The Suspicions of Mr Whicher on ITV: Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends

Kate Summerscale's book is very good indeed, but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
ITV

People like to say that the truth is stranger than fiction and sometimes this is the case. As events unfolded in Cleveland, Ohio recently, you felt such a sickening narrative to be beyond the realm of most crime writers. But mostly, fiction is stranger than truth, or at least less messy, more planned. It doesn’t peter out – it always has an ending – and for this reason it feels a good deal more satisfying. Isn’t this why we read, after all? Fiction, moreover, supplies answers in a way that the so-called truth often doesn’t. Much of what I know about life, especially about human beings, I picked up from novels – for which reason, I’m wary, not to say disdainful, of people who don’t read them.

I was thinking about this as I watched The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Sunday 12 May, 8pm). The first film that ITV commissioned about this Victorian detective was based on Kate Summerscale’s prizewinning non-fiction book of the same name. The book is very good indeed but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic. Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends. But ITV must have liked not only the ratings for that first film but the character of Mr Whicher, too, for it decided to bring him back. Only this time the mystery he had to solve was made up for him by Neil McKay, the talented writer of the Bafta Award-winning Appropriate Adult.              

I was all set to be scornful. The brazen cheek of it! Get your own Victorian detective, I thought, don’t gussy up someone else’s. But, of course, as television it was much better than the original. It had a proper plot, complete with red herrings and acts of derring-do (also a creepy lunatic asylum, illegitimate children, cursed families and a convent). It wasn’t quite Wilkie Collins but it was on its way. And when it ended, all was suddenly clear. The murk lifted and it was spring. Viewers could go to bed feeling that something had been resolved, unpicked like an old knot, though perhaps I’d better not say whodunnit (or whydunnit), in case this is loitering on your Sky Plus.

Paddy Considine returned as Jack Whicher, now discharged from the police on the grounds of “mental unfitness”. Opposite him was Olivia Colman as Susan Spencer, a genteel woman in search of her missing niece. Having stumbled on Miss Spencer in a tavern, Whicher offered to begin working for her as a “private inquiry agent”. As ever, they were good together, Considine and Colman (he directed her in the film Tyrannosaur). They’re two of the best criers in the business – the tears pour out of Colman like rainwater from a storm drain – and both of them have wonderful period faces: pouchy and oddly touching. The time will come when Colman makes an excellent Queen Victoria. She looks marvellous in jet.

It’s pretty clear that ITV is planning to commission more Whichers. “I think you will,” said a smiling Miss Spencer to our hero when he informed her in the film’s last moments that he wouldn’t be taking on any more cases in future. According to Hat Trick, which made it, the channel sees it “in a tradition of Cracker and Prime Suspect”. But for all that I enjoyed this second outing, they should leave it now. Cracker and Prime Suspect had an originality – a vitality – that Whicher lacks. There’s something ersatz here. Now it’s all made up, it’s as if Inspector Lestrade has leapt from the pages of Sherlock Holmes into his own stories. Writers as good as McKay have their own ideas and should be encouraged to develop them.

Paddy Considine and Olivia Colman in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Photograph: ITV.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear