I don’t envy the BBC website. They’ve got a lot of content to churn out, and it’s inevitable that a lot of it will be pure marshmallow. Last year they published a piece explaining – shock! – that real life murder isn’t much like fictional murder at all.
But there’s not a great deal more to say than that, and the article had to be about a thousand words long, so we got this potted history of British crime fiction:
“English theatre audiences were once notorious for their gory relish in on-stage deaths. But by the early 20th Century popular murder fiction had taken on a more genteel feel. Detectives like Poirot and Miss Marple solved murders in a much more elegant fashion – often over tea and crumpets.”
Hopefully I don’t have to explain just how dunderheaded an assertion that is. Obviously the Golden Age was more restrained than modern crime novels – I’m sure Miss Marple does more knitting than Jack Reacher, and it’s not like Poirot was up to his moustaches in dead hookers – but the pervasive idea that every fictional corpse between 1900 and 1950 was discovered in a dining car, vestry or cricket pavilion is wearing.
Twee things are fun, I get it. And actually, plenty of Golden Age fiction is a bit dull because it’s not as twee or ridiculous as you might hope. The unreadable Ngaio Marsh springs to mind, the only author who could make death by exploding piano tedious. But for every Ngaio Marsh there’s a Christianna Brand, whose range within what is actually quite a narrow set of formulaic constraints is incredible.
Please don’t misunderstand. All this frustration isn’t because this is the internet and I’m a dude with a hobby and therefore it’s vitally important that no one be under any misapprehensions about my hobby whatsoever or the world will explode. If people want to think that Poirot and Marple spent hundreds of pages drinking tea* and eating crumpets** that’s no real skin off my nose.
I’d like puzzle mysteries to be more than a hobby, and I sometimes advise clients on historical mysteries, and this tea and crumpets attitude is limiting. If, for example, I wanted to write a murder mystery set in the 1930s, it looks like I’d have two choices: play up to all the stereotypes and wallow in faux-British nonsense, or “subvert” that by making everything as grim as possible. If I just wanted to write a normal mystery with a regular and plausible mix of people without having to deal with the inconvenience of mobile phones and advances in forensic science, it looks – or at least feels – like I’m out of luck. Am I wrong?
Faced with conforming or rebelling, the makers of the recent Father Brown adaptation, which started its second series on Monday, took the former approach. While there’s nothing to get too cross about – there are one or two nice bits of plotting, and Mark Williams makes an amiable enough Father Brown – as a whole it’s about as interesting as dust on toast. And it’s really nothing like the original stories apart from some of the titles and the name of the main character.
Father Brown is hard to adapt. Hella hard. The stories are almost dreamlike in their vagueness, with archetypes rather than characters. There’s also a huge range of styles. The Oracle of the Dog is basically a normal Golden Age Mystery, while The Paradise of Thieves and The Sins of Prince Saradine are almost fairy tales. There’s a killer salad, a solution based on punctuation, and a cult that stares at the sun. And god knows what’s going on in The Mistake of the Machine. That makes them sound rubbish, but they’re basically the ur-text for mysteries. It’s very hard to come up with a plot structure or a surprise that isn’t reflected in a Father Brown story, and almost certainly much more efficiently and cleverly. Whatever you’ve thought of, Chesterton got there first.
The original Father Brown stories don’t really have a concrete setting, which is obviously a problem for a TV series. The obvious answer is, don’t adapt it then, but maybe that wasn’t an option. Somehow. Maybe the writers have been blackmailed into it, or have fallen foul of a particularly cruel and unusual clause in G.K. Chesterton’s will. Or maybe, just maybe, someone wanted to lazily replicate the success of other mystery shows but for some reason you’re not allowed to make a mystery nowadays unless you’re importing it from Scandinavia, using dead children and mutilated women as victim porn or warming over the corpse of one of the Golden Age writers. (But then why no John Dickson Carr? Sorry, angry internet dude got out again there.)
So TV Father Brown has to be set somewhere and somewhen, and they’ve gone for Kembleford, a picture postcard English village in the sort of fictional 50s that might as well be the fictional 20s. There are occasional references to the war and rock and roll, and Father Brown has a Polish immigrant housekeeper, but that’s about as anchored in time as things get. Notably, most references are to things that haven’t taken hold in the village: “It may be the 50s, but there’ll be none of that in my house”; “Thank the baby Jesus none of that Devil Music has infiltrated our blessed convent of St Cliché.” Etc. etc. It leaves a weird, paradoxical taste in the mouth, like there’s a constant relief that the ostensible setting hasn’t actually infiltrated the actual setting. But there’s no particular theme of “thank goodness we’re preserving the old ways”, at least not as far as I can tell. It smacks more of “it is the 50s, honest!” But if the writers didn’t really want to set it in the 50s, why did they? One of the advantages of a loose adaptation is that you can set it where you like. They could have set it on the moon if they’d wanted. Is it because they didn’t have the budget to Photoshop out all the pylons in the establishing shots?
Because all the stories now take place in the same village, Father Brown has been given a crew of hangers-on to help him. Flambeau doesn’t turn up until the end, and he’s still firmly in nemesis mode, but there’s that Polish housekeeper I mentioned, Susie, and a cheeky chappy named Sid and a gossipy secretary who might as well be called “Missus O’Irish” and a super-posh woman and… ugh. I have an urge to write a mystery involving a massacre at a brainstorming meeting.
Later episodes make some effort to flesh these guys out, but it’s too much all at once, with the result that they now feel even less human and more grotesque than when the series started, like putting lipstick and fake tits on a mannequin (it’s a lonely life being an editor!).
Still, I’ll give series two a chance. Often the break between series gives a writing team to reflect on what is and isn’t working. Hopefully they’ll just decide to ditch the source material entirely. Looking over the episode list, there’s only one Chesterton title there. But I still think there’s room for a puzzle mystery series set in early 20th Century Britain that doesn’t have to rely on the tea and crumpet paradigm.
* Out of interest, how much tea did Christie’s characters drink? If anything, I remember Miss Marple drinking a lot of coffee. And Poirot likes tisanes, which I suppose people would call “herbal tea” but is actually pretty much anything except tea. I’m sure some tea does get drunk***, but do they drink any more than, say, Dalziel and Pascoe? Does Christie even mention crumpets?
** Has a victim in a detective novel ever drowned in tea…? Maybe I will write that parody after all.
*** Now that I think about it, Christie’s Sad Cypress has a tea-based murder. So much for this rant!