Archive

Posts Tagged ‘detective fiction’

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Illustrious Client (1991)

September 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Well, The Illustrious Client (1991) The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: Season 1, Episode 5, dramatised by Robin Chapman, is not really a classic mystery to be solved by the application of brain power. Rather it’s a sad story of Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) completely failing to protect himself as he takes on a ruthless criminal who seduces women into marrying him and/or giving him money so he can collect very rare Chinese Porcelain. A wiser detective would quietly but thoroughly investigate our villain from a distance, giving no sign of his passing. This precaution would protect him from the fate that befell Le Brun, a French investigator who was beaten almost to death. But, of course, this would mean no melodrama. So not only does our hero confront the villain but, when threatened, ignores the warning and so gets beaten within an inch of his life. This is genuinely one of the few occasions when it’s legitimate to call Sherlock a complete idiot.

Anthony Valentine as a collector of beauty

Anthony Valentine as a collector of beauty

This is a thred-bare story from Arthur Conan Doyle and we should accept the dramatisation and the acting as making the best of a bad job. Sherlock just blunders around like the arrogant and self-important man he is and then pays the price for it. All he needed to do was talk carefully with Miss Kitty Winter, the last mistress and key witness, realise what is important, and then adopt the approach used against Irene Adler. He could then discredit the man, save the girl, receive congratulations from all concerned, and avoid serious pain.

Everything stands or falls by the performance of Anthony Valentine as Baron Gruner. It actually proves to be a worthy effort. He’s given just enough to do and so demonstrates both “foreign” sophistication and a deadly side. The scene with Dr Watson (Edward Hardwicke) distracting him goes on slightly too long but is forgivable as an expert might play with an amateur just to humiliate him. As a matter of practicality, Robin Chapman as scriptwriter, does have to produce the right number of minutes on screen. Everyone else hits their marks. David Langton is the go-between, Abigail Cruttenden is suitably pigheaded as the intended victim (no real suggestion of hypnotism in the screenplay, just natural perversity). The only minor concern is Kim Thomson as Kitty Winter. In a way, she has to tread a narrow line between victim and a woman bent of revenge. Baron Gruner is supposed to be a collector of women. Miss Winter does not appear to be a very great beauty (although I’m old now and my aesthetic standards may be dropping). Neither does she sparkle with wit and intelligence. She’s just an artist’s model from the East End and I have a slight credibility problem that the Baron should have wanted to add this woman to his collection. She seems to lack the quality he would want to destroy. That said, The Illustrious Client is a fair to middling episode that trespasses too far into pure melodrama without many redeeming features to even approach a “good” standard.

For reviews of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes series, see:
The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991)
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991)
Shoscombe Old Place (1991)

Land of the Silver Dragon by Alys Clare

August 4, 2013 4 comments

Land of the Silver Dragon by Alys Clare

I confess to being a bit hazy about the history of Britain and Europe around 1090. Having read this book, I can authoritatively assert we had William II on the English throne, Roger I had conquered Sicily, Alexios Comnenus ruled in Constantinople, the Vikings had more consistently turned to trade, and we were building up to the First Crusade. That’s enough to be going on with. Historical fiction, particularly when it contains a detective element, is always a challenge to write. The author has to balance the need to inform against the need to develop the narrative. Very few people have any detailed knowledge of any historical period other than the one they are living through. To understand the context for the fictional action, there must be sufficient explanation of who everyone is and what they are doing. If the detail is insufficient, modern readers will not understand the characters’ motives. If the detail is too great, it becomes a history book with events illustrated through character studies and fictionalised versions of events. Neither extreme works well as entertainment. Land of the Silver Dragon by Alys Clare (Severn House, 2013) the fifth Aelf Fen Mystery fulfills the Goldilocks rule and is just right.

It all begins with the arrival of a pedlar announcing the murder of Utta of Icklingham. Hearing this are the first-person narrator Lassair, her mother and aunt. The news is distressing because the deceased is her sister’s mother-in-law. Goda, her sister is also injured in what seems to have been an early Middle Ages home invasion. Next the robber breaks into Chatteris Abbey where another sister, Elfritha, is a nun. This is followed by a break-in at the family home and the desecration of new graves at the local church. Lassair speculates that the robber is looking for something belonging to her Grandmother Cordeilla who has recently died. He believed it would have been handed down to one of the women in the family. Failing to find it among the living, he tried the graves to see if anything had been buried with the newly deceased. This pagan practice is now discouraged. The Church teaches that people should leave as naked as they came into the world. To make sure all is well, she goes to the secret family burial ground. It’s undisturbed. Her Aunt Alvela is then murdered which forces the family to send Lassair to safety in Cambridge with her teacher Gurdyman. Surprisingly, the robber follows her and searches the open sections of his house. Obviously he’s still not found what he’s looking for. After that, there’s only one thing left to do. Yes, Lassair is kidnapped.

Alys Clare

Alys Clare

There’s just enough detail of life in the villages under the Norman lords to let Lassair emerge as a credible character. Born into a family with some tradition as healers, she’s shown real aptitude and, under the guidance of her aunt and Gurdyman, she’s developing a good practical grasp early medical treatments. Taking an overview, the practical side of story works well, even when we get into the more thrillerish elements of the kidnapping and later fighting. The reason for all the attacks and deaths lies in a feud between different factions in an extended kin group. Both as fiction and as history, this all works well. Had this been the sum of elements in the book, I would have been full of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, I found my attention slipping when the fantasy element arrived.

Even today, some people believe in the supernatural. Given that our culture has passed out of the Dark Ages and into what’s supposed to be a more enlightened time, we can put this down to perversity. But almost one thousand years ago, it’s quite natural the characters would have sincerely believed in a range of supernatural phenomena. Indeed, as a practitioner of medical arts, Lassair would find some people wary of her as a potential practitioner of magical arts. In those days, it was easy to believe knowledge and skill was derived from divine forces (with Christianity only just gaining the ascendancy over the pagan religions) or diabolical sources. The average person could not understand or replicate the effects so there had to be a supernatural explanation. Hence, I have no problem with individuals being confused about what’s real or attributing magical powers to fetishes or artifacts. Indeed, even the most sophisticated of contemporary characters might genuinely believe in the power of a device or relic. Just as we talk blithely of the placebo effect today, people have always been capable of deceiving themselves into producing physical responses to inanimate objects. All it takes is the strength of the belief. But these characters are apparently experiencing real visions, can perform remote viewing. and have ESP skills of diagnosis, particularly when it comes to mental disorders. That doesn’t work for me. Either the author is writing a straight historical detective book or we abandon “reality” and write a fantasy. Elements attributed to supernatural causes would be consistent with the belief systems of the time. What we have here falls on the wrong side of the line. It’s a shame because this spoils what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable book. Land of the Silver Dragon ends up merely enjoyable.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991)

Well, in The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1991) The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: Season 1, Episode 4, dramatised by John Hawkesworth, we’re pursuing the theme of Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) forced outside his comfort zone and into the countryside. This time, he’s responding to a plea for help from Alice Turner (Joanna Roth). Her spunkiness is, in no small part, due to her Australian ancestry which, in Victorian times, was code for a wild savage. Her father owns most of the countryside around Boscombe Valley. Ah, those were the days when colonials could wander back to the Old Country and buy up a big hall and a few villages. Today, it’s left to Russian oligarchs and rock dinosaurs to keep up the tradition. So, en route to Boscombe, he stops in at a trout stream to collect poor Dr Watson (Edward Hardwicke) who’s enjoying a well-earned holiday from curing people and fighting crime. He’s given half-an-hour to pack up and be on the train. A few hours later, they are put up at the beautiful Gawsworth Old Hall masquerading as a local inn.

The story is now presented in a strictly chronological order. Inspector Summerby (Jonathan Barlow) takes them to meet Crowder (Cliff Howells) the gamekeeper. Although we get his story through flashbacks, the man himself is played for laughs and the Inspector contemptuously dismisses him as an ignorant local. As proof of his stupidity, the man cleaned the gun found at the scene, so there’s no evidence to show whether it was the murder weapon. The sum total of all the facts is that James McCarthy (James Purefoy) was seen arguing with his father, William (Leslie Schofield). A short while later, James came running to the gamekeeper saying there’d been a terrible accident. When they returned, they found James dead, his head bashed in. With no explanation of how his father died and no apparent evidence of anyone else present, James was charged by a coroner’s jury and now lies in jail awaiting trial for murder. We now meet Alice, the client, and learn of her love for James. Unfortunately, John Turner (Peter Vaughan), her father, does not agree to the marriage. Sherlock then visits James in prison and learns two points of interest. He has no explanation of how his father came to die, but confirms the man’s dying words dying words made some reference to a rat. Second, he had been through a form of marriage to a barmaid in Liverpool while drunk. Fortunately, he’s recently learned she was already married. This means his marriage was a nullity as bigamous and, so long as Alice does not learn of his infidelity and reject him, he’s free to marry her.

Peter Vaughan wearing a thoroughly Australian hat

Peter Vaughan wearing a thoroughly Australian hat

Holmes now does a finger-tip exploration of the ground where the killing occurred and offers one of his famous descriptions of the killer. He was left-handed, so tall, walked with a limp, used a holder to smoke cigars and kept a blunt penknife in his pocket. Inspector Summerby is dismissive because he cannot understand the method. Later Holmes explains that the angle from which the fatal blows were delivered to the head shows the blows could only have been made with the left hand. The strides were so far apart and that translates to height. The footprints were alternately heavy and soft showing a limp. There was ash proving he smoked cigars. One was found partly smoked. It had been roughly cut, suggesting a blunt knife and the “business end” had no teeth marks implying the smoker used a holder. In due course, this analysis is enough to secure the acquittal of James who is right-handed, has full use of both legs and does not smoke.

All it remains to do is comment on a few details. As always, Peter Vaughan is wonderful as the Australian made good although the scenes recreated to show the source of his wealth were laughably primitive. I’ve seen better at Wild West shows in country fairs. That Granada could not spend a little more to make it look better is rather sad. Secondly, Jeremy Brett’s health was failing quite badly when he made these episodes and, at times, the performance suffers. Finally, we come to the ultimate in morality questions. Not only does Holmes cover up the marriage attempted by James, he also conceals the identity of the left-handed killer. I’m not sure that this sentimentality fits the great man but, since that’s the way Conan Doyle wanted it, we should look the other way. John Hawkesworth has done his best to string this out to an hour and, although there are elements of repetition and gratuitous bits of business, he does the job reasonably well. The Boscombe Valley Mystery is quite good value for money.

For reviews of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes series, see:
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
The Illustrious Client (1991)
The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991)
Shoscombe Old Place (1991)

Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt

Killer's Art

Killers’s Art by Mari Jungstedt (Stockholm Text, 2013) translation by Tiina Nunnally, shows the very real problems of publishing books out of sequence. This is the second book published in English for the American market after The Dead of Summer, yet they are respectively the fourth and fifth books in the series. For the record, this translation was published in the UK in 2010. So for those of you in the US, this is your first chance to read what happened to persuade Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas to promote Karin Jacobsson as his deputy, and about the tragedy that drove Johan and Emma apart despite the fact they have a child together. Frankly I find this publication schedule incomprehensible. When the story of the police and journalist teams develops from book to book, why must American readers be invited to read it backwards? Perhaps if these books were predominantly standalone police procedurals, it would not matter very much. But these books have a more even balance between the story arcs of the series characters and the individual mysteries. In my opinion, there’s absolutely no justification for starting at book five and then publishing book four, when it would have been just as easy to commission the translation of book one and publish them in order in all markets so we could watch the background story play out. Or is the publisher making some kind of value judgement that, somehow, the readers in the American market are not yet ready to read the earlier books. Perhaps we should draw a parallel with the recent appearance of The Bat by Jo Nesbø. This is the first book featuring Harry Hole, written in 1997 but only now released in English. I note the parallelism that the first Hole book published was also the fifth, but we then dropped back to the third and were able to read the rest in sequence (we’re still missing the second but it’s due this year). When a story is written to be read in a particular order, why must the publisher frustrate the author’s intention and deny the readers the opportunity to watch the characters’ development in sequence?

