TO BE CONTINUED: Adapting the Modern Mystery

Here’s a quiz:

  1. Write down the name of the first Agatha Christie mystery novel you read.
  2. Now turn to the person on your left and compare answers. (The chances are about 1 in 66 that they will match.)
  3. Next, write down the name of the first Louise Penny novel you read. 
  4. Now turn to the person on your right and compare. The odds are great that you both wrote down Still Life, the first book in the series.

There are reasons for this difference in the odds. First, Penny is alive, and we are alive, and Still Life came out in 2005. And, secondly, Penny has written fewer novels than Christie; the most recent, A World of Curiosities, is the 18th novel to feature her detective, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. This lessens the odds that you and your neighbor started off with different titles. 

But the main reason is that we are smart readers, you and I, and we know that most modern mystery authors no longer write books that you can read in any order. They have endowed their detective heroes with a life outside of the case. Their sleuths have outside relationships with partners, both working and personal, and with friends. Things happen to these characters, some of them very hard things indeed, and we don’t necessarily find resolution to these personal problems at the end of a single book. 

This is something that, for the longest time, Louise Penny did very well. In fact, my admittedly problematic relationship with the author is that I found everything about her books fascinating except the mysteries. I love Armand Gamache, a morally enlightened man steeped in a morass of corruption and evil. I love Three Pines, the village in Quebec that he discovered in Still Life and to which he and his beloved wife, Reine Marie, eventually moved. Despite the fact that murders have occurred in twenty percent of the houses there and that somebody is always unearthing a cursed object or bizarre fossil out of the ground or behind a wall, you can’t help but want to dine in Olivier and Gabri’s bistro (and spend a few nights in their B&B), browse through Myrna Landers’ bookshop, or sit and have coffee and a brioche or ten with sweet Clara Morrow. You might develop a crush on the hunky but troubled Agent Jean-Guy Beauvoir (who sadly got taken about ten books in) or the perfectly charming (but married) Isabelle Lacoste. You might even feel challenged to take on the foul-mouthed, duck-carrying poet Ruth Zardo (a character of whom I have admittedly grown a bit tired). 

The problem for me with Penny is that I simply don’t respond to the case du jour – and possibly to the author’s way of telling it. She doesn’t hook me into the mystery the way Christie can do, even in a lesser Poirot or Marple. What Penny does so well, though, is relate the goings-on in Gamache’s personal and professional life. The situation involving police corruption at the Quebec Surete that spanned the first nine or ten novels was especially gripping. And then there were the problems that plagued the group of regulars in Three Pines, leading to one death and one major imprisonment (the latter of which was resolved over two novels). More than once, it occurred to me that Armand Gamache’s life would make a great TV show. 

But then . . . I had thought this about another author, Elizabeth George. Her early mysteries were great, but the books gradually became bloated beyond belief. Her characters were equally gripping, an opinion evidently shared by the BBC, who used the books as inspiration for The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. That series ran for six seasons with a total of twenty-four episodes and a two-part pilot. The pilot was the best thing. After ten episodes based oh so loosely on the novels, the show turned to original plotlines and went off the rails. It didn’t help that, to my mind, the casting was off, particularly of Sharon Smalls (a truly fine actress) as Sergeant Barbara Havers (a very different sort of character in the books). 

Still, Penny is a different kettle, and I had high hopes when a film adaptation was made of Still Life. That film, unfortunately, was a mistake: Nathaniel Parker, who made an okay detective in the Inspector Lynley series, was miscast as Armand Gamache, and so was pretty much everyone else in that movie. The film’s depiction of Three Pines felt as realistic as Cabot Cove felt like a real Maine village in Murder, She Wrote. And since most of the personal storylines were excised, the focus had to be on the mystery, which was . . . just okay. 

When nine years passed with no sequel, I figured that most fans had given the film a similar reception and that interest in adapting Penny’s work had slackened. It was with some interest that I learned her work would be tackled again, this time in series form, (as it should be) by Amazon Prime. And more exciting was the news that Inspector Gamache would be played by Alfred Molina, a superb actor who, ironically, had appeared as one of the most unfortunate Hercule Poirots of all time in a misbegotten TV-adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express

Amazon released the first two of eight episodes this week. Rather than start again with Still Life, the producers have chosen to use Penny’s second novel, A Fatal Grace, as a springboard into the life of Armand Gamache and his introduction into the unnerving and enchanted world of Three Pines. Based on these first episodes, I have to say that I am really excited about the show to come. 

First and foremost, Molina perfectly embodies all the best of Inspector Gamache. His huge droopy eyes let us in to all the pain he has witnessed (and, it is hinted, has experienced himself), the love he feels for his wife, and the wide-eyed wonder at the physical world he sees around him and the spiritual one that lies just beyond his reach but occasionally manifests itself in visions and dreams. 

In the same way I experienced the novels, the series does a great job of slowly setting up the long game for Gamache: the subtle hints that things are somehow wrong at the Surete, Gamache’s reluctant introduction to Three Pines (he is sent there as “punishment” for re-opening a cold case involving a missing indigenous woman), our introduction to the investigating team of Beauvoir (Rossif Sutherland), Lacoste (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers), and the awkward Yvette Nichol (Sarah Booth), and the cold reception – both literal and emotional – that Gamache receives from the town and its inhabitants, most of whom will eventually become his dearest friends. 

In these early days, however, Gamache is an unwelcome intruder, and the moments when he and his team stop in at the bistro for a meal, or when Gamache interrupts a meeting of the Book Club, those of us who know these characters can’t help but connect emotionally to the Inspector’s discomfort, his sensitivity to the fact that his work disrupts lives and causes pain. The Three Pines characters have so far been less developed, but already I can see that the casting is far more brilliant than in the 2013 movie, especially Clare Coulter as Ruth and Anna Tierney as Clara. 

This is an adaptation, of course, and a rather major change has been made from the books. This is the inclusion of indigenous people as characters and as part of the storyline, something I don’t recall Louise Penny ever including in a major way. (She preferred to focus on the conflict between Anglophile and Francophone Canadians and the war on drugs, both of which may still turn up here.) The series has made Agent Isabelle Lacoste an indigenous woman and included another woman named Bea (Tantoo Cardinal) as a regular character who runs a museum. And the murder victim in the episodes lived in a house that used to be a Christian school run by white folks for indigenous people, a reviled place of much suffering. 

In addition, a story has been added about Gamache’s investigation into a missing girl, and it is clear that this will run through the first series and wreak all sorts of havoc with the Inspector’s standing in the Surete. All of this is beautifully woven into the fabric of the show with some astonishing visuals and sounds. So far, it succeeds where a similar attempt by a current ABC series, Alaska Daily, starring Hilary Swank, has floundered. And while, as in the novels, I found the whodunnit to be the least gripping aspect of these first two episodes, it was still . . . pretty gripping, thanks to some great acting and stunning photography.  

The final six episodes will cover the novels The Cruelest Month and The Murder Stone (A Rule Against Murder in the U.S.), as well as a novella called The Hangman, which Penny wrote for people learning to read in English. I assume that more and more changes from the novels will be made, but I don’t have the emotional connection to her puzzles that I do with Christie, and I have a feeling I am going to enjoy the rest of Three Pines – and hope for many more seasons to come. 

14 thoughts on “TO BE CONTINUED: Adapting the Modern Mystery

  1. I have to agree with you, Brad about Louise Penny. I’ve read all the books so far and I was always more interested in the characters and Three Pines (I want to visit or even live there!) The mystery being solved was just okay. I never even tried to solve it in my head. I’m enjoying watching the series and looking forward to more of the same.

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  2. I’ve only read Still Life and found it lacking, plotwise. It’s tempting to think that maybe it might be worth returning as I read the first a long time ago and I’m becoming more tolerant of slow paced stories. I might take a look at the series, but I’m loathe to watch adaptations of things that I might read in the future – see also Shetland…

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    • I know you read a LOT of series, and given your reaction to the first Penny, I’m not sure how hard to push you toward reading more. I absolutely agree about reading a book before watching an adaptation. I HATE those people who say, “Appointment with Death is my favorite Christie because Tim Curry is so good in it!!!” But as I’ve already read the first fifteen Pennys, I’m feeling confident about watching.

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      • Appointment With Death is one of my favourite Poirots but not for that reason.

        I do like reading series and in order where possible. That can be a probably as often an author is still finding their feet on books 1 and 2 – but I guess that’s not the case with Penny.

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  3. Thanks for that assessment. I didn’t get further than book 2 with Louise Penny, not because I lacked a connection with her puzzles, but I lacked a connection with her writing. It didn’t engross me as Elizabeth George’s did, and I think I was unfairly comparing them at that time. So, I look forward to watching an episode here. Maybe I should restart with one of Louise Penny later novels. But I don’t get the roundness and verisimilitude that I get with Agatha Christie’s worlds and characters and Elizabeth Georges is, as you say, too bloated for even me — too many, notes, my dear Mozart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • George has a richer, more literary style than Penny. Some of her writing is gorgeous – there’s just too much of it! I bought a used copy of her latest, and the size is so daunting I can’t bring myself to begin it. Penny’s writing style can get on my nerves: lots of repetitions, a little too fey. But her books are shorter, and while her series characters have far more moments of happiness than George’s, they, too, can suffer – and provide good plots because of it.

      I used to love George’s mysteries for their, well, mystery as much as for the characters. But as they became more bloated, she seems to have lost the cleverness she used to showcase so well. Penny has never been clever with her puzzles so much as interested in how they reflect the human condition.

      If any of this helps you decide whether or not to try Penny, Mahlon, you’re welcome!

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  4. I could never get into these stories. Vacuous “mysteries” — really barely there mysteries, vague characterizations, overly long scenes that seem to amble but go nowhere, bizarre non-climaxes and Gamache’s weird love obsession with his son in law — pretty much left me cold. Even Martha Grimes wrote better mysteries, even if she refused to explain them with a reasonable denouement.

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