Friday, March 3, 2023

Classic Fridays: Dalgliesh (2021), Shroud for a Nightingale

Between-the-wars, or Golden Age, detective fiction remains for many people, no matter how much revising of the canon we do, most strongly epitomized by the Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.  The postwar successors to this criminous quartet were most typically deemed to be the deadly duo of PD James and Ruth Rendell, both of whom began publishing mysteries in the early Sixties, when the three surviving Golden Age Crime Queens (Sayers passed away in 1957) were still writing, up through the Eighties and Nineties, their popular heyday, and into the 21st century.  (James died in 2014 and Rendell in 2015.)  

Already by the Seventies publishers were dubbing both James and Rendell, much to the ladies' irritation, the "new Agatha Christie," as if there ever could be two of them, let alone three.  It is my belief that Rendell was actually the better crime writer of the two, but I don't believe she ever enjoyed quite the popularity of James, especially in United States, where James really came to embody the public face of classic British mystery.  Maybe it was her formal grand dame manner, prose and critical pronouncements  (reminiscent of Sayers), her High Tory conservatism (again reminiscent of Sayers), which people came to associate with classic British mystery writing, and her fondness for classic "enclosed" murder settings centered upon forbidding old British buildings.  

In my view Ruth Rendell, a self-professed leftist (though there I think she protested a bit much), was much more of an innovator and a bridge to the future of mystery writing, where James belonged more to the past.  Certainly her attractive loner poet-policeman detective, Inspector Adam Dalgleish, recalls the classic gentleman sleuths of Sayers, Allingham and Marsh rather more Rendell's unprepossessing family man copper Reg Wexford--although AD's moroseness and tragic background--his wife died in childbirth, along with the baby--is reminiscent of the angsty back stories of today's glum cops.  

Dalgliesh detects again: Bertie Carvel

PD James stuck much more to formula in terms of plotting as well, though she argued vigorously that her books had more "credibility" than Golden Age novels in terms of plotting along with more serious emotional resonance.  James came to mystery writing rather late, publishing her first novel, Cover Her Face, in England at the end of 1962, when she was 42 years old.  

The novel was well-reviewed, with an especially noteworthy brief rave in the Guardian from Francis Iles, aka Anthony Berkeley, in one of his characteristically somewhat snobbish and pedantic reviews: of those extraordinary first novels which seems to step straight into the sophisticated preserves pf the experienced writer, yet retains the newcomers' freshness of is in general so well-written that such solecisms as 'different than' and 'oblivious to' come as a shock.

Why wasn't this review--the first part anyway--ever blurbed by James' publishers?

Despite such high praise (carping about her solecisms aside), James was slow to rise to the top of her field, especially--ironically given her later success there--in the United States.  Four years elapsed before Cover Her Face even found a publisher in the US, despite, or perhaps because of, its determined traditionalism as a country house and village mystery.  Both Christie and Marsh were very much active back then (Allingham would die in 1966 and she hadn't written a traditional mystery in years) and perhaps it was felt by some that this sort of mystery was still their province.  (In the UK, James' book was often reviewed alongside Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side.)

When Cover Her Face was finally published in the US, it received more mixed reviews than it had in the UK, some of them very favorable, some dismissive, like this palpably bored  and frustrated one from the Hartford Courant:

....a thin story by a new writer who goes on and on and on and on.  She has supposedly finished a second and is working on a third novel--someone should shorten them.

The irony here is delicious, as James' novels to the contrary started getting longer and longer and longer and longer.  Cover Her Face is about 85,000 words; A Taste for Death (1986), perhaps James' most critically praised novel, adds 100,000 words to that total to make a book closing in on 200,000 words!  What would the Hartford Courant reviewer have said to that?

Even worse, Cover Her Face actually was panned by New York Times crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher, who deemed Patricia Moyes a much more notable English crime writer.  Meaning no disrespect to Moyes, whom I enjoy, how did that judgment turn out?  

The next year Boucher gave a better review to James' second novel A Mind for Murder, originally published in the UK in 1963, but even that one he condemned on account of what he deemed "the author's unfortunate fondness for excess wordage."  Boucher died a year later.  Little did he know how excessive that fondness would become!

Roy Marsden as AD
developed quite a fan following
during the Eighties and Nineties

But despite these criticisms James persevered and her popularity and critical acclaim ascended slowly but surely on both sides of the Atlantic.  Yet it was not until 1980, with the huge success of her non-series crime thriller Innocent Blood, that James really hit the big time.  

Not long afterward British television commenced making a Dalgliesh mystery series, the first installment of which, an adaptation of Death of an Expert Witness, premiered in 1983.  This series, starring Roy Marsden as AD, adapted all ten of the then published Dalgleish novels, running for fifteen years, until 1998.  After Marsden was replaced with Martin Shaw, two more AD novel adaptations would follow in 2003 and 2004, of The Murder Room and Death in Holy Orders, leaving only the last two James novels, The Lighthouse and The Private Patient, unadapted.

In 2021, seven years after James' death at the age of 94 and and seventeen years after the appearance of the last AD novel adaptation, a new Dalgliesh series, titled appropriately enough, Dalgliesh, aired adaptations of the three James novels: Shroud for a Nightingale, The Black Tower and A Taste for Death.  The series was a popular success and has been picked up for two more seasons, the next one airing this April, I believe.  

So the question finally arrives: did the first season do justice to James?  

The series, set in the Seventies (1975), stars Bertie Carvel, 43 at the time of filming, as AD, Jeremy Irvine, 30 of the time of filming, as Sergeant Charles Masterson and Carlyss Peer, age unknown to me, as Sergeant Kate Miskin.  The only one of these actors who was familiar to me, although I didn't recognize him with his magnificent Seventies hairdo and pornstache, was Jeremy Irvine, who starred a decade earlier in Steven Spielberg's best picture Oscar nominated film War Horse, played Pip in the 2012 film version of Great Expectations and had the lead role in Roland Emmerich's controversial gay rights film Stonewall in 2015 (controversial because of its structure as a white male coming of age story). 

Yup it's the Seventies
Jeremy Irvine as Sergeant Masterson
Turns out Bertie Carvel is a Tony Award winner and he recently played ill-fated Banquo in the much praised Coen Brothers' Macbeth film, which I still haven't seen.  I'll have to do so, though, cause he's good as AD!  (And why has this dude never played Mr. Knightley?)

Ray Marsden having popularly played AD for fifteen years in a series which became a staple in both the UK and US, which televised it on the PBS program Mystery (I remember my parents watching it then), Bertie Carvel was facing something of a challenge in playing Dalgliesh.  

For a lot of people Marsden "became" AD, just like actor John Thaw over the same period became Inspector Morse.  However, PD James herself came to feel that Marsden was appropriating her character for himself and I have the impression that she played a role in ditching him in favor of Martin Shaw, who to my mind, anyway, wasn't really suited for the role.  (He's now much better known as Inspector George Gently.)  

I really like Carvel as AD however.  Perhaps he lacks a little of AD's forbiddingness (a quality he shares with his creator), but I am not so sure I really miss it.  Carvel makes a believable perpetually grieving, sensitive poet-policeman and that's what counts most for me.

I have to say though the real surprise for me in this series is "pretty boy" Jeremy Irvine's convincing take on that sleazy and rather thuggish yet undeniably sexy bad boy AD underling, the symbolically named Charles Masterson.  In Masterson James created, arguably, a much more realistic policeman than the idealized AD, one who doesn't put the force in the greatest of lights in many ways, to be sure, yet an interesting character in his own right.  The exchanges between him and AD add piquancy to the film as they do to the novel.  I was always sorry that James replaced him with the pioneering but intensely earnest and sadly dull Kate Miskin.  

Speaking of which, Kate Miskin first pops up in this series in the second installment, The Black Tower.  This is not a book which she actually appears in, but obviously the filmmakers wanted to integrate her into the series in a less haphazard fashion and I think it works quite well.  I haven't viewed the third episode yet, but I preferred Carlyss Peer's Kate Miskin to Penny Downie's bland take back in the '88 version (though that take is closer to the book character).  That Carlyss Peer is a mixed race actress lends an interesting element to the proceedings, though I'm sure if FOX News got hold of this news they would be screaming WOKE!  How dare there be a person of color in a PD James novel!

It is true, I believe, that PD James never evinced any particular interest in racial/ethnic issues in her books, which are very much tales about elite white collar professional white people on the whole.  She has a Jewish police sergeant in Original Sin (which turns out to a plot necessity) and an Indian one in several of her later books (rather liked him), but for the life of me I can't remember any black characters.  Perhaps I'm forgetting someone.  In any event, this element is nicely set up in the first film in the series: Shroud for a Nightingale.

Personally I feel like the novels James published between 1962 and 1977 were her most interesting.  In the Eighties and Nineties her books got longer and longer and longer and longer, as mentioned above, much to the delight of the critics, but they were not, in my view, particularly impressive as mysteries per see, nor, on the whole, do I think they were exceptionally remarkable for their novelistic qualities, as it were, whatever the smitten critics may have wanted us to believe at the time.  I actually think Shroud for a Nightingale probably is her single best detective novel, so I was pleased to see them open with this one.  It's a smart move, because it sets up memorable Sergeant Masterson as a recurring character.

Nurse Dakers (Helen Aluko)

Like so many of James' books, Nightingale is centered on events at an enclosed location: a nursing school in a creepy old Victorian mansion.  James herself for many years was a bureaucrat in the National Health Service and she writes of this setting with impressive authority.  Her first murder is memorably gruesome (a specialty of hers) and the plotting sure and strong, with an excellent twist or two.  Her characterization is good as well, without needing 100,000 extra words to do it.  I think it's one of the great classic detective novels of the second half of the twentieth century.  

On the whole the series version does it credit.  The setting is superbly realized, fidelity to the plot is maintained and the acting, down to the smaller parts, is dead on, as it were.  I was surprised by how convincing all the nursing students were: sexy Nurse Pardoe (Alice Nokes), dutiful Nurse Goodale (Eliot Salt), the faintly creepy Burt twins, Shirley and Maureen (Robin and Alex Kristoffy), pious Nurse Pearce (Beccy Henderson), enigmatic Nurse Fallon (Siobhan Cullen).  

Special kudos go to Helen Aluko, as Nurse Dakers.  Having a black actress in this role again added a lot of interesting dimension from a social history standpoint and Aluko portrayed the distressed young woman compellingly.  She along with another of the nurses actually get character arcs, an impressive achievement given the limited series time (two forty-five minute episodes)!

And their superiors were great too: Fenella Woolgar (very familiar from British television) as nervous Sister Gearing, Amanda Root as man-averse Sister Brumfett (Anne from the '95 Persuasion!) and Natasha Little as attractive and authoritative Matron Mary Taylor.  And let's not forget the token male suspect, an arrogant doctor, Stephen Courtney-Briggs, played by Richard Dillane, about the only person who appeared in this show who is older than I (and not by much).  And, oh yes, kooky kitchen assistant Morag Smith (Lily Newmark), who works here better than in the book, I think.  

AD confronts Nightingale House's Matron and Sister about some poison.

A lot of young, attractive female acting talent in this film, very well cast.  (I believe it also has a woman scriptwriter and director.)  I noticed that many of the actresses, from Amanda Root as intimidating Nurse Brumfett on down to Lily Newmark as lowly, developmentally challenged Morag, actually had to be "deglammed" for their parts.

The fast pace of the film kept things tense and exciting, though there were times I would have liked things to slow down slightly and give the characters some more "special moments," especially during the climactic confrontation between Dalgleish and the murderer.  This is handled somewhat differently from the book, which I get, but in the book it's a very interesting, extended sequence--AD and murderers tend to get pretty philosophical in these scenes--that feels a bit rushed in the film.  Can't believe I am arguing that something by PD James should be longer for once!

I will say that Masteron gets a great scene with a London woman who has information about the case and what he has to do to get it is rather amusing!  Was this is the book, I can't recall.  James, a humorous woman in real life, was not noted for her humor in her novels.

Overall, I believe Dalgleish got off to a superb start with Shroud for a Nightingale.  Does the series hold up through the next two installments?  We shall see!


  1. Episodes are streaming only, available from Acorn?

    1. I don't know, I bought the DVD set! So old-fashioned, lol.

    2. DVDs, good! That's more my speed, too. It sounds like a great series,,,,and you're a very persuasive critic.

    3. They did make some more changes to the books adapted in the second and third films, but I still enjoyed them. I am definitely glad I purchased and will purchase the next set as well.

  2. I read somewhere that Marsden used to refer to AD as "Doris." That might be part of the reason James wanted him gone! I could never get my head around the poet-policeman idea, there seemed to be opposing skill sets involved. Could just be my stereotyping poets and policemen, though.

    1. Well, Marty, it's not any less realistic than the posh policeman of the Golden Age, aka the Roderick Alleyn types. In fact it's really a modern update. But, yeah, if there are great poet policemen, I don't know of them.

      Having seen the next two episodes I have some more thoughts coming.