Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

There’s a Pawn Shop on a Corner*

Pawn ShopsMany people have times in their lives when they’ve run low on money and need a loan. One place people go is, of course, to a bank. But a bank loan isn’t always feasible – not if you have no credit (or poor credit). Besides, banks require information that some people would rather not provide, particularly if they want to stay ‘off the grid.’ So there are plenty of people who look for other ways to raise money quickly.

One solution is the pawn shop. Pawn shops have been around for a very long time, and still provide an important service. Some are disreputable, and even dangerous. But lots of them are simply businesses, like any other small business. And they can provide important clues to detectives who are trying to form a portrait of a murder victim. After all, financial situations can be powerful motives, or at least valuable clues, as to the story behind a killing. What’s more, they can be fascinating in their own right, considering all of the interesting merchandise they may sell.

For a long time, it was a cause for deep shame (and still is, in some cases) if a wealthy family was in need of money. Such people often didn’t want to risk others knowing about their situation, so they wouldn’t go to banks for a loan. Instead, they’d go to places such as pawn shops. That’s the sort of client who might have visited the pawn shop of Jabez Wilson, whom we meet in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-Headed League. Wilson visits Sherlock Holmes because he’s had a very strange experience. He saw and responded to an advertisement for a job doing easy work. The only requirement was that the successful candidate must have red hair. At first, the job worked out well; Wilson was asked to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was easy enough, and he was paid. But one day, he went to work as usual only to find the doors locked and a sign announcing the disbanding of the Red-Headed League. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate this league, and find that the whole thing was really a cover for a plot to rob a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to persuade her husband, the 4th Baron Edgware, to grant her a divorce so she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot reluctantly agrees to at least speak to Edgware, and he and Captain Hastings make a visit. Edgware tells them that he has no objections to a divorce; surprised by this, Poirot and Hastings pass the news on to their client. That night, Edgware is stabbed. His wife is the obvious suspect, and it doesn’t help her case that someone who looked just like her came to the house and gave her name at the door just before the murder. But Jane says she was at a party in another part of London, and there are plenty of people who will swear she was there. As Poirot, Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp look for other suspects, they concentrate on Ronald Marsh, Edgware’s nephew and the heir to both title and fortune. It turns out that he was in real financial trouble and his uncle refused to help. When his alibi proves false, Marsh says that he was desperate for money, and that his cousin Geraldine, the victim’s daughter, gave him her pearls to pawn. The pawn shop proprietor supports Marsh, too. It’s an interesting look at the way someone might raise money quickly at that time.

Aaron Elkins’ Loot introduces us to Boston pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. One day an unusually valuable object comes his way. Someone drops off what could be a rare painting at the shop. Pawlovsky wants a sense of how much it’s worth, so he calls his friend, art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. Revere visits the shop and takes a look at the painting. Much to his surprise, it looks like a priceless Velázquez, one of several paintings that were ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. Revere wants to do more research on the work, and at first, wants to take it with him. Pawlovsky refuses, even though it’s quite dangerous for him to keep something so valuable in his shop. Reluctantly, Revere agrees to do his research and come back later. When he does, he discovers Pawlovsky’s body. He feels guilty about what might be his role in the man’s death; besides, he wants to know who killed his friend. So he decides that if he can trace the painting forward, from the time the Nazis took it to the time it showed up in the shop, he can find out who the murderer is. The trail leads to Europe and some very dangerous people…

Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo is the first outing for his Harry Bosch, who’s with the LAPD. When the body of an unknown man is found in a drainpipe, it’s assumed the victim is a junkie who died of an overdose. But Bosch finds out to his shock that the dead man is Billy Meadows, a friend from Bosch’s stint in Vietnam. He looks back over the case to find out who would have wanted to kill Meadows. One of the clues that was missed in the first, cursory investigation is a pawn ticket that was in the dead man’s pocket. He traces that ticket to the pawn shop of a Mr. Obina, who has his own story to tell. His shop was broken into, and he’s been waiting for someone – anyone – to come and take a report and investigate. Bosch does what he can to get someone out there quickly; in return, Obina tells him that the bracelet corresponding to the pawn ticket was stolen in the robbery. It turns out that the theft of the bracelet is closely related to Meadows’ murder.

Private detective Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver finds a pawn shop useful in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour hires Gilver when she begins to suspect that her husband may be trying to kill her. Gilver takes a job at the Balfour home as a maid and begins her investigation. One night, Lollie’s husband Philip ‘Pip’ is murdered. The police take over the case, and Gilver provides what help she can. There are several possibilities when it comes to suspects, because to say the least, the victim was not popular. His will opens up other possibilities. In the process of following up leads, she decides to learn more about Phyllis, the housemaid. One day, Gilver follows Phyllis as she goes on her ‘day out.’ Surprisingly, Phyllis goes to a pawn shop. At first, Gilver thinks that Phyllis has got hold of some family treasure or other and is pawning it to line her pockets. But as it turns out, she has another reason for going…

Pawn shops can be really interesting places in and of themselves, and there are often a lot of personal stories that go with the merchandise. Little wonder they have their place in crime fiction. I’ve had my say. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Merrill’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

18 Comments

Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catriona McPherson, Michael Connelly

Residents Are More Than Welcome*

Boarding HousesIt can be a challenge to find a place to live, especially if you don’t have much in the way of means, or if you’re not planning to be in a place long enough to purchase property. And in times past, it wasn’t considered appropriate for, especially, young ladies to live on their own. So boarding houses and homes that offer lodging had real appeal. There were a variety of them, too, ranging from seedy and dangerous to luxurious.

You don’t see boarding houses and lodging places as much as in the past, although they’re still there. And the arrangement does make sense. The homeowner gets extra income; the lodger gets less expensive accommodations and, depending on the arrangement, meals. Boarding houses also make for effective settings and contexts for crime fiction. That makes sense too, when you consider the variety of different personalities, and the conflicts that can come up.

One of the more famous lodgings in crime fiction is of course 221B Baker Street, where Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes lodges. His landlady is Mrs. Hudson, who’s gotten accustomed to his eccentric ways, although they are unusual. In fact in stories such as The Adventure of the Empty House, she is helpful to Holmes in his cases. In that particular adventure, Holmes is targeted by an associate of his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and wants to lay a trap for the man who’s been trying to kill him. So he has a bust of himself placed in his sitting room. Then, he has Mrs. Hudson move the bust at certain intervals, so that it looks as though he’s actually there. In that way, Holmes and Dr. Watson are able to catch the would-be assassin.

Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger, introduces us to Ellen and Robert Bunting, who’ve retired from domestic service. They don’t have much in the way of income, and have decided to open their home to a lodger. However, Ellen Bunting is quite particular about the kind of person she’ll allow to live in her home, so their extra space has gone unused for some time. Then one day, a man who calls himself Mr. Sleuth applies for the room. He seems to be ‘a gentleman,’ and has quiet habits, so the arrangement is made and he moves in. The Buntings soon learn that Mr. Sleuth is a little eccentric, but he doesn’t cause them trouble. More to the point, he pays well and on time. In the meantime, the Buntings have been anxiously following the story of several murders that have occurred in London, all committed by a killer calling himself The Avenger. Very slowly, Ellen Bunting begins to wonder whether her lodger may in fact be The Avenger. She doesn’t want to admit it at first, because she and her husband really need the income they get from Mr. Sleuth’s residence there. But before long, she’s faced with the reality that she may be shielding a killer.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, Dr. Gideon Fell is faced with a very strange boarding-house mystery. An apparently homeless man has been stabbed to death in the home of clockmaker Johannes Carver, who has opened his home to boarders. The victim isn’t what he seems though; instead, he is a police detective named Ames, who’d come to the boarding house to arrest one of the lodgers for a prior shoplifting incident. Of course, this is a Carr mystery, so the solution is not as simple as a thief who kills to avoid being arrested. As Fell looks into the matter, we see the different kinds of things that can happen in a boarding house…

There’s always a certain amount of risk when you open your home to boarders. So in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, no-one is shocked when James Bentley is arrested for the murder of his landlady Mrs. McGinty, who was a charwoman. Bentley didn’t fit in well in the village of Broadhinny anyway, and everyone is quick to believe that he is guilty. But Superintendent Spence, who in fact investigated the murder for the police, has come to believe that Bentley may be innocent. He’s been assigned to another case, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot begins to ask questions, he soon learns that Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about the people whose homes she cleaned. When she learned something that was too dangerous for her to know, she paid the price for it. Fans of this novel will also know that Poirot himself takes a room in a guest house called Long Meadows. It’s run by two very – erm – unsophisticated owners, Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes. Some of the scenes that take place at Long Meadows are (at least in my opinion) really funny, just because of the difference between Poirot’s expectations and habits and the Summerhayes’ approach to running the place.

Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down explores the lodging/boarding relationship as well. Mix Cellini takes rooms in a house owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. He doesn’t find his landlady particularly appealing; she’s mentally unsound, and as we learn about her history, we see why. And the feeling of distaste is mutual, since Cellini has plenty of his own issues. He’s got a host of phobias and obsessions that make him a difficult person. But the two do need each other financially, so they make an arrangement. Cellini’s job is repairing exercise equipment; that’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He soon becomes obsessed with her, and that obsession begins to take over his life. So does his obsession with notorious killer Dr. Richard Christie…

Some of Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn novels have a boarding house context. As that series begins, Kelling is a widow who’s decided to open her Boston home to boarders (Bittersohn is one of those boarders). She’s a ‘blueblood,’ so she is extremely particular about the sort of boarding house she will run. Her first lodgers are each a little eccentric in their ways, but all starts well enough. Then she takes on Barnwell ‘Barney’ Augustus Quiffen. From the start, he is an annoying resident. He has a habit of complaining about everything, and demanding all sorts of extra service (and complaining again about the quality of that service). He soon succeeds in upsetting everyone, including Kelling. Then one day, he suddenly dies in what looks like a tragic fall under a subway car. The next morning, a strange woman shows up at the boarding house claiming that she witnessed what happened, and that it wasn’t an accident. And when the police begin to show up, too, asking questions, Kelling finds herself more involved in the investigation than she’d thought.

Boarding houses may not be as common as they were, but they’re still out there. And they do play interesting roles in crime fiction…

ps.  This whole topic got me thinking about B&B’s, which are (at least to me) a different kind of accommodation. A post on that is on tap for tomorrow…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House.

38 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Dickson Carr, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ruth Rendell

I Keep My Visions to Myself*

cards close to the chestOne of the many balances that crime writers consider is how much to share with readers. As the sleuth gets information and forms theories, is it better to let readers in on that thought process, or is it better for the sleuth to ‘hold the cards close to the chest?’ On the one hand, most people agree it’s important to ‘play fair’ with readers and give them the information they need to make sense of the mystery. On the other hand, many readers enjoy being challenged and not always knowing what the sleuth is thinking and what her or his theories are. And readers want to remain engaged in a story; so if the author is going to reveal the sleuth’s thinking process, there need to be other aspects of the story that keep readers invested.

Different authors have taken different approaches to this question. In some cases, the sleuth is quite tight-lipped about what she or he is thinking until ‘the big reveal.’ For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. By the end of a given story, we know what the clues are that led Holmes to a given deduction. And fans will know that Holmes is a stickler for following evidence in a scientific way. But he doesn’t reveal his theory until he’s ready. In The Sign of the Four, for instance, Watson asks about Holmes’ theory about certain footprints. Holmes’ reply is:
 

‘You know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results.’
 

Watson is no mental slouch; still, he never fails to be surprised by Holmes’ deductions. Neither do we.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a bit like that too. As he himself says, he doesn’t always look for things such as cigarette ash or unusual shoe prints. But like Holmes, he tends to keep his theories to himself. He says it’s because he may be wrong, and doesn’t want to sway anyone else if he is. But in Death on the Nile, he hints at another reason for which he doesn’t reveal his theories until the last moment:
 

‘‘I like to say, ‘See how clever is Hercule Poirot!’’
 

Even die-hard Poirot fans will admit that he does like to be the admired focus of attention. Christie fans will also know that Miss Marple isn’t always exactly forthcoming about her theories either. She offers hints here and there, but seldom explains herself before the ‘big reveal.’

Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver is another sleuth who doesn’t share much about her thought process as a story goes on. She listens to her clients, makes suggestions, does her own investigation and the like. But we often don’t know exactly what her theory is until she’s ready to explain it all. There are a lot of other fictional sleuths who take a similar approach (I know, I know, fans of Ellery Queen).

Keeping one’s cards close to the chest can be effective in a story. But readers can also be drawn in when they have the opportunity to follow along as the sleuth works things out. This allows for certain plot twists and other events when the sleuth makes the occasional mistake. After all, sleuths are only human…

There are a lot of examples of this approach. One is Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series. Marconi is a detective with the New South Wales Police. As she investigates cases, she frequently talks over her ideas with her police partners Dennis Orchard and, later, Murray Shakespeare. Fans of this series will know that it also features paramedics who figure in some way or other into each plot. Howell shares their thoughts as well. But Marconi is sometimes wrong, and in any case, isn’t privy to everything. So Howell can build suspense without having Marconi keep her theories to herself.

Readers are also ‘in on’ the way Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace thinks. And so are his colleagues. As he investigates murders, he often shares ideas with his team-mates, particularly his second-in-command, Glenn Branson. The tension is built in these novels in part because the reader also knows some things that the detectives don’t know. We aren’t told everything of course, but James shares the points of view of several characters. This strategy gives the reader some omniscience and allows for suspense (i.e. ‘Is Grace going to find out that X knows about Y, and is lying about it?’). So even though we know what Grace and his teammates are thinking, there are still plot twists in the series.

One of the more interesting examples of sharing what detectives are thinking is the case of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay/Mumbai Police. Ghote is a reflective police officer who often mulls over things. For instance, at the beginning of Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg, he’s sent to a small town to investigate a fifteen-year-old murder as quietly as possible. This mission concerns an Eminent Figure of such high rank that it’s thought Ghote ought to use some sort of guise, rather than go as a police officer. The Eminent Figure instructs Ghote to go as a salesman for a new chicken-feed product. Here’s what Ghote thinks about it:
 

‘Ghote had rejected the notion of explaining to the Eminent Figure that…in the remote part of the state to which he was being sent chickens were just one more set of scavengers feeding where they could on what they could find.
After all, one did have a duty to feed one’s family. There could be no gainsaying that.
But he hoped profoundly, now that he had arrived, that the disguise the bold, orange box provided would be sufficient.’
 

Ghote ponders his cases themselves in the same way. So in that sense, he doesn’t hold the cards particularly close to his chest as far as the reader is concerned. At the same time, there are enough surprises that the reader doesn’t know everything right away.

The decision on whether to have a sleuth hold a lot back or not arguably depends on the kind of story the author is creating and the sort of suspense the author wants to build. What do you think about this strategy? Does it bother you when the sleuth holds the cards very closely? Do you like to know what the sleuth is thinking the whole time? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this matter?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams.

30 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, H.R.F. Keating, Katherine Howell, Patricia Wentworth, Peter James

She Lived There With This Roommate I Despised*

RoommatesVery often, young people don’t have the means to purchase or even lease a place to live by themselves. So they room with another person (sometimes more than one person). In fact, rooming together is a lot more common at universities (especially for undergraduates) than is having a place to oneself.

The roommate relationship is a very unusual one, if you think about it. In a lot of cases, roommates are not relatives or family members. And yet, they may know more about one another than family does. And there are all kinds of things that can happen between roommates, too. If you’ve seen Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female, you know some of what can happen. Even if you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you have your own ‘roommate stories.’

Roommates also figure into crime fiction. That makes sense, simply because of the relationship. Here are just a few examples.

Of course one of the best-known set of fictional roommates is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For many of the stories in that series, they share rooms at perhaps crime fiction’s most famous address, 221B Baker Street. They’re very different people, but they manage to make it work.

Agatha Christie’s Third Girl is in part the story of three young women who share a London flat. Claudia Reese-Holland and Frances Cary share with Norma Restarick, who’s been brought in as a ‘third girl:’
 

‘The main girl takes a furnished flat, and then shares out the rent. Second girl is usually a friend. Then they find a third girl by advertising if they don’t know one…First girl takes the best room, second girl pays rather less, third girl less still and is stuck in a cat-hole.’
 

Norma pays a cryptic visit to Poirot, and then changes her mind, saying he’s ‘too old.’ Shortly thereafter, she disappears. Poirot’s friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, knows who Norma is, and is interested in the mystery. So she works with Poirot to find out what happened to Norma and what it all may have to do with a murder that may have occurred. It’s an interesting look at taking a place together in London in the 1960s.

In Edward D. Hoch’s short story The Oblong Room, we meet university roommates Ralph Rollings and Tom McBern.  Connecticut police detective Captain Leopold is sent to the local university campus when Rollings’ body is found with stab wounds in it. McBern is in the room (which is locked), and apparently has been for two days. At first, no-one says anything about what happened – not McBern and not the young woman both roommates admired. Without any background, it’s hard to pinpoint a motive, but in the end, Leopold gets there. In this case, the motive is as unusual as the ‘locked room’ nature of this crime is.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers introduces readers to his sleuth Matthew Scudder. In this first novel, Scudder hasn’t yet got his PI license, but he does occasionally do a little very informal work for people. Successful businessman Cale Hanniford has heard about Scudder and want to hire him. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has been murdered, and all of the evidence points to her roommate, twenty-one-year-old Richard Vanderpoel. In fact, Hanniford doesn’t even want Scudder to investigate the murder. Rather, he wants to know more about the daughter from whom he’d become estranged. He’s hoping Scudder can help him understand the kind of person Wendy had become, and what led to her death. Rather reluctantly, Scudder agrees and asks some questions. As he does, he begins to wonder whether her roommate was actually responsible. In the end, he finds that Wendy’s murder is not as simple as it seems.

Neither is the murder of Kate Sumner, which we read about in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. Two young boys who out exploring find her body on the beach near Chapman’s Poole, Dorset. The alarm is raised and PC Nick Ingram begins to investigate. In the meantime, a toddler, who turns out to be Kate’s daughter Hannah, is found wandering around the nearby town of Poole. Gradually, the police trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and narrow the suspect list down to three people. One is Kate’s husband William. Another is a local schoolteacher Tony Bridges. A third is Bridges’ roommate, actor Stephen Harding. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that all three men had a motive, and that Kate’s complicated personal life and psychology have everything to do with her murder.

A group of college roommates features in Lisa Unger’s In the Blood. Lana Granger is a college senior who’s done everything possible to hide the darkness in her past. She’s managing, with difficulty at times, to function and is currently finishing her degree. As the story opens, she shares a dormitory suite with Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller and a third roommate, Ainsley. Then, Lana’s mentor recommends her for an after-school nanny job supervising Luke Kahn. Luke’s had severe psychological/emotional problems; even on his best days, he can be difficult. Lana takes the job, although she’s a bit reluctant about it. Things begin to go downhill, as the saying goes, when Lana suspects that Luke is manipulating her. Then one terrible night, Beck disappears. It’s not long before she’s officially reported missing, and Lana becomes the chief suspect, since she had an argument with Beck that evening. Lana claims that she doesn’t know what happened to her roommate, but the police aren’t ready to take her word for it. And the more they learn about that night, the more they question what she says. The truth about what happened isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems. Without spoiling the story, I can say that one of the things we see in this novel is college campus ‘roommate life.’

Living with someone who’s not a family member and not a romantic partner can be odd at times. In its way, it’s a very intimate relationship; yet, most of the time, roommates aren’t related. It’s certainly an interesting dynamic, so it’s no wonder it pops up in crime fiction. Got any ‘roommate war stories’ you’d like to share?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ She Just Happened.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward D. Hoch, Lawrence Block, Lisa Unger, Minette Walters

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.

34 Comments

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