Working detective on screen

Last Updated 03 May 2014, 09:19 IST

After hours and hours (a total of some 2,800 minutes) of watching the P D James Adam Dalgliesh TV mysteries, I can tell you right away whodunit without any spoilers: it’s the endless length of the episodes. 

Now, if you’re reading the James book instead, there’s the pleasure of her prose, the detail of character and the possibility of putting down the book and picking it up again. 

(And even then I wonder sometimes if the labyrinthine weight of her plot doesn’t crumble at the denouement).

In the long three-part adaptation, the edifice looms larger — she better surprise me after all this waiting, is how you’re thinking as it winds down, as Dalgliesh questions suspect after suspect to finally arrive at the truth.

The Wexford mysteries were short and sweet.

Both formats, though, have their pros and cons.

The Dalgliesh mysteries are unhurried and complexly structured, but these same elements can drag the story. 

The Wexford mysteries weren’t always able to do justice to the subtlety and psychological depth of Ruth Rendell’s novels because of the more compact storytelling.Of the 12 mysteries, I have to say, I was genuinely surprised only twice by the identity of the killer and the deeply hidden motive. 

Three other times I didn’t mind that I had guessed the mystery because the story, the characters, the motives had all been absorbing from the start to finish. 

With Rendell and Chief Inspector Wexford, the format of the short two-part episode zips along, and even though you are usually fairly close to guessing the killer if not the motive, it doesn’t bother you because you didn’t invest as much time. 

And the mysteries aren’t puffed up to be the sophisticated mysteries James is always promising. 

Plus, Rendell can trick you into siding with Wexford and prove him wrong, or do a total reversal and confound you.So, where does that leave James and Dalgliesh? 

Let me put it this way then: when a P D James mystery really works, it’s the best thing out there in the classic detective-mystery mould. 

It’s deeply satisfying as everything comes together. 

My two favourites — as adapted for TV — are Shroud for a Nightingale and A Certain Justice. 

Cover Her Face, Death of an Expert Witness and Death in Holy Orders are pretty good too, though you aren’t very far from guessing the mystery. 

Her weakest work must be The Black Tower (a lovely title that doesn’t hold up), while there are several middling entries, from A Taste for Death to Original Sin. 

(The latter is interesting not as mystery, but as a novel set in a publishing firm). 

For some reason the last two Dalgliesh mysteries haven’t been adapted — The Lighthouse and The Private Patient.However, her newest work, a mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice, called Death Comes to Pemberley, is a film and turns out to be not only disappointing as a mystery, but fails as an Austen pastiche too. 

James’s signature style is the way she cunningly works in multiple motives for multiple characters and keeps a closed setting. 

The hidden motive is the key to the mystery. 

James excels at this: for instance, in Shroud for a Nightingale you might guess the murderer but not the motive. 

Keys are important in her mysteries — how many keys there are and why some are missing, who had access to them, which key works for which door, who borrowed which key when etc.

Her characters are articulate, intelligent, often intellectual, and this is one of the great pleasures of a James mystery, hearing people talk. 

Conversation simply crackles. Dalgliesh himself is supposed to be an accomplished poet. 

However, one of the TV mysteries makes tacky use of it: the commander-poet wants to impress a woman, a suspect that he’s come to question, but he brings along his book and offers it to her saying, “It isn’t out yet but I thought I’ll give you a copy” or some such thing and the volume in question is titled Collected Poems and has an enormous photograph of his face taking up the entire front (not back) cover of the book. 

Who’s he? Neruda?  

Most mystery writers like to give their detectives some conceit or the other — offhand there’s Inspector Morse and his love for classical music and crosswords, Inspector Charlie Resnick likes jazz; Dalgliesh the policeman-poet is poetic in his own way. 

Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh is for many fans the definitive portrayal. 

I prefer Martin Shaw who took over in the last two adaptations. Shaw isn’t the best Dalgliesh either, but Marsden though cool, composed and suggesting Dalgliesh’s quiet brilliance carries the dead-pan thing too far. 

Shaw at least grimaces and smiles, but to get a smile out of Marsden, you have to wait and wait.

Confronted with Marsden’s slow burn, you sigh and yearn for George Baker’s Wexford, wishing he would suddenly turn up in a James mystery and make everything crackle around him.

The Dalgliesh mysteries, though domestic in nature, have links to national and political issues, investigating not just individuals but institutions. 

This same feature also burdens the story and the plot at times and you feel it might collapse under all that heavyweight backgrounding. 

Talking of her detective, James said, “With Adam Dalgleish I’ve tried to create a man whose qualities I admire... but I have to remind myself there are things about Dalgliesh I don’t admire — his detachment, he’s cold — not easy to work with at all — he can be unkind in his own way... He makes mistakes — he’s not perfect.” 

James cautions against becoming too attached and admiring of your own detective. 

She once remarked about how Poirot had become a burden to Agatha Christie, and noted that Dorothy Sayers had become ‘dangerously enamored of her aristocratic sleuth’ by the time she wrote Gaudy Night. 

Baroness James is a High Anglican and a Tory (Rendell has strong leftist political commitments). 

One of her best-known books, Death In Holy Orders, is set in a monastic High Anglican theological seminary.In this mystery, Dalgliesh meditates, not for the first time, on why he is a detective: “He thought about death, its finality, its inevitability. Was part of the attraction of his job the illusion it gave that death was a mystery that could be solved, and that with the solution all the unruly passions of life, all doubts and fears, could be folded away like a garment?”

(Published 26 April 2014, 14:13 IST)

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