Monday, April 28, 2008


Recently somewhere that I can’t recall or relocate -- so I’ll rule that issue irrelevant -- I read an account of the first mystery story, as opposed to a horror/thriller a la Edgar Alan Poe. In real life a baby was found murdered (stabbed) and thrown into a privy behind a large estate of titled people. The crime was so atrocious that one man dared to breach the protections erected around the privileged dwellers, their servants and assorted hangers-on. He persisted until he had uncovered a whole webwork of rottenness and perversity that was so fascinating to everyone else -- who didn’t love the high and mighty anyway but had sort of assumed they were normal -- that it awoke a hunger to know more about people in hidden places, especially if there was a certain resentment involved, a stereotyping. Much of this yellow journalism and scandal-mongering continues today and needs no illustration.

But the element that persisted in mystery series was the eccentric inquirer -- a half-bubble or so off “plumb” -- necessarily because people who are “ordinary” didn’t ask, didn’t tell. One needs to be driven, or unusually intelligent and curious, or bolder than most. In the television versions of mystery, best illustrated in the BBC series of serieses that are aired on public television and now available on DVD (which is how I watch them) we have the herbalist Father Caedfael (formerly a warrior); “Cracker” who is nearly out-of-control much of the time; Robson Green’s characters in “Wire in the Blood” or “Touching Evil”, so charismatic but slightly brain-damaged; and Helen Mirren’s character in “Prime Suspect,” the most atypical of all since she’s female. “Foyle’s War” features Michael Kitchen as the most moral, out of step merely because it’s wartime. “Inspector Alleyn” is upper class himself, and therefore has special access to those naughty folks.

Last week I watched “Rebus” which is interesting because two series seasons, both based on Ian Rankin’s mystery novels, keep the same characters but cast different actors, which deeply affects the feel of the stories. In the first version the main character is played by John Hannah, who wears ugly pale suits and rather chews the scenery. His sidekick is a woman: extremely short bright red hair (probably dyed), the kind of size 12 who looks size 16 on television, generally dressed in pants and a solid-colored cowl-necked sweater, and chained to the computer to do all the scut work. Nevertheless, she is the moral weight, like a Greek chorus except that she says very little, just stands and looks gravely as Rebus exceeds the protocol. In a previous mystery, I can’t remember which, a gentleman with a furled umbrella appears on the scene of unwarranted violence and simply stands there, staring. These characters are representing us: normal, decent citizens who are not involved but who see what’s happening. They’re an excellent element, wisely included, and something often neglected in a wild American show like “The Shield” which tends to lose its moral balance. In the second Rebus series, this character is a pretty blonde and she goes to bed with Rebus' rival, losing much of her moral force. (But then, WE’VE changed, too, right?)

If the writer of the Wikipedia entry on Rebus is correct (I haven’t read the books), he is meant to be a Scots “hard man,” paternalistic and protective of the small and weak, but at the same time he is supposed to be based on the Scots member of “The Rolling Stones.” Yeah, those guys. In the first version of Rebus, possibly distracted by this idea, the hero tends to come off as petulant, and the story wanders around without much snap to it. The sets are “color-block” -- primary squares in the background. In the second version Rebus wears a black suit and polo shirt. Now he’s ugly and world-weary. The sets are pale -- it’s a few years later -- but there’s still quite a lot of bright blue which is supposed to be good for color television.

Both versions of Rebus are shot in Edinburgh, and this was the real revelation for me. Though I have family roots there, I’d only seen postcard photos of the city, never aerial moving shots, which are necessary in Rebus because it appears that all bodies in Edinburgh are found on the “clay banks” where the slag from crushed oil shale is piled incredibly high in five slanting mounds called “The Five Sisters,” or on high picturesque crags. The rocky crags are there because the city is nestled in the center of the caldera (crater) of an ancient volcano, which made it easy to defend in the very early days, a natural fort. But the other effect has been that buildings are crowded together around a cathedral church on a high point in the middle, and the town was forced to add living space by going up rather than out. This means that there are many early high stone buildings built in a period of craftsmanship and embellishment. In the first Rebus series, the hero has an apartment with a bay window on a high floor that looks out over the city to the Church. In front of it is a big leather armchair where he sits to brood and drink -- sometimes to spend the night if a female unsuitable for sex (like his daughter) is occupying his bed.

Take a look at or “South Central MediaScene serves to promote the south-central region's media profile. It's an independent site, and not a business.” The site links literature and other media to place, showing you where scenes were shot and giving you plenty of background about why. It’s really quite absorbing. Jane Austen fans will be especially pleased.

Crime noir” is supposed to be dark, happening at night in the sewers and underground (Edinburgh has a major old abandoned underground). Jokers have called Rebus “Tartan Noir.” Because of the scenes on the crags surrounding the city, I tend to think of the keynote as being wind. (Risky if anyone is tempted to wear a kilt.) Everyone’s hair and clothing is whipped around them, but that may be partly because of the wash from the helicopters.

The second version of Rebus is far more pastel in spite of the “noir” clothing and much tougher demeanor of the actor. He’s not political -- this series is centered on crime and small corruption. My problem was that I liked the criminals better than Rebus, even in the second series. McCafferty reminds me so much of big, burly, red-headed Jess Meinecke here on the reservation that I can’t help liking him. Though Rebus technically wins, he never really overcomes the hold McCafferty has on him. Besides, McCafferty has a marvelous big red mustache. I think I might be related to this man!

I have a feeling that the behind-the-scenes story of why there are two sets of actors might be a lot more interesting than the series. I’m reluctant to pick up Ian Rankin’s book. When I read the novels on which “Wire in the Blood” are based, I finally ended up slipping them into the garbage. They were getting way too far over on the perversion/horror/thriller side. This time I think I’ll just settle for Edinburgh scenery and let it go at that. But it’s no small thing.


Whisky Prajer said...

I would love to see the locales, or any documentary that covered them, but am averse to watching Rebus TV. I'm fond enough of the books that I have formed a nearly concrete vision of what Rebus and his cohort look like and how they behave. Actors and directors mess that up -- they have to, and that's fine. What I've enjoyed about the books is Rebus' haphazard way of solving puzzles. He strikes me as a character comfortable with making mistakes because correcting those errors are what's likely to get him closer to the answers. He also seems not to mind getting beat up -- he never takes his assaults personally, or seeks out revenge. A quirk, and a rather endearing one at that.

Anonymous said...

I have not seen any of these film versions, but I have read the Rebus books (since before Ian Rankin was such a "bestseller") and think that they are, on balance, jolly good. They are strong on characterisation, atmosphere and local political corruption (helped along by contemporary scandals such as the infamous Scottish parliament building).

Rankin and McDermid are (apparently) the two top-selling crime-fiction authors in the UK but they are very different. Rankin has none of the ghoulishness and dwelling on sordid details of McDermid. His are much more traditional police-procedurals - a sort of UK version of Connelly, Crais and co. Or, further back, Ed McBain style. McDermid is more of a thriller writer.