to her. She was involved in smuggling and blackmailing, and some very important people are implicated.

Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano lives and works in fictional Vigàta, on Sicily. So as you can imagine, there’s lots of fishing integrated into that series. For example, in one plot thread of The Snack Thief, Montalbano investigates the shooting of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be aboard an Italian fishing boat. Montalbano finds that he was killed when a Tunisian boat fired on the Italian boat. The question then becomes: how accidental was the death, really? In that thread of the story, Camilleri makes reference to the long-standing unease between Tunisia and Sicily over water, territory and fishing rights.

Many people enjoy sport fishing and fishing as a hobby. So there’s also a lucrative business in providing places and equipment for fishing enthusiasts. Just ask Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowksi. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. But they own Stuart Lake Lodge, a holiday fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Clients come from many different places, including other countries, to spend time fishing and relaxing. It sounds harmless enough, but in Burnt Out, the lodge is burned, and a body discovered in the ruins of the fire. Now, gossip spreads that Bart is guilty of arson and very likely murder, too. He knows that he’ll need to find out what happened to his family’s business if he’s to clear his name. The Bartowskis aren’t going to be the same after this tragedy, but Bart’s determined to at least preserve the family’s integrity.

Scotland’s another popular place for sport fishing. Just ask M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He’s the local bobby for the village of Lochdubh, but he’d just as soon relax with a fishing line. So he understands the appeal of John and Heather Cartwright’s Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing, to which we’re introduced in Death of a Gossip. The Cartwrights open a new class, hoping that all will go well. It doesn’t. One of the participants is Jane Maxwell, gossip columnist for the London Evening Star. She wants new fodder for her column, and is willing to go through everyone’s proverbial closet, looking for skeletons. When she’s found strangled with casting line, it’s clear that someone in that fishing class didn’t want her to find out too much. Macbeth investigates, and as he does, we learn a bit about the modern fishing resort. There are a lot of other crime-fictional mentions of the Scottish fishing life, too, including Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed and Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, to name just two.

There are many, many other examples of fishing in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Johan Theorin’s Gerloff Davidsson). Which do you like best?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Downeaster ‘Alexa.’

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Domingo Villar, Gordon Ferris, Johan Theorin, John Bude, M.C. Beaton, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Cruz Smith, Nelson Brunanski, Sandy Curtis

You Ought to be in Pictures*

TV and Film AdaptationsIt’s not surprising that a lot of crime fiction fans also watch film and TV adaptations of series and novels they like. Film allows for all sorts of visual impact that’s harder to communicate in print. Even something as simple as a facial expression can mean a great deal, and it can be very powerful to communicate that meaning through the visual media.

But books often have background information, psychological details and so on that aren’t so easily portrayed on screen. And print and film are simply different media for communicating stories. So those who adapt novels and stories for the screen often have to make some changes.

And there, as the Shakespeare quote goes, is the rub. Film makers (whether for the big or small screen) have a few options. For instance, they can be completely faithful to the printed story in all ways. But that may mean a film that moves too slowly in some parts, or in other ways is a bit clumsy (because of the differences in media). They can make some changes, so as to make the story a better fit for film. That, of course, means that the adaptation is no longer as true to the book. A third option is that film makers can create an entirely new story, but using the original characters. This frees them from the confines of the original story, but can upset dedicated fans of the novel or series. Or, they can make some big changes, but keep some elements of the original story. For instance, one big difference between Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series and the television adaptation of it is its location. The book series takes place in Saskatchewan, but the TV films take place in Ontario. What’s more, in the book series, Kilbourn is a political scientist and academician. In the TV series, she’s a former cop. All of these options have both negative and positive consequences.

Speaking as a card-carrying, cranky, fussy purist dedicated reader, my preference is for adaptations that stay more or less true to the original story. That’s why, for instance, I very much liked Granada Television’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, with Jeremy Brett in the lead role. Some details of those stories were changed for film, but the basic plots, characters and so on reflect the original adventures. And to me, at least, Brett was Holmes.

