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3 November 2021

Why are PD James’s Dalgliesh novels so difficult to adapt?

The novelist, an Anglican, understood that the best crime fiction relieves the reader of their own guilt. But her stories, with all their delicious purging and shriving, are hard to place in a 21st-century context.

By Rachel Cooke

In his classic survey of the detective novel, Bloody Murder, the novelist Julian Symons tries to work out why such stories are so abidingly popular. Some of his ideas are, I vaguely remember, on the complicated side – Freud, a fan of Dorothy L Sayers, is certainly invoked – but ever since I read it, one theory has held water for me: the purification of the tribe. The detective story involves ritual sacrifice. The perpetrator of the crime, having been expelled from society, is a scapegoat whose punishment temporarily relieves the reader of the guilt associated with her own sinfulness.

PD James, whose Anglican faith ran deep, must have known this – there is a reason why she made her clever, stoical detective, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, the son of a Norfolk rector – and I think it’s why her novels work so effectively on the reader: all that delicious purging and shriving. It also makes her stories, in a 21st-century context, difficult to adapt. As Bertie Carvel, the latest actor to play Dalgliesh, has already discovered, there is a certain disconnect between her hero’s career in the Metropolitan Police and his inner life, which bends quite naturally towards questions of moral philosophy and human fallibility. (He’s a published poet.)

How to write such a character for a medium that has no time whatsoever for hesitation or doubt?

Channel 5 has helped Carvel by setting its first adaptation,Shroud for a Nightingale”, in the Seventies, when the novel was first published. People dashed around less then; men like Adam Dalgliesh were permitted to drink contemplative pints while silently pondering their paperwork (though this decision helps make sense of the plot, too, given that the action takes place in a residential home for trainee nurses, an institution now largely extinct). Still, the actor, talented as he is, struggles.

[see also: Stephen Merchant’s new series The Outlaws is uneven and unfunny]

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Viewers who are mad for Channel 5’s reboot of All Creatures Great and Small are going to love Dalgliesh’s sideburns and old Jaguar, just as they’ll thrill to the sight of Matron (Natasha Little) in her starched uniform (you can practically smell the disinfectant). But they may also, should they be coming to James cold, wonder why he’s so inscrutable. Where’s his charisma? Has it been murdered, like that poor nurse?

Dalgliesh should be the TV equivalent of an onion, its layers telling us something about ourselves. Watching it, I think of Roy Marsden, who played Dalgliesh on ITV from 1983 until 1998, a performance beloved to me as a teenager, and of James’s novels, which I read greedily as a girl, and still revisit now in certain (low) moods. For all that Channel 5’s series seems expressly to want to look backwards – with his moustache and orange-red Ford Capri, Dalgliesh’s sidekick, DS Masterson (Jeremy Irvine), is straight out of Life on Mars – the past it depicts is entirely its own invention. Its setting nods neither to ITV’s adaptation, which was set in its own time, nor to James’s books. The result is cartoony, and bland. All historical drama is ersatz, but when this series is nasty – when it’s casually racist or sexist – it seems to be so not for reasons of veracity, but to signal its congratulations to an audience it assumes knows better.

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In “Shroud for a Nightingale”, a teenager is killed while playing patient for her fellow students; the gastric tube she swallows contains not warm milk but carbolic acid. This is a horrible way to die and yet, after it’s over, Sister Gearing (Fenella Woolgar) only looks comical with blood all over her face; Dr Courtney-Briggs (Richard Dillane), who massaged the victim’s heart, is just as pompous as ever. Such a lack of mess and shock feels all wrong: James was resident neither in Midsomer, nor St Mary Mead. And yet such insipidity, and the inspector’s sphinx-like silences, are to my mind connected. If the script had only given us access to Dalgliesh’s recent bereavement (his wife died in childbirth), his doubt, his uncommon feeling for his fellow men, there’d be no need to gloss over the evil that has a girl writhing on the floor, her body burning. We’d be armed, our defences bolstered. You don’t have to believe in God (I don’t) to grasp that, in PD James’s hands, Adam Dalgliesh is the way, the truth, and the life.

Channel 5, aired 4 November, 9pm; now on catch-up

[see also: Impeachment: American Crime Story is a camp portrayal of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal]

This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained