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Books into TV shows - read or watch first?

One of life’s little treats is finding a mystery series where the books are good but so is the TV show. The British are excellent at this (although not exclusively – think of the American Longmire series and the Australian Phryne Fisher series). Since we are smack in the midst of those mid-summer dog days, let’s take a look at five of the best, from Cozy to Dark.

MC Beaton died in January of 2020 in her mid-eighties leaving behind two popular book series, the Agatha Raisinbooks and the Hamish Macbeth “Death of” books. A big part of her charm is the way she captures the Scottish Highlands (particularly in Macbeth) as well as the differences between rural and city culture. I’ve read most of the Macbeth books and enjoyed the unlucky in love / very lucky in catching bad guys protagonist. Acorn TV has several seasons of episodes based on them, and they are excellent. The TV series captures the humanity of Hamish and minimizes the clownish aspect of the rural detective.

I admit that I didn’t like nearly as much the Agatha Raisin books (although in sheer popularity, I’m in the minority on that) but wow, the TV show is great fun. Agatha is sympathetically hilarious fleeing big city life for small town living and feeling like she doesn’t quite fit in despite her best (short-lived) efforts. Yet, there’s always a murder to be solved and Agatha there to do it. Supporting characters are also good.

The Father Brown series by G.K. Chesterton isn’t so cozy. (See Chesterton's picture with this blog post.) Chesterton based this series on a real priest he knew who felt he had acquired a deep understanding of human evil from his years listening to confessions. The TV Father Brown is a period piece harkening back to the years the books were written, during high Modernism of the 1920’s and 30’s, the character first being introduced in 1911. If there’s one thing the modernists understand, it’s the ambiguity of the human soul. Both readers and viewers who like to explore such mysteries will enjoy Father Brown. (Nod to my husband on this one who loved this series.)

My favorite mystery book – television show combination is the Vera Stanhope series by Ann Cleeves. This is one we can safely read first with the knowledge that nothing in the TV series will disappoint. Police Chief Inspector Stanhope is absolutely channeled by Brenda Blethyn. If you like your mysteries cozy, read something else. Vera is a dark personality in a dark environment who, much like Father Brown, finds the speck of humanity in the worst of us and a little of the worst of us in the best of us.

Scottish TV produced four seasons based on Ian Rankin’s John Rebus books. The first season stars John Hannah who I liked a great deal in that role, plus the director captured the darkness of the books. Then both the lead actor and the director changed and suddenly Edinburgh is blindingly sunny (like it was filmed in LA . I can’t imagine where they found that much sun in Edinburgh), and Rebus is an older, jollier version of himself. I got used to it, and the shows did justice to the plots. But by far I preferred the lank, brooding Rebus of Season One. If you like Rankin, though, you ought to try the series.

I still have books to read in all of these series although I’ve seen all the TV shows – so this is really a case of how we can do all this in any order that suits our moods, although either way, chronologically is advisable.

See you at the Library!

(By Roz Weedman for publication in the Frankenmuth News on July 28, 2021.)

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