Mari Jungstedt

Mari Jungstedt

 

Ah, well, rant over. We should just be grateful we have another book by this talented author. So here we are back on the island of Gotland, Sweden’s largest island and a signifiant province. Local residents of Visby, the main town, are shocked when Egon Wallin is found hanging from one of the gates in the wall — this is the best preserved mediaeval town in Scandinavia with a two mile section of wall ringing part of the town centre. Wallin ran a successful art gallery and died on the evening of hosting an event to launch a new artist in Sweden. From the outset it’s clear this was a murder but establishing the motive is complicated as it almost immediately appears he had made arrangements to leave his wife and join a gallery in Stockholm run by a partnership. Given the physical strength required to commit the murder and hang the body from the gate, the wife and her lover are ruled out. They would just have been glad to see him go. Indeed, there are no clues as to who would have wanted him dead until a famous painting, “The Dying Dandy” by Nils Dardel, is stolen in Stockholm. Again this appears a motiveless crime. The painting is so well known, it could never be sold on the open market and it seems not to be a theft for hire because the thief leaves behind a statue stolen from Wallin’s gallery the day he was killed. Why someone would kill a gallery owner in Visby and then steal a painting is a complete mystery (which is, of course, why we read these books).

 

The answers to the mystery of the murder and then theft are very satisfying. Even the red herring that appears quite early on is neatly tied in to the overall whodunnit package (albeit that the coincidence is only just acceptable because the number of people in the art world with the contacts to achieve particular ends would be limited). So as a police procedural, it works beautifully with the understandable despondency of the investigation team captured in the central section of the book as their leads all come to nothing. If there is a fault with the book, it lies in the time given to Anders Knutas, the lead detective. Whereas we are allowed to see into the lives of Johan Berg and his partner Emma, we see very little of the relationship between Knutas and his wife Lina. With the policeman so obsessed when a big case comes in, it strains the relationship not only with his wife, but also the rest of the family. Since the intention is to suggest sexual tension between Knutas and Karin Jacobsson, it’s not fair on the reader to skimp on the detail of the marriage. In a perfect world, a happily married Knutas would not be tempted, so failing to show how the time passes with Lina at weekends is lazy writing. With this one caveat, Killers’s Art is a genuinely impressive book with a realistic investigation into a pleasingly complicated case. I should warn readers that there are homosexual themes so, if this disturbs you, this may be a book to pass over. Hopefully, in these enlightened times, everyone will put prejudices to one side and read it. It’s one of the best Scandinavian police procedurals of the year so far published in the American market.

 

For a review of the sequel to this book, see The Dead of Summer.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)

Marple Julia McKenzie

As Agatha Christie Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009) gets underway with this latest slice of Golden Age detective fiction, we’re suddenly transfixed by the appearance of a number of “old stalwarts”. Well, perhaps “transfixed” is not quite doing justice to the moment. I confess to being stunned and amazed Joan Collins is still going strong. Born in 1933, she contrives to look younger than Julia McKenzie and Penelope Wilton. For the record, both the book and this script require all three to be approximately the same age, having attended the same school. I’m not sure how she’s managing to preserve her youthfulness but, if Joan Collins could put it in a bottle, she would make millions more than her acting career has so far delivered. This only leaves the problem of her screen presence which is what you might might call idiosyncratic. I suspect she’s always been less an actor and more a personality. Even at the height of her popularity in Dynasty, there’s a magnificently artificial quality about her. In this performance, she’s definitely not in the business of acting “with” Julia McKenzie. They both just happen to be on the screen at the same time. There’s also something distinctly weird about the accent adopted by Penelope Wilton. Not only is it uncertain what she’s supposed to be aiming at, the goalposts keep moving as her voice trembles into a different variation for every scene.

So where are we with this adaptation? In terms of fidelity to the book, we’re fairly accurate with two variations. In the novel, a part of the mansion has been turned over to house delinquent boys, whereas in this adaptation, we see a compound in the grounds for the rehabilitation of adult offenders. The second is a redesign of the group scene when Lewis Serrocold (Brian Cox) and Edgar Lawson (Tom Payne) have their argument — the body of Christian Gulbrandsen being found almost immediately afterwards. On balance, I think this an improvement over the book. What actually works well on the page might not look quite so good on the small screen. Whereas this rather cleverly preserves the spirit of the original while making it visually arresting and spreading the degree of uncertainty about who might have committed the murder. The arrival of Johnny Restarick (Ian Ogilvy) is also pleasing, allowing us to see the outside of the mansion from his perspective in flashback as he approached through the early evening mist.

Julia McKenzie and Joan Collins as "old friends"

Julia McKenzie and Joan Collins as “old friends”

For once, keeping the ending the same also works well given this motive for the murders. There’s considerable pathos in seeing this acted out. However the other elements of the ending are definitely not even vaguely realistic. The failed marriage between Gina Elsworth (Emma Griffiths Malin) and Wally Hudd (Elliot Cowan) has been nicely shown. She’s shamelessly flirting with all and sundry while he stares morosely into his morning porridge. Then, miraculously she’s reformed and goes off to produce multiple babies to populate a house on the prairies. It’s wholly incredible. I’m also not sure about the character of Mildred (Sarah Smart). Even allowing for the fact her mother is shown as a complete failure in the parenting stakes, she’s grown up into an embittered religious fanatic, considered somewhat loopy by everyone. To have her reconcile with her mother and essentially become “normal” is stretching credibility. Finally, we come to the core “romance” between the Serrocolds. Given this version of the story, their relationship is supposed to be deeply loving where he would do almost anything for her. Frankly, I think these parts fundamentally miscast or the director is seriously at fault. Penelope Wilton comes across as almost completely self-absorbed with little or no empathy as a parent or wife. After seeing him play an endless sequence of villains, it’s fun to see Brian Cox try to appear somewhat more normal. But this performance fails to show any affection. Although couples who have been married for a few years can lack the more obvious signs of passion, this couple just seems to be sharing occupation of the house and an interest in rehabilitating criminals. They’re more like colleagues than lovers.

The result of all this musing is another failure. I’m still not convinced by Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. She doesn’t feel proactive enough. When Joan Hickson was on the case, you felt a judge and jury had walked on to the screen to weigh the wickedness around her. For all her faults, Geraldine McEwan had a certain self-mockery about her performance, being fairly dotty and not averse to trying to matchmake when there was a young couple to push in the right direction. In this story, Miss Marple is supposed to walk into the household and take command to ensure nothing happens to her lifelong friend. Sadly, there’s absolutely no sign of that at all. So with all the weak performances and a fairly indifferent plot, Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors is showing every sign of continuing the decline of the series into oblivion.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)

April 14, 2013 2 comments

Marple Julia McKenzie

Well the first in this new series of Golden Age detective fiction gave us our first view of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple but she was kept rather in the background. This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009) keeps the character front and centre, offering us a better chance to evaluate the performance. The experience here is somewhat like watching Doctor Who, a character played by many actors over the years. This was always faintly disconcerting because, as each regeneration came, we got major shifts in age and attitude. Miss Marple, on the other hand, must always be reasonably old although even this was slightly bent out of shape by Angela Lansbury in The Mirror Crack’d (1980). The perennial problem of how to portray her lies in understanding her methodology. Once people huddle together into villages, they get sucked into the communal life. One of the most consistent characters is the gossip. This person is usually female and she prides herself on being able to ferret out who’s doing what to whom and why just by sitting in small groups and listening. In many communities where privacy is more highly valued, village gossips are rather disliked and, in some cases, feared.

Hence, when it comes to presenting a gossip on the screen as the heroine of a long-running series, the temptation is always to make her more likeable. Yet to defang her is to reduce her capacity for investigation. As drawn by Agatha Christie, this is a woman of intelligence who has observed life. She’s usually full of anecdotes about what the butcher did with his thumb when weighing the meat, and how many others whom she has known engaged in different types of dishonesty. She can be a little fierce sometimes. And herein lies the problem with Julia McKenzie. I think she’s altogether to pallid. Yes, you have the sense she’s intelligent, but there’s a lack of steel in her. This is a more passive Miss Marple, lacking any kind of quirkiness or eccentricity. She’s not even bumbling. The very least she could do is drop her ball of wool while knitting except we’re yet to see her knit. How is she supposed to eavesdrop on people in conversations if she can’t disappear into the background by appearing to concentrate on knit one, pearl one? If she’s supposed to be able to wangle information out of people, she should be more quickly able to blend into a conversation. In the first two episodes, there are too many silences and moments of slight awkwardness as she meets and talks with new people. I’m not convinced this is a good version of Miss Marple. I still prefer Joan Hickson with Margaret Rutherford a close second.

Benedict Cumberbatch  and Julia McKenzie making short work of the mystery

Benedict Cumberbatch and Julia McKenzie making short work of the mystery

As originally written, this is not a Miss Marple mystery. It features a free-standing Luke Fitzwilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) who’s returned from distant parts of the Empire where he was a police officer. After a casual meeting with a woman on the train, he’s the one who goes to the archetypal village to unmask the killer and fall in love. It’s one of these slightly wishy-washy stories in which mystery and romance go hand-in-hand through a serial killer case in a class-ridden village where there’s a faintly supernatural element in play — the local Lord is into sacrificing hens in pagan rituals. What we are presented with here is not simply a reworking of the story to introduce Miss Marple, but a wholesale revision of the story. This not only removes some characters and introduces new ones, but it also completely changes the motive for the murders — it even changes some of murder methods, e.g. from a hit-and-run car accident to pushing the victim down a long escalator on the London Underground.

I need to be clear on the basis for this review. I’m simply noting that this is nothing like the Christie original but judging the episode as presented on the screen. The first problem is in the number of men on display. If this is supposed to be just after the Second World War, most villages were predominantly female. Local land owners, being mostly Conservative in outlook and patriotic by disposition, had gone off the war. Many had failed to return. There were also not enough children in view. Babies were booming at this time as those men who had either avoided the call to duty or had managed to avoid death set out to repopulate the land. This version has Miss Marple, Luke Fitzwilliam and the local PC Terence Reed (Russell Tovey) combine to investigate. The presence of the PC gives a veneer of official approval for the investigation but, as written, there’s no consistency in the Constable who veers violently between being almost completely dim to being able to attribute a quote to Edmund Burke. As to the rest of the cast, it was pleasing in a good way to see Sylvia Syms and Tim Brooke-Taylor — I always fear old “friends” have died. Shirley Henderson does well as a younger version of Honoria Waynflete. Everyone else lurks in the background or keels over dead with the customary style. I was very surprised at the darkness of the motive for all the murders. It’s certainly not something that Agatha Christie would ever have introduced. I feel those adapting an old book for a modern audience have an obligation to keep motives consistent with the morality of the times shown. Although the biblical disposition of the child was not unreasonable, I’m not convinced the concealment of this set of circumstances would have led to so many deaths. In the original, the murderer was less than sane. The murderer in this version seems to have killed so many out of an excess of caution — something I find less than credible. So, overall, I find Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy disappointing.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)

