Case Histories

Rachel Cooke is captivated by a new detective drama set in Edinburgh.

Case Histories

I know at least half a dozen women who are deeply in love with Jackson Brodie, the private-investigator hero of Kate Atkinson's magnificent crime novels. I have major hots for him, too. So, when I heard that the inevitable had happened and someone was planning to turn his adventures - "scrapes" would be a better word - into Sunday- and Monday-night television (9pm), how did I feel? Sceptical. It would be tricky enough for the BBC to remain true to the spirit of Atkinson's novels, which are complex and moving. To come up with the perfect Jackson to boot? No, not a chance.

Yet, by some miracle of concision, Ashley Life on Mars Pharoah has turned three novels into a six-part series - next up is One Good Turn. And I had not considered the possibility of Jason Isaacs, the actor best known, though not by me, as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. Oh, man. Or, as his client Julia Land (Natasha Little) put it: "Yum." I watched Case Histories in a state of pure and instantaneous adoration. I did not answer the phone. I did not make tea. I was transfixed.

Isaacs can do it all: hard man, sensitive man, funny man, bruised man. He can even do a Yorkshire accent. In the scenes where he was hanging out with his daughter, Marlee (divinely played by a gnome-like person called Millie Innes), I found myself muttering, "Jackson!" As if I were there, too, in his kitchen, watching him encourage her to Facebook the friends of murder victims on his laptop while he warmed the pizza (Marlee is about seven).

This is lovely television and if it had come to us from the US, the newspapers would have been droning on about it for months. I adore all the performances; I love the way it looks (Edinburgh, with your dirty, great canyons); I like the way that, rather than spoon-feeding the viewer, information is carefully withheld.

So great is Atkinson's talent that she seems always to have inspiration to spare, with the result that Jackson is never the only indelible character on offer. The producers have cast the exuberant Julia and her old-maidish sister, Amelia (Fenella Woolgar), superbly well (Jackson was on the trail of their other sister, Olivia, lost in childhood). Ditto Brodie's flinty former police colleague Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbington). The only problem with the series - one that will strike those who have not read the novels - is Atkinson's use of coincidence.

In a long, teeming novel, this works powerfully; what you see first out of the corner of your eye moves to centre stage, slowly. But reduced to two scant hours of television, such serendipity can seem too neat and a little old-fashioned. Perhaps, too, Pharoah has shed some of the books' darkness. The jaunty soundtrack reassures the audience that all will be well when, we fans know, even as Atkinson's novels are shot through with light, even as she allows Jackson to solve the cases he reluctantly takes on, dark corners will remain: the frayed edges that we must all somehow learn to live with if we are not to lose our minds.

Anthony Horowitz's Injustice (ITV1, 6-10 June, 9pm), meanwhile, starred James Purefoy as a barrister who killed his guilty clients after he'd won their cases (one does have the mortgage on one's arts-and-crafts house in Suffolk to pay, you know). Bizarre. Imagine the bastard child of Death Wish and Kavanagh QC and you're close. And what creakiness. Even the snootiest of barristers does not, in the privacy of the robing room, say such things as: "First blood to you!" Nor do retired publishers discover glittering novels in young offender in­stitutions ("Even Curious Incident wouldn't have sold if it had been written by a rapist," said this woman's cautious former boss over the Chardonnay, as you do). Memo to Horowitz: you can get away with the preposterous - up to and including a Barbour-jacketed, Cambridge-educated angel of vengeance - only if the rest
of your screenplay doesn't stink to high heaven of exceedingly ripe cheese.

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 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit