Today’s post is adapted from a piece I wrote for CADs magazine last year and I thought it might be of interest to my blog readers.
Earlier this year a British TV series from the 1960s was brought to my attention. Detective was an anthology series that sought to adapt a wide variety of mystery novels, and which ran for three series between 1964 and 1969, with 45 episodes made. A key feature of the series was that they were not churning out endless Christie adaptations, but were very often adapting novels which had never been adapted before, and in most cases never since. It was a very popular venture with the general public and TV critics and the first episode gained 6.3 million viewers. But then who wouldn’t want to watch a series which contained these episodes:
Series 1 (1964)
1. Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop (Mar.30). Richard Wordsworth as Gervase Fen.
2. Gil North: The Drawing (April 6). Leslie Sands as Sergeant Caleb Cluff.
3. E.C. Bentley: Trent’s Last Case (April 13). Michael Gwynn as Philip Trent.
4. Nicholas Blake: End of Chapter (April 20). Glyn Houston as Nigel Strangeways.
5. Carter Dickson: The Judas Window (April 27). David Horne appears as Sir Henry Merrivale.
6. John Trench Dishonoured Bones (May 4). Alan Dobie is Martin Cotterell.
7. Roy Vickers: The Man Who Murdered in Public (May 11). Michael Hordern as D.I. Rason.
8. Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘The Speckled Band’ (May 18). Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes.
9. Douglas Sanderson: The Night of the Horns (May 25). Frank Lieberman as Bob Race.
10. Clifford Witting: Subject Murder (June 1). Mark Eden as Detective Constable Bradfield and Basil Dignam as D.I. Charlton.
11. Ngaio Marsh: Death in Ecstasy (June 8). Geoffrey Keen as D.C.I. Alleyn.
12. Michael Innes: A Connoisseur’s Case (June 15). Dennis Price as Sir John Appleby.
13. Jeffrey Farnol: The Loring Mystery (June 22). Patrick Troughton as Jasper Shrig.
14. Selwyn Jepson: The Hungry Spider (June 29). Jane Merrow as Eve Gill.
15. R. Austin Freeman: The Case of Oscar Brodski (July 6). Peter Copley as Dr Thorndyke.
16. Clark Smith: The Speaking Eye (July 13). Frederick Jaeger as Nicky Mahoun.
17. Delano Ames: Death of a Fellow Traveller (July 20). Joan Reynolds and Leslie Randall as Jane and Dagobert Brown.
18: G.K. Chesterton: ‘The Quick One’ (July 27). Mervyn Johns as Father Brown.
This first series combines a pleasing combination of canonical authors as well as more contemporary names, and with this we get a wider variety of mystery plotting styles. I was especially happy to see Delano Ames was included, as Jane and Dagobert Brown have always seemed ripe to me for adaptation.
Series 2 (1968)
1. Ursula Curtiss: The Deadly Climate (May 17). Georgina Hale as Caroline Emmett and Dudley Sutton plays the local reporter Robert Carmichael who is involved in investigating the peculiar events Emmett experiences.
2. Joyce Porter: Dover and The Poison Pen Letters (May 24). Paul Dawkins as Chief Insp. Dover. [Apparently this one was based on Dover 3 (1968)].
3. Roy Vickers: A Man and His Mother-In-Law (May 31). John Welsh as Inspector Rason.
4. Michael Innes: Lesson in Anatomy (June 7). Ian Ogilvy as Inspector Appleby.
5. H.C. Bailey: The German Song (June 14). Denholm Elliot stars as Reggie Fortune.
6. Nicholas Blake: The Beast Must Die (June 21). Bernard Horsfall as Nigel Strangeways. [This episode attracted 5 million viewers].
7. Anthony Berkeley: ‘The Avenging Chance’ (June 28). John Carson as Roger Sheringham.
8. Hilary Waugh: Born Victim (July 5). Lee Montague as Police Chief Fellows.
9. William Haggard: The Unquiet Sleep (July 7). Roland Culver as Charles Russell.
10. Jeffrey Farnol: The High Adventure (July 14). Colin Blakely as the character Jasper Shrig.
11. Macdonald Hastings: Cork on the Water (July 21). Colin Douglas as Montague Cork.
12. Margery Allingham: The Case of the Late Pig (July 28). Brian Smith as Albert Campion.
13. Selwyn Jepson: The Golden Dart (Aug. 4). Penelope Horner as Eve Gill.
14. Crime of Passion by Collin Morris (August 11). Glynn Edwards as D.C.I. Inspector Dew. [Based on the Dr Crippen case].
15. Ngaio Marsh: Artists in Crime (Aug. 18). Michael Allinson as C.D.I. Roderick Alleyn.
16. Francis Didelot: Death on The Champs Elysees. (Aug. 25). Derek Godfrey as Commissaire Bignon.
17: Edgar Allan Poe: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Sept. 1). Edward Woodward as Auguste Dupin.
In this second series there were less earlier writers and I also wonder if this was the beginning of a shift towards focusing less on traditional puzzle mysteries. Interestingly, Nicholas Blake, Roy Vickers, Michael Innes, Jeffery Farnol, Selwyn Jepson and Ngaio Marsh have an episode in both series 1 and 2. Although as in series 1 there are still proportionally fewer female writers included.
Series 3 (1969)
1. Hilary Waugh: Prisoner’s Plea (Sept. 7). Lee Montague as Police Chief Fellows.
2. Josephine Tey: The Singing Sands (Sept.14). John Carson as Alan Grant.
3. R.C. Woodthorpe: The Public School Murder (Sept. 21). Cyril Luckham as Sir Luke Frinsby.
4. Ethel Lina White: Put Out the Light (Sept.29). Angela Baddeley as Miss Pye.
5. Edgar Jepson and Robert Eustace: ‘The Tea Leaf’ (Oct. 6). Hannah Gordon as Ruth Kelstern.
6. H.R.F. Keating: Hunt the Peacock by (Oct.13). Zia Mohyeddin is Inspector Ghote.
7. Ludovic Peters: Elimination Round (Oct. 20). Ian Firth as David Buck and John Smith is Meredith Edwards.
8. Carter Dickson: And So To Murder (Oct. 27). Martin Wyldeck as Sir Henry Merrivale.
9. Francis Didelot: The Poisoners (Nov. 3). Edward Woodward as Commissaire Bignon.
10: Charles Dickens: My Guppy’s Tale (Nov.10). This episode is based on Bleak House and focuses on the character of Mr Guppy, who is played by Bill Fraser.
Whilst once more female writers make a limited appearance, I was intrigued to see Put Out the Light by Ethel Lina White was included. It was pleasing that one of her less well-known titles was adapted and I actually have a copy of the book on my TBR pile, patiently waiting to be read.
In the first series of Detective, the titles chosen feed into the idea of the sleuth being the focus, yet in the second and third series, I feel there is a stepping away from this earlier emphasis, with the stories chosen less often including a well-known detective figure. The final episode in the third series is also interesting as it is not an orthodox adaptation of a typical mystery novel and instead is more of an original creation. This seems like an odd direction to end the series on.
It is immensely disappointing that only 24 out of the 45 TV plays are retained in the BBC archives, as during the 1960s and 70s, the remaining episodes were victims of the BBC’s junking policy, which involved the wiping and reusing of tapes. Nevertheless, it is a shame that a DVD collection has not been brought out of the plays which did survive.
However, looking at this past TV series got me thinking: If it was possible, perhaps if I had uncovered a Genie’s lamp, which classic crime titles would I pick for a similar TV series today? Here are my choices.
I am a fan of the Littles’ work, so they were an obvious pair to turn to when compiling this list. They never had any series characters, but they were a dab hand at crafting strong, sharp and savvy female leads, which is the case in the two titles I picked. Romance is present, but wittily handled and the boarding house settings provide an appealing cast of characters to engage with. The mystery element of these two books is also well put together.
2. Yolanda Foldes: Mind Your Own Murder (1948)
This is not a book I imagine many other people will have read, but I think a script writer could do a lot with its premise. A millionaire has a terminal illness and rather than dying slowly and painfully he informs his grown-up children that this coming weekend they each have one day allotted to them. A day to kill him, that is. Whoever’s “day” he dies on, receives his money. If by Monday he is still alive, then everything goes to charity. This is a setup which is ripe for twists, as well as explorations into character psychology.
3. Juanita Sheridan: The Chinese Chop (1949)
Lily Wu is another go-to female sleuth for me and it is a pity that Sheridan only wrote four novels featuring her. Whilst she did briefly grace American TV in the 1950s, I think Lily and her Watson, Janice Cameron, would be ideal for modern screens. They are independent women, who do not get romantically derailed and entangled and several of the mysteries depict crimes which may have been motivated by antagonism between native Hawaiians and American tourist enterprises. This ecological angle would be of interest today, in my opinion. However, I choose the first novel set in New York, as it is important in setting up the close friendship between Lily and Janice.
Wright is another author for whom it was impossible to pick only one title. Both are set in Australia, and depict effectively, the lives of ordinary women, be they young mothers or doctors. So Bad a Death satirises the conventions of the English country house mystery novel, whilst providing an ingenious and possibly unique murder method. Meanwhile, The Devil’s Caress is a gripping suspense novel set on the edge of a cliff.
5. Ruth Sawtell Wallis: Too Many Bones (1943)
A female anthropologist, who is just starting out in her career, is the lead in this tale and Sawtell, in this her debut mystery, does a fantastic job of delivering an edge of your seat read, as our protagonist deals with sinister goings on at the museum she works at. Once more, the romance angle of this book is incredibly well-done. Never have I ever been so unsure whether the male lead can be trusted or not!
6. Donald Henderson: A Voice Like Velvet (1944)
In contrast to my previous choices, this story is told from the criminal’s point of view, and I love the juxtaposition between the burglar’s nefarious activities and his day job as a radio announcer at the BBC. He seems like an unnatural type of person to be a thief, and this is utilised well by the writer, with a great deal of humour being generated.
7.Alice Tilton: Beginning with a Bash (1937)
This is a the first of the Leonidas Witherall mysteries and this is a series I really love. It makes sense to start at the beginning as Witherall’s financial and social situation develops quite a lot through the course of his adventures. Of all the books in this series this one has the fewest bizarre elements, but still retains plenty of humour, albeit with a darker edge. Danger and peril have a more macabre touch here.
8. Leo Bruce: Case with Ropes and Rings (1940)
Whilst some readers may feel I should have selected Case for Three Detectives (1936), I felt that that title, with its three parodied detectives by other authors, may make it difficult to adapt. The humorously fractious relationship between Sergeant Beef and his chronicler Lionel Townsend, cries out to be put on TV though, being so full of comedy gold!
9. Richard Hull Murder Isn’t Easy (1936)
This is my favourite title by this author, and it is another inverted mystery, but this time it is told through more than one perspective. Several characters propel the plot forwards, shining a different light on what might have happened and what might happen next. I think a script writer could produce a very interesting and creative mystery drama using this element of the book.
10. Christianna Brand: Suddenly at His Residence (1948)
It was hard to just pick one novel by Brand but in the end I thought this title had a lot to recommend it, not least the fantastic jaw dropping denouement, which TV or film could really do justice to. The wartime country house setting also makes it an appealing story to choose, as well as the impossible crime aspect of Brand’s novel, given the popularity of the Jonathan Creek series.
In contrast to the original Detective series, my own list is very female author focused, although my own choices cover a wide range of mystery fiction styles. Naturally, there are umpteen other titles and authors I would also choose, but a list of ten writers seemed like a good number and it would be lovely to perhaps read other people’s suggestions.