There’ve been many, many adaptations of Agatha Christie’s work; some are more faithful than others to the original. And it’s interesting to think about the kinds of changes that have been made. For instance, Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (Albert Finney takes the role of Hercule Poirot here) was well-received. Even Christie herself, who in general didn’t care much for adaptations of her work, gave her rather reluctant appreciation for this one. And yet, there are some (to me, anyway) important differences between this film and the novel. To give just a few examples, in the novel, one of the passengers on this fabled train ride is a rather frumpy, middle-aged American matron named Mrs. Hubbard. In the film, her character (Lauren Bacall had this role) is much more sophisticated and stylish; other elements of her backstory are changed as well. And some of the other characters’ names and even elements of their personalities have been changed from the original story. As fellow passenger Mary Debenham, for instance, Vanessa Redgrave is more flirtatious and less aloof than the character is in the novel. And the murder victim’s valet (played in the film by Sir John Gielgud) is called Masterman in the novel, but Beddoes in the film. Did those changes make the film better than it would have been if it were exactly faithful to the novel? That’s a matter of taste, of course.

W.S. Van Dyke’s 1934 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, which features PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora, is in some ways quite true to the original novel. A lot of the elements of the plot are the same, and most of the characters as well. But the film has a much lighter touch than the novel does. And interestingly enough, the film was so well-received that several more Thin Man films followed, although Hammett himself only wrote one novel about Nick and Nora Charles. Many people feel that the comedic elements in the film were positive changes; certainly they were popular with filmgoers.

One possible reason for which the Thin Man franchise has been so well-liked is that Hammett himself played a key role in the films’ production. I don’t have research data to support myself here, but I think there’s an argument that film and TV adaptations of novels benefit greatly from the original author’s input. When the original author is heavily involved in decisions such as screenplay, cast choices, and the like, the adaptation is more likely to reflect that author’s intent. So even if there are some differences between the screen version of a story and the print version, the soul of the story is there.

For instance, Kerry Greenwood insisted on being deeply involved in the production of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a series based on her Phryne Fisher novels. Here’s what she says:

 

‘So when I was asked to SELL her [Phryne Fisher] to the film people, I was firm. I had to choose the Phryne, I had to vet all the scripts, otherwise, no deal.’

 

That decision has proved to be a wise one. The television series, with Essie Davis in the title role, has been very successful (a third series is about to start soon!).

Fans of Colin Dexter’s work will know that he was very much involved in the adaptation of his Inspector Morse series for television. In fact, he based one of his novels (The Jewel That Was Ours) on an episode of the series, rather than the other way round, as is more usual. And Dexter has it written into his will that no actor other than the late John Thaw will be permitted to take the role of Morse. The only reason he’s consented to having Shaun Evans as Morse in the Endeavor series is that that character doesn’t compete with Morse as he (Dexter) wrote the character – older and (hopefully) more mature. Take it if you will as just my opinion, but that’s part of the reason that the Inspector Morse series was so well-made. John Thaw really was Inspector Morse, at least to me.

Ann Cleeves is less involved with Vera, the television series that features her DCI Vera Stanhope. But she is involved with the script writers, and,

 

‘I take the production team out to all the sites in Northumberland so they can see it for themselves.’

 

She also says that she has a good relationship with Brenda Blethyn, who has the title role.

And then there’s RAI’s Montalbano, based on Andrea Camilleri’s work, and starring Luca Zingaretti in the title role. Camilleri actually worked for RAI for several years, and has writing credits for 18 of the television episodes. And in an interesting twist, in Dance of the Seagull, Montalbano and his long-time lover Livia have a disagreement about where to go for a getaway trip. Montalbano doesn’t fall in with Livia’s ideas because,

 

‘‘They film them around there, you know….And what if I find myself face to face with the actor who plays me?…What’s his name – Zingarelli.’
‘His name’s Zingaretti, stop pretending you don’t know.’’

 

Again, this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do. But I think the series benefits a lot from Camilleri’s close involvement.

Space only allows me to mention a few of these adaptations (I know, I know, fans of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton as, respectively, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin). There are a lot of others.

What do you think of all of this? Is it important to you that the series be very faithful to the original? Are you willing to ‘buy’ certain differences? If you’re a writer, which aspects of your story would you hold out for if it were filmed? Which would you be willing to give up?
 

ps. Want to read more about film and TV adaptations? Do visit Tipping My Fedora. It’s an excellent blog, and Sergio knows more than I ever possibly could about crime fiction on film. Also visit Book vs Adaptations, a regular feature at Reactions to Reading, which is one of the finest book review blogs there is. You need these blogs on your roll if they’re not there already.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dana Suesse and Edward Heyman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Gail Bowen, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout