Adapted detectives: from novel to TV, and radio to novel

Having seen a George Gently detective drama on the iplayer recently and noticed it was based on an Alan Hunter novel, I was pleased to find one of the series in my local library. I’d already found out from a quick look at a blog post by Martin Edwards that the north-east setting of the TV version was a departure from the generally East Anglian settings of the books but I thought I’d give it a go. The novel I read was from the early 80s, quite late in the chronology of the series, and perhaps I’d have been better off reading an early one – this one’s put me off George Gently novels entirely, and it may be that I’m missing out on some gems.

The plot hinged on a man retrieving an unmarked envelope from the kitchen bin, opening it, believing his wife had written it (when everyone else who knew her and read it said it must be a forgery because it was so out of character) and this was after he’d seen his daughter throw it away, apparently casually asked her what it was and been told it was just a circular. Maybe I don’t know any truly paranoid domineering people, but I couldn’t understand at all why he’d retrieved the envelope instead of dismissing it as the junk mail his daughter claimed. Partly this might be due to the general lack of character – with one exception, I didn’t feel like I had any insight into the characters or could predict their behaviour. I’m still thoroughly puzzled at the complete lack of reaction when someone finds out that he was in fact the intended victim of a plot by his wife and stepson, and his friend had only been killed by accident due to a vague resemblance to him from behind and an identical coat.

The other BBC-inspired reading I’ve been doing this week is a couple of Inspector McLevy novels by David Ashton. I think I’ve mentioned before how much I’ve enjoyed the McLevy radio series; the Victorian Edinburgh policeman is based on real memoirs of a Victorian Edinburgh policeman, and then just to add another layer of complication there are three (I think) novels based on the radio series. They say on the cover ‘based on the character from the BBC Radio 4 series’, which suggested to me that they were unrelated to the radio episodes, but Fall From Grace was largely identical to an episode I’ve heard; Shadow of the Serpent didn’t bring any to mind, but I haven’t heard them all so I wouldn’t like to swear that it’s not based on one.

On the whole I did enjoy both the McLevy novels, satisfying prose, reasonably paced, and bringing out a little more of the dark, brooding side of James McLevy as well as delving into his past. Both stories were interspersed with scenes from his childhood, the flashback chapters conveniently set in italics and headed with a date to make them stand out. Despite this, Fall From Grace (the second novel) did have me confused at times as there were two layers of flashback: the present day (the story from the radio episode, involving a suspicious fire at a warehouse and an insurance claim for a cargo of cigars) has a tenuous connection with a case from a year ago (involving the Tay Bridge disaster and its negligent designer) one of the principal participants of which was a figure from McLevy’s childhood, and while the childhood scenes were obviously separate, despite the italics and the dates I did keep losing track of the narrative as I failed to distinguish the Tay Bridge and warehouse fire strands sufficiently in my mind.

The joys of the McLevy radio series are the well-realised characters and their interactions: the incorruptible but unconventional Inspector James McLevy, obstinate and with a dark sense of humour; his young Irish assistant, Constable Mulholland, forever quoting apt sayings of his Aunt Katie back on the farm, fast following in McLevy’s wily footsteps; their long-suffering superior, Lieutenant Roach, who would always rather be on a golf course; and of course Jean Brash, Edinburgh’s premier madam, long-standing friend (of sorts) of McLevy, and sure to be found wherever trouble appears. All of this is brought out even more in the novels, the dialogue works well and there’s a liberal scattering of humour to alleviate the darkness.

Perhaps the key to the different results of my cross-media forays is that whereas McLevy in both guises was written by the same man, George Gently was adapted for TV from the novels with no reference to the original author, and though some of the characters may share names, the outlook and setting have been imbued with a new author’s spirit. In the circumstances it might have been better to change the names as well.


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