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The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)

December 5, 2014 1 comment

11_Moji_no_Satsujin-p2

The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011) is a made-for-television film version of Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken (1991) by Keigo Higashino. The best way to describe the nature of the plot is as a classic Golden Age detective format in service of a revenge thriller. So where do we start? Eriko Kiryu (Takako Tokiwa) is seen arriving at the exclusive guest house owned by the Hara family. In the best metafictional style, she tells viewers she’s come for revenge. The family are attending for the reading of the will left by Takaaki Hara (Soichiro Kitamura).  She believes one of those attending was responsible for killing her lover, Jiro Satonaka (Kei Tanaka) and almost strangling her to death in an earlier attack at this guest house. Why, you ask, will no-one recognise her and therefore take precautionary measures against her? She was very badly burned in the fire and so has had substantial reconstructive cosmetic surgery. In fact, she’s been made to resemble a cousin of the patriarch — not someone close enough to the patriarch to be in line to inherit. Her presence will therefore not seem threatening to the principal beneficiaries. This will put her in the best position to act as an amateur detective to try to identify who killed Jiro, attacked her, and set the fire that left her disfigured.

Eriko Kiryu (Takako Tokiwa) announces she has the will

Eriko Kiryu (Takako Tokiwa) announces she has the will

 

This is a Golden Age type of problem because all the family members then at the guest house had a motive to kill Jiro and/or her. Any one of them could have entered her room either by walking along the corridor or by walking through the garden and passing through the sliding window. As Eriko Kiryu, she was only a personal secretary but became a target because she was the most trusted member of the group of people surrounding Takaaki Hara. Despite their significant age difference, some even speculated Takaaki Hara might marry her or leave her ownership of the businesses and the money simply to spite the money-grubbing family members. Eliminating her removed one of the possible threats to the family inheriting the estate. We later learn there was also a reason for killing Jiro Satonaka, but it’s not clear how many of the family would have been aware of it.

Chief inspector Yasaki (Takashi Naito)

Chief inspector Yasaki (Takashi Naito)

 

To stir things up, she announces to the family at their first evening meal that she has a copy of the will made by Eriko Kiryu. It’s strongly hinted that the will contains information that will help identify who killed Jiro Satonaka. Needless to say, the envelope supposedly containing the will is stolen from her room and the thief is later found murdered. This brings Chief inspector Yasaki (Takashi Naito) to the guest house and a race develops. Will Eriko Kiryu work out who killed Jiro and take her revenge before the Chief Inspector realises she’s a fake and takes her out of the picture? Obviously, the same set of people are present as guests on both occasions, so it’s probable the same killer is at work. Ironically, this second death also benefits all those in line for inheritance. One less to inherit means more for the survivors. Despite watching the ending twice, I remain uncertain about the mechanics of who precisely is present at the relevant earlier times. I can envisage how the first death and attempted strangling must have been done, but I’m not convinced that’s what we see. Despite this, the amateur and professional detective are impressive in their ability to see through some of the deceit. And there’s a nice irony that Eriko Kiryu is not quite as close to unmasking as she might have feared. That said, her haste to take her revenge does produce a most interesting revelation. That the official investigation might have identified the killer from the forensic evidence is left hanging in the air. So The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 is fairly impressive with a nice array of unpleasant relatives queuing up to inherit to choose from as the killer.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Salvation of a Saint
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

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Hit and Run by Sandra Balzo

June 9, 2014 2 comments

Hit and Run by Sandra Balzo

Hit and Run by Sandra Balzo (Severn House, 2014) is the third Main Street Mystery and sees AnnaLise Griggs hired to do a biography of Dickens Hart. Back in the 1970s, he achieved some degree of notoriety by opening the White Tail Lodge, a copy of the Playboy concept with scantily clad women waiting tables for the edification of the male (club) members. He has records and diaries. She’s to edit them into a coherent story of his experiences. That he also happens to be her biological father came as a surprise, but she’s adjusting to the idea, particularly as it helps pay her bills. As part of this foray into the past, Dickens wants to track down all the women he has slept with (at least sixty-three before the cut) and any children he might have sired. There’s a plan to remember his children in the will. Yet bringing everyone together over Thanksgiving may be a little dangerous. So the invitations are limited to just those three women who might have produced his children, those children, and assorted ex-wives.

We’re then briefly back in the small town of Sutherton in the High Country of North Carolina to catch up with the extended family of Daisy Griggs and her best friend Phyllis ‘Mama’ Balisteri, before heading back for the Thanksgiving from Hell. Think of it this way. We have a relatively isolated house with a limited number of people to create the Golden Age situation. The invitees are all actual or potential gold-diggers, with a few ex-wives thrown in for good measure, a lawyer, and AnnaLise taking the moral high road, claiming she don’t want none of her natural father’s money. Except, early on in the holiday, she discovers one of the two women she relates to as her mother has run up major medical bills ($83,000 to be precise). Although AnnaLise has been paid half her fee for writing the biography up front, the $50,000 in hand is going to be swallowed up. Ironically, she discovers she may actually not want to share Dickens’ estate with anyone else if Daisy Griggs is really ill. So we get through the first day and early the next morning, the Chef has disappeared and the inevitable body is discovered. Predictably, Dickens is found naked on his bed with the back of his head smashed in by the bottle shown on the jacket artwork.

Sandra Balzo

Sandra Balzo

This gives us the classic murder mystery scenario with almost everyone in residence having a motive for wanting the old man dead. The plot is meticulously put together but I confess to finding it slightly difficult to relate to the geography of the house itself. Since a part of the solution depends on where everyone is, who can see what from where, and where corridors and doors lead to, a floor plan might have been useful. Although I concede that since the journalist as sleuth only discovers some features of the house quite late on in the book, having a plan might enable us readers to pre-empt the solution of the crime. That may be a bad thing. I’m not sure.

I’m also not sure the plot is dynamic enough. Without some of the humour on display in other books she has written to carry us through, I felt this narrative lost pace coming up to the midway point. It does slowly pick up again as AnnaLise naturally comes under suspicion. Since she’s the only proven heir at this point, she would have a motive for killing her natural father before he can change the will to include any other offspring. In the end, the solution to the murder proves rather tragic. There’s a certain quite pleasing malevolence about the plan and, when events don’t quite work out as expected, the cover-up of whodunnit is ingenious. That means I give top marks for the plot in hindsight, but think Hit and Run would have been better if some of the detail had been pruned and a little humour had been injected into the proceedings.

For the review of another book by Sandra Balzo, see Murder on the Orient Espresso.

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

A Colourful Death by Carola Dunn

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

A Colourful Death by Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn is attempting a difficult balancing act in her series titled A Cornish Mystery (this was the second in the series, now being reprinted in paperback). At one level, the series is historical mysteries. I say that in the broadest sense of the words because fifty years is not a long period of time in numerical terms. Having lived through the 1960s, I can confirm it might just as well have been more than a century ago. The culture then was radically different from the culture that envelopes us today. In that respect, Ms Dunn has got the time and place right. Although I’ve only visited Cornwall a couple of times, I recognise the village mentality of the time. As is somewhat appropriate for the time setting, we’re also playing with a Golden Age format of mystery to solve. Although there’s a minor role for forensic science in the relevant deaths, none of the evidence supplied by the scientists is used to solve the crimes. As a police procedural with an old lady in satellite mode to offer helpful insights, the crime is solved by the application of intelligence. Perhaps more importantly, we’re allowed a clear view of the facts as they emerge. There’s a limited pool of suspects. Hence, from quite early on, it’s fairly clear whodunnit even though the motive remains more challenging until quite near the end.

Thus, A Colourful Death (Minotaur Books, 2013) appeals as an exercise in nostalgia both in revisiting a time long lost and a format of writing now potentially considered old-fashioned. In modern police procedurals, we’ve grown used to seeing greater realism with more gritty plots and all the expertise of the different police departments brought to bear in analysing the evidence and identifying the criminals. Back in the 1960s, life in the south west of England was somnolent. Although lip service was paid to the forensic skills of the Met and better equipped urban police forces, local Cornish officers preferred to accept the superficial explanations as true so they could get back to their young wives to resume the sexual activity so rudely interrupted by the commission of crimes. It takes the dedication of one or two professions to get the real work done.

Carola Dunn

Carola Dunn

The hub of the plot is Eleanor Trewynn, a character slightly more robust than Miss Marple, but in the same basic mould. She’s travelled the world, observing human nature. With the death of her husband, she’s now settled in Cornwall and has tuned into the local gossip mill which knows everything unimportant about everyone, and a few important things about those who matter for stories like this. We start off with Eleanor meeting artist Nick Gresham from the London train. When he gets back to his small gallery which was under the care of Stella Weller, he discovers his paintings have been vandalised by Geoffrey Monmouth. After an hour to cool down, he goes over to confront the man. As you might predict, he discovers the vandal dead on his studio floor with a knife in his back. The easy explanation adopted by the first senior officer on the scene is that Nick is the murderer. Fortunately, Detective Inspector Scrumble, ably assisted by Eleanor’s niece, Detective Sergeant Megan Pencarrow, take up the case and quickly realise it’s not as easy as first thought. We then get twin track investigations as Eleanor and the vicar’s wife talk to a range of people, while the police formally interview possible suspects. Thus, by different routes, our sleuth and the police arrive at the same result. The formal reveal at the end is a team effort to the solicitor of one of the deceased.

Because it’s fairly obvious who must have done it despite the few red herrings that get dragged across the trail, the interest lies both in the recreation of the time and literally observing the process of detection. So this is more in the spirit of an inverted crime novel than a mystery novel. There’s nothing wrong with this except the book lacks a little of the suspense normally associated for more formal whodunnits. All this leaves me with the conclusion that A Colourful Death is better than The Valley of the Shadow but that’s not great praise.

For reviews of other books by Carola Dunn, see Heirs of the Body and The Valley of the Shadow.

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

The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards

The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards

The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) A Lake District Mystery 6 is an intriguing trip down memory lane for me. Being old enough to have lived through a part of what some historians would have us call the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, there’s always a nostalgic resonance when I pick up a book like this. Although set in contemporary England, and specifically in the Lake District, a picturesque area in the North West which I know reasonably well, the essence of the book is instantly recognisable. This is what we might reasonably call a middle class murder, albeit one shading towards the upper than the lower reaches.

Daniel Kind, our amateur detective, is one of these academics who’s made the transition from bookish don to television personality. Not for him the swanning around Oxford, emerging briefly from library stacks to vouchsafe a few words of wisdom to reluctant students. He’s been beamed into people’s living rooms, pontificating about this and that with his cut-glass accent, good looks, and incredible command of his subject matter. Ah such are the joys of the cult of personality. Better still, as the son of a senior ranking police officer, he comes equipped with the interest and skills to be an investigator. You can’t ask for a better stereotype than this. Also lurking in the foreground is DCI Hannah Scarlett, a reasonably senior police officer who worked with the aforementioned celebrity’s father, and now runs the cold case department in Cumbria (given the customary weather conditions, that’s a good department to run). She’s also middle class and, of course, going through the usual relationship angst that afflicts women who are trying to balance career with a “happy ever after” relationship. Naturally, once this pair overcome their immediate social problems, they are made for each other.

Martin Edwards shows off his teeth

Martin Edwards shows off his teeth

In this case, the investigative relationship is slightly better balanced than usual. When detective fiction was first setting off, we had Sherlock’s genius described by his sidekick John Watson. As a fictional ploy, this gives us an Everyman to follow around in the footsteps of the Great Man to be amazed by his brilliant insights. Hannah Scarlett as a potential partner is no dummy and, given the right circumstances and a little more ambition, she could easily rise to the highest levels. She’s very comfortable in the presence of our academic celebrity and not at all phased by the status of those whom she must investigate. Between them, they are inspired by the idea of arriving at a result which represents “justice” as an abstract ideal. This particular hamlet has a history which involves an unsolved murder where the battered face of the victim was covered by a blanket (the shroud of the title although there’s a different type of shroud that puts in an appearance later in the book). So the academic historian is off to trawl through the local records while the modern replication of the murder falls to the police. Except, of course, there’s no such thing as coincidence. By the time we have three deaths with the faces of the battered victims covered by a blanket, even the most dimwitted would see a connection. The problem, therefore, is to explain what links a death almost one-hundred years ago, with two deaths in the last five years.

From this you’ll understand this is playing with the Golden Age conventions. It has a pastoral setting in a relatively remote part of the English countryside, thereby creating a limited set of suspects. The whole is tightly plotted as a puzzle which the reader is invited to solve as our amateur and professional detectives pursue their investigations. At every stage, we’re able to observe the facts as they emerge and to understand the deductive processes involved in analysing those facts and arriving at a reasonable whodunnit solution. The only feature which distinguishes this book from the classic novels of more than fifty years ago is the amount of psychological depth invested in the characters. We’re given enough information to be able to understand not just the detectives, but also all those who are involved in the investigation. Whereas the classic Golden Age book simply set out to pose and answer a puzzle, this sets out to explain all the mysteries including who everyone is. This does not, of course, change the end result. Peace and order is restored to the British countryside so all is well with the world once again. For these purposes, we can overlook the dead bodies and the social and economic hardships caused by the murders. Bad stuff happens, even in idyllic countryside.

I suppose, having been an academic in a previous life, I’m predisposed to like an academic as the male protagonist. I recognise the type. In this instance, the resolution of the puzzle is consequently pleasing because it arises through the application of scholarly skills. It’s academic archaeology unearthing the clues in the past. I confess to being pleasantly surprised by the way the different motives overlapped through time. The common denominator linking the murder is easy to see. But understanding the precise mechanisms at work is more challenging. There’s also quite a satisfying link between the central mystery and the turmoil in the female detective’s life. No-one is immune from the insecurities she feels — it’s always difficult to leave the past behind and stay positive. Put all this together and The Frozen Shroud is a great success. It contrives to preserve everything that made the old puzzle mysteries such a joy to solve, it adds a very good police procedural element, and says interesting things about the people involved.

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)

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