Marple Julia McKenzie

Perhaps I’m just getting old and so more often find myself out of sympathy with television representations of the times from my youth. Although I failed to arrange being born into a rich family with a large country estate, we were on the periphery of the county set and I observed many people of the type we see on display in these period adaptations. The book on which Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008) is based was written and set in the 1950s and, as the title suggests, was another of these plots recycling nursery rhymes. At this point I need to distinguish between the source material and the most recent adaptation. I read this when it first came out in paperback around 1958 and, like many books by Agatha Christie, the actual characters are fairly irrelevant. They are the standard stereotypes who do what’s necessary to advance the plot. The basis of enjoyment lies in the rather nice construction of the puzzle. As is always the case when the reader is given a clue in the title, the question is whether the author is playing fair or the clue is actually a bluff. If it’s a bluff, whose bluff is it. The author could be setting out to mislead us from the moment we open the book or the murderer could be using the rhyme for a particular purpose. When I sat down to watch this, I confess I could not remember it. Many of the Agatha Christies have blurred together into a kind of generic lump of Golden Age Detective Fiction. Of all the authors who came to prominence in the 1920s and 30s, she proved to be the best at the mystery three-card-trick. You take a limited number of people, shuffle them around and then devise a set of circumstances in which a different person is the murderer for each book. It can even be everyone or the detective or, in one case, the first-person narrator. Everyone gets to play the part on the whim of the Queen of Crime. The result is there’s little memorable about the individual stories. What we tend to remember are the broad brushstrokes of the detectives and their immediate entourage, and occasional solutions which were outstandingly spectacular.

Ralf Little, Julia McKenzie and Matthew Macfadyen looking to investigate

Ralf Little, Julia McKenzie and Matthew Macfadyen looking to investigate

So here we are with another actress drafted in to play Miss Marple (I suppose Geraldine McEwan was just a little too long in the tooth as she approached her 80th birthday). This time, we’re off with Julia McKenzie. For the record, Joan Hickson featured in an adaptation of this novel that was shown in 1985. So those of you with memories like an elephant or a comprehensive set of DVDs can compare interpretations. This strikes me a somewhat bland but, in part, that’s because she shares the detecting spotlight with Inspector Neele (Matthew Macfadyen) and his faintly comic sidekick Sergeant Pickford (Ralf Little). Perhaps if she was allowed the starring role, we might see her performance in a better light.

As to the plot, we start off with the murder of Rex Fortescue (Kenneth Cranham). Have you noticed how often Agatha Christie gets the ball rolling by killing a bullying patriarch? It’s probably terribly Freudian that these guys always deserve to die. They are usually slightly on the upper side of middle class, reasonably wealthy but ultimately convinced the rest of the world contains an inferior species. In this case, he’s somewhat loopy which is not a desirable mental state for a man running an investment bank. He’s been moving out of all the good, safe bonds into new derivatives and other casino style financial products. This has been driving his son Percival (Ben Miles) nuts. The family were watching their wealth go down the toilet but would the old boy listen? So they were rescued when someone poisoned the idiot and left the rye in his pocket. Naturally Miss Marple is not a little upset when her ex-maid is also slaughtered while hanging out the clothes in the garden. That just leaves the queen to die in the parlour and the rhyme is complete.

Rupert Grave as the black sheep of the family

Rupert Grave as the black sheep of the family

The problem with this adaptation is that the characters are either the servants (the drunk butler and prickly cook) who are easy to spot, or generic wealthy middle class types, often with rather less middle class accents to show their feet of clay. Yes, wealthy people did marry beneath themselves in those days. A fact made embarrassingly obvious in this production by their low class accents and potentially boorish behaviour. And that’s what really depresses me about this adaptation. The class-based drama focuses on the pursuit of money and status. This unhappy shower may have acquired the money but they certainly have not acquired any manners to go with them. This is the noveau riche trying to live the life of the old money, upper class. Percival is the miser son, counting every penny. Lance Fortescue (Rupert Graves) flies in from Paris after his father’s death so he stands out a little as having a little more style. But then the black sheep of the family do tend to be charismatic.

Even though it relies on one person being extraordinarily stupid, I suppose the plot is one of the better ones with the way in which the evidence emerges staying true to the book. I’m going to reserve judgement on Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. We just don’t see enough of her in this episode. So A Pocket Full of Rye is reasonably entertaining for a show of this type if you can stand being cooped up with this group of rather unpleasant figures for two hours.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

%d bloggers like this: