Tuesday, February 26, 2019

There's More Red Herrings in the Sea: Five Golden Age Adaptation Options Besides Agatha (and Fifteen More to Follow up on)

Say you've read all the mysteries of Agatha Christie, even the relatively undistinguished ones like Destination Unknown and Third Girl, and the outright disasters like Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate.  In fact say you've actually read them all, the good and great ones anyway, two or three times or more.  And you've read all those Sophie Hannah continuations.  And you've seen all the Christie films and series.  Don't you occasionally hanker for something more in the mystery line besides your beloved Agatha Christie? 

Here are some suggestions for producers of mystery films and series, all of them prolific accomplished authors from the Golden Age, who created popular series sleuths and, best of all, are actually in print today (in all or in part):

1. Margery Allingham (1904-1966)

Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham is one of the few mystery writers I know of who truly deserves the description "Dickensian."  Her well-mysteries are filled with colorful and quirky characters and situations.  If they are too posh for modern day filmmakers, with aristocratic amateur sleuth Albert Campion, there's always his gross, earthy sidekick, Lugg.  And some of Allingham's books, like the much-lauded The Tiger in the Smoke and the even better, in my view, Hide My Eyes, have genuinely psychotic villains, which should appeal to the Phelpses of the film and television world. 

Sarah Phelps wouldn't even need to invent grotesques for The Tiger in the Smoke, as she does with Agatha Christie.  Granted, eight Campion novels were filmed three decades ago for the two-season Campion television series, starring the superb Peter Davison, but it's time, I would say, for an update.

More in this vein: Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Nicholas Blake, Michael Innes, Georgette Heyer (no posh sleuths but a lot of posh suspects)

2. Henry Wade (1887-1969)

Henry Wade in WW1
One of the forgotten masters of Golden Age mystery and a subject of my book The Spectrum of English Murder, Henry Wade has been brought back into print in the last few years.  If, like Sarah Phelps, you want to adapt searing mysteries dealing with the baneful impact of the First World War, Wade is your man!  Himself a privileged baronet and wealthy country landowner, Wade casts a commendably wide social net in his book, though there are, to be sure, a large number of manor houses for the Downton Abbey crowd.  But above all his books (like The Dying Alderman, for example) offer psychologically and socially realistic studies of life in England from the Twenties through the Fifites, which ostensibly is what interests Phelps.  Although there is sardonic humor in them, they often take a pessimistic, sometimes grim, view of the state of man and the world, which is also, most conveniently, the fashionable modern take. 

Of all Golden Age writers, Wade is one I find closet in spirit to PD James, far closer than Dorothy L. Sayers actually.  Only some of his books have series sleuth Inspector Poole, but Poole could be written into the standalones.

More in this vein: E. R. Punshon

3. Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957)

Freeman Wills Crofts
The Golden Age master of the unbreakable alibi, Freeman Wills Crofts produced one of the archetypal British police detectives, the ever-dutifully striving Inspector Joseph French. 

Admittedly modern day filmmakers would find French a rather dull dog: He's so upright and virtuous and happily married to his equally upright and virtuous wife Emily.  However, Em could be tragically and horribly killed off and "Soapy Joe," as French is known, could spiral into an abysmal alcoholic depression. 

Crofts was a fine plotter, so adapters could let the plots take care of themselves, one hopes, while they flesh out Crofts' rather cardboard characters.  The fervently religious author would not have liked explicit sex and language in adaptations of his books, but what do modern-day filmmakers care! 

One way in which Crofts was very modern was in his criticism of big business corruption, which fills his Thirties mysteries, like Mystery in the Channel.  Modern filmmakers should find that aspect of his detective novels a most congenial one.

More in this vein: R. Austin Freeman, John Rhode/Miles Burton (John Street), J. J. Connington, Christopher Bush, John Bude

4. Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)

Gladys Mitchell
The "Great Gladys" was unique in Golden Age mystery, with her screeching, reptilian psychiatrist detective Mrs. Bradley.  Her books are filled with bizarre, often grotesque, situations and aberrant behavior.  The plots don't always make total sense, at least not readily, but there is great zest in the telling, especially in the Thirties and Forties.  About twenty years ago, British television tried to do a Mrs. Bradley series, casting as the formidable Dame the the beautiful and posh Diana Rigg.  With all due respect to the Great Diana, it didn't work, and it's time to try again.

More in this vein: John Dickson Carr (a much more disciplined plotter than Mitchell, but with a similar taste for the bizarre and for odd detectives with outsize personalities)

5. Moray Dalton (1882-1963)

Only now coming back into print, Moray Dalton (really Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir) resembles the Crime Queens in many ways, having a decided knack for narrative and characterization.

ordeal by arsenic
a superb crime novel about a
dysfunctional genteel family
Yet for me she is a bit less "posh" (there's that word again) of a writer than Sayers, Allingham and Marsh and explores sexual and class dynamics in Thirties and Forties Britain in more original ways.  See, for example, Death in the Cup and The Strange Case of Harriet Hall, which have some truly striking and refreshing situations. 

I think that Dalton, who seems to have lived life as something of a privileged outsider, may have been more of a forerunner of the modern crime novel than these other, more famous women, estimable as they are.  Her primary sleuth, Hugh Collier, is an appealing young police detective, but modern filmmakers I'm sure could find some grim and terrible qualities to impose on him.  so get cracking, you people!  Five titles by her are coming out in just a few days.

More in this vein: Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson), ECR Lorac/Carol Carnac (Edith Caroline Rivett), H. C. Bailey

Well, there you have it.  Would the Powers-That-Be but listen!  In the meantime, you can eagerly await Agatha Christie's gruesome satanic Sixties sex orgies, coming soon in Sarah Phelps' adaptation of The Pale Horse, a Christie novel already filmed back in 1997 (with Andy Serkis as a cop! Oh, cool!) and 2010 (with Miss Marple as the detective! Oh, *!#!^!).

26 comments:

  1. "Here are some suggestions for producers of mystery films and series..."

    For God's sake, don't give them any ideas! After what they did to Father Brown and Christie's The ABC Murders, I don't want to see them desecrate the work of any more Golden Age writers. They don't understand them. They don't even like them. More importantly, they will probably try to “improve” and update the plots to modern standards.

    You would not like their treatment of Crofts, Mitchell and Wade.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I actually have seen a teleplay for an Inspector French series. Wasn’t picked up though.

      Actually the recent Maigret series was pretty good I thought, and faithful. Of course the Maigret books already had plenty of sex, prostitution and aberrant psychology. But given all that, they were more tarefully done than these recent Christies, I thought, and pretty enjoyable. Of course the series was canceled! Perhaps the fault, dear TomCat, lies in ourselves. Maybe there just aren’t enough true blue vintage mystery fans for television.

      Delete
  2. What, no H.C. Bailey? Child abuse; drug addiction; police corruption; religious hypocrisy; a jaundiced take on the Establishment and council politics; psychologically warped villains; poverty; degradation. Needs more homosexuality, though. Ditch Joan Fortune (an obvious sop to the censors), and have Reggie and Lomas at it like rabbits.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nah, inserting gay characters has been done to death. Why not take it to the next level and adept R. Austin Freeman? They can address Dr. Thorndyke apparent celibacy with scenes of him sneaking into the morgue after dark. Followed by a scene of him standing outside the door of the autopsy room, open shirt, smoking a cigarette.

      Hey, if you're going to ruin a series, you should do it properly and go all the way.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, Nick, you have to keep up, gay characters are old hat now. You’re right about Bailey, though, he’d fit right on, though Reggie doesn’t quite work. Flippant without being romantic. I think I’ll add HCB under Moray Dalton.

      Delete
    3. By the way, are you entirely sure Reggie and Lomas didn’t have a thing going? That may have been a lavender marriage with Joan!

      Delete
  3. This is a brilliant idea for a post and I agree that adaptors need to look beyond Christie. The only suggestion on your list I would probably question is Freeman Wills Crofts, but then I've never been much of a fan of French. Some other authors I would add to the list are Edmund Crispin, Leo Bruce (Beef series), Christianna Brand, Delano Ames and Pamela Branch.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. All good choices, I was excluding the people after 1940 though. But I’d take ‘em!

      Delete
  4. Someone should tell Phelps about Carr's Bencolin novels - the first four at least as the fifth and final is a partial disavowal of what preceded. Sex, madness, moral ambiguity, gruesome murders and thoroughly unlikeable characters including the detective himself - they have everything to please her and also rank among The Master's most easily filmable works. You can even bring back John Malkovich to play Bencolin (since the Beeb doesn't care to cast foreign-speaking actors in foreigner roles...) What's not to like?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bencolin would be a natural! Kenneth Branagh would make a good Becolin too. Better than he does a Poirot actually.

      Delete
  5. Allingham and Mitchell have already been done; the former rather faithfully, the latter... uh... yeah, not at all. Tiger in the Smoke was filmed very well ell back in 1956. I saw it a couple of months ago. I'm surprised no one has bothered with Heyer. She'd be very popular with the "Downton Abbey" crowd. And the fact that no one has dared film Carr's books just boggles my mind. It would be a huge hit as a series, I think. But I suspect that production costs would be very high with all the unusual settings and gadgets that are employed. I've given up on fantasizing about this kind of thing. These days it's not about the audience, but about the production company's tastes, favors to actors and writers, and of course money. Also, these days writers have become producers in TV and often I think that has become hugely problematic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tiger in the Smoke is a fine film - one of its improvements is to omit Caampion though!

      Going back further, I'd like to see Arthur Morrison's Martin Hewitt and - better still - the depraved Horace Dorrington appearing on the screen. The adapters needn't worry about royalties either.

      Delete
  6. Carr would be so great. I liked the Campion series, but they only did eight books. They did Marsh and Sayers in the 80s and 90s too, but the Marsh series I thought was bland and dull and the Sayers did only three Peter and Harriet books.

    ReplyDelete
  7. A very fun post! I never really thought to pair Mitchell and Carr, because I have such different reactions while reading their work. Plotting aside -- and you're quite correct in your observations -- Mitchell nearly always draws me in with her prose, but the Carr writing I've experienced doesn't have that sweep; it's a combination of syntactic style and puzzle-foremost writing that doesn't interest/engage me as much. (I realize I'm very much in the minority.) I must read more Henry Wade, and it's fun to see Punshon in the mix here too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The films could draw out the visual atmosphere angle in Carr. The hardest part would be explaining all those damn locked rooms, lol. But Jonathan Creek managed it.

      Delete
  8. I’d love to see the Branch on screen. I always imagined it would be in the Ealing Studio vein of comedy. Dear old Alec Guinness would have been perfect.

    ReplyDelete
  9. As I've said here before, I'm very much in agreement with you about the Mrs. Bradley adaptations not working. The thing is, Mrs. Bradley/Dame Beatrice has to be truly weird and mysterious if there's any point to adapting Mitchell's works to begin with. Diana Rigg's Mrs. Bradley is just a little anachronistic, and she talks to/mugs at the camera too much.

    Playing Albert Campion was a genius career move for Peter Davison. His Doctor Who predecessor Tom Baker played Holmes in an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. He was good, but a couple of years later Jeremy Brett would wipe him off the table. Campion is a character an actor can have to himself, at least for a few decades. :)

    I note that neither of John Dickson Carr's major characters have ever been portrayed onscreen. Does the BBC not have time for Carr because he was an American?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know, but so many of the Carr books would make great films, so atmospheric and perfect for puzzle lovers. I don't know that HM is filmable, but Dr. Fell would be great for some older actor. Too bad Orson Welles is long gone!

      Delete
  10. What great ideas! By the way, Curt, I agree about "Hide My Eyes" being more powerful than "Tiger in the Smoke," although both are (or, in a sane world, should be) worth filming. How about some American contributions as well? After Matlock, Perry Mason and Jessica Fletcher, couldn't American TV get something going with Asey Mayo or even John J. Malone (who could be in a menage a trois with Jake Justus and Helene Brand)?

    Les Blatt

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, yes, all sorts of American stuff they could do! Might be time for another post! ;)

      Delete
    2. Needless to say, I'd love to see some films about the Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler sleuths: Hugh Westlake, Peter and Iris Duluth and Lt. Timothy Trant.

      Delete
  11. Great post, but I think you underestimate the amount of fun that can still be had denigrating Christie and her readers. Poirot is already established as an ex-priest; his pedophilic past surely offers much scope. TomCat's necrophiliac idea is an excellent one, but why not Japp? Perhaps organs have gone missing: Think of the possibilities his meal of bangers and mash would the afford. And we haven’t even touched on Jane Marple, her nymphomaniacal episode following the death of her lover, or her *ahem* lovingly tended marrows.
    Oh no, I doubt the producers have done with Agatha just yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In all seriousness, scripters like Phelps are clannishly adhering to the modern dysfunctional detective cliche. They all have to be sad, lonely, suffering, with tragic back stories to explore. This is antithetical to the Golden Age Great Detective tradition, where the amateur sleuth was, in most cases, eccentric but powerful and confident, and the drama, if drama there was, was left to the other characters. One day this modern cliche will fall away, as fans become satiated with its seemingly endless iterations. But right now it seems people demand miserable, put upon sleuths, even in Golden Age fictions, where they don’t belong.

      Delete
    2. This is a really good point. But this has been going on a long time! Not having researched the issue, I can tentatively date this kind of detective to Roderick Thorpe and Laurence Sanders circa 1968.

      Delete