Friday, February 16, 2007


My animal control boss, Mike Burgwin, likes to say that when he was trained to be a police officer, he learned two things: take names and kick butt. Helen Mirren, in her “Prime Suspect” incarnation, says she only knows two ways to solve cases: plod and intuition. The distinction between the television series “Wire in the Blood” and the book series written by Val McDermid is not quite captured by either dyad. I’d say it’s the difference between a painting by a French impressionist -- all vivid slashes of color -- and by a pointellist -- many small monotonous strokes that finally create a picture. The book is the latter.

My sample is not very big. I’m only halfway through the series episodes on DVD and have just finished reading “The Wire in the Blood.” The title comes from T.S. Eliot, the "Four Quartets," but there’s nothing particularly literary about either version of the story. I suppose one could squeeze out some philosophical existentialism, but that’s always a possibility. You could get it out of a turnip.

Clearly McDermid came up with the central notion of this tale: a serial killer is motivated by the loss of his athletic career but is never suspected because he’s now a successful and charming talk show host with a closeted lesbian wife for cover. The central pair of solvers is Tony Hill, a constrained and busy-brained profiler, and his friend Carol Jordan, a tough female copper. They are classic sidekicks: in sympathy, bonded, but not “an item.” The dynamic is that Tony is the quicksilver thinker and Carol is the grounded “yes-but.” Romantic dimensions are only hinted in both video and book, more successfully in the video, I think, where the actors stand close and look into each other’s faces -- even lean towards each other, but never kiss or embrace. Robson Green is a natural for this. As an actor in these series of stories he is tremendously charismatic but quite restrained. (In the “fluff” he did previously, he was often goofy and always sexy.) In the book we are told the character is impotent, but that’s pretty hard to believe about Robson Green and, anyway, one might not care! Simple intimate talk with him might be as satisfactory as sex with someone else!

In the previous Robson Green crime series, “Touching Evil,” he was nearly supernatural, an explicit shaman who had come back from the dead, but in this series he is a nerdy little fellow whose strength is persistence and detail, plus formidable amounts of theory from books. “Profiling” is the technique of both series as well as it was the idea behind “Cracker,” the first series to come anywhere near the power of “Prime Suspect,” which was pretty much straight policing. “Cracker” depended upon the larger-than-life main character, a huge man of appetites and drama, and upon a darker, more confrontive and cynical sort of Irish writing, near political in its irony and social bitterness. “Cracker” nearly assaulted the suspects, telling them what they thought when they didn’t know themselves. In this version of profiling, Green is almost suffering, filled with compassion and empathy for the deranged killers, though that comes through much less in this particular story. The strongest of the stories are the ones where he deals directly with the suspect, even just talking across a table.

The book is filled with minor characters, most merely sketched, and a few others crucial to the plot. The action goes forward, conference by conference, in a constant naming of places and what the English call “bevvies;” that is, coffees, teas, beers, and wines -- all named and described. Police jargon mixes with regional slang that approaches pidgin English, which is one of the charms of the book.

In the video version of this particular story it’s clear that a script committee sat down and completely restructured the plot. The character whose death propels the book, an over-eager cop named Sharon who prefers to be called “Shaz,” is horribly murdered, but she is removed from the screen version. Her murder is replaced by the death of one of the lesbian lovers, not quite so horrible. McDermid is out of the closet herself and uses the idea of a web of formerly closeted homosexual police, especially women, as a source of plot devices. They know things they aren’t supposed to know and are used to keeping secrets among themselves.

A whole subplot about arson drops out, along with its theme of unreliable cops and firemen. The video gains remarkable coastal scenery which greatly enriches the story for Americans. Also, the video plot adds a deranged stalker as a source of clues that isn’t in the book. The video depends for much of its effectiveness on camera tricks: out-of-focus that gradually comes into focus, long smearing speed pans, overlaps of sound and image, abrupt cuts, echoing cuts, and so on. Things move fast. I’m glad to have the DVD from Netflix long enough to watch everything twice, maybe three times, so that I can catch detail I lost the first time. But I feel no need to reread this book. In fact, I don’t think I could face all those bevvies again.

Green is a musician but I don’t know how much he has to do with the soundtrack, though he is part “owner” of the series. “The Insects” play ominous, ticking, sliding music. In this particular story the sound effect of the huge wind mills along the coast road the victims travel is blended into the music -- “swooop, swoooop,” rhythmic, inhuman, inevitable. It seems to be always cold, with everyone in jackets.

The final victim is saved in the video but not in the book. The book implies that the killer will somehow get off.

To watch and compare the styles of these English profiler series is already interesting, but when the books as well are thrown into the mix, one begins to learn a great deal about “mimesis,” the concentrating and patterning of stories and images based on reality. The book is probably closer to real police work, which really IS mostly plod and taking names, with occasional adrenaline rushes when it’s time to follow intuition and kick butt. But the video is somehow more satisfactory, probably because we aren’t filtered through description, we SEE. This could be pretty disappointing with less competent actors and less vivid scenes for them to play. But the gruesome aspects of the crimes are muted -- what is described in the book would be too intense, possibly provoking objections of a formal regulatory nature.

Anyway, one has the feeling that McDermid really doesn’t care about the inner lives of the torturers and monsters -- at least nowhere near as much as Tony Hill does, when he’s played by Robson Green.

1 comment:

Maxine said...

Interesting post. I've read all her books, including this one. I like her Tony Hill series. I now actually own the DVD boxed set including this film, after that post I wrote resulted in all those recommendations, but probably won't get to watch it until I retire (if I live that long). So I need to save your post till then, and then let you have my take on the film/book comparison (of course, by then I'll have forgotten the book(s) so will have to read again).