The charm of Kate Atkinson’s genre-bending crime novels lies in their balancing of the body blows and the grace notes of chance. Her skill goes a long way toward disarming the reader’s nagging disbelief that quite so many coincidences would occur in quite so many disparate lives. Her protagonist, Jackson Brodie, who mooches off the page as a kinder, gentler, but no less determined, Jack Reacher, is an essential part of her alchemy. Existentially adrift, he temporarily touches other people’s lives, but is never fully bound to them.
The BBC adaptation of Atkinson’s novels turns Brodie into a conventional private eye, fixed in an office, with a bolshie assistant and a nice view of Victoria Street. And with that, he becomes just one more private ‘tec with a wobbly personal life, no head for business, and, of course, the Dark Tragic Secret that has haunted him since childhood. Despite lively acting, splashy production values, and rich source material, Case Histories offers precious little genuine detection and a lot of aimless jumping around from case to case and client to client.
In the first episode, which aired this past Sunday on PBS (the next two will air on 23 and 30 October), Jason Isaacs attacked the role of Brodie with the pent-up energy of someone who has spent far too much time in fancy dress as Lucius Mallfoy. He was even brooding energetically, which is just as well, as he spent a lot of time in sullen contemplation—about his ex-wife, his daughter, his cases, and his past—while listening to weepy alt-folk-rock. He also handled action sequences well, whether he was pounding the streets of Edinburgh on lengthy runs or digging for 30-year-old corpses or mixing it up with local low-lifes. These efforts had him frequently stripped to the waist, a production choice that left the UK’s Guardian reviewer writing, “Phwoar, pecs and tattoos…. If he was a woman, it would be an outrage; but he’s not, so it’s quite good fun.”
Fun, indeed, but not much help to whatever plot writer Ashley Pharoah, co-creator and writer of both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, is trying to resurrect from Atkinson’s books. The problem is that the character of Brodie is conceived very narrowly. If evidence of his intelligence depends on everyone else’s total ineptitude, it’s not really intelligence. It’s just the happy accident of being a slightly sharper knife in a box of monumental duds.
Among these, DC Louise Munroe is acted by Amanda Abbington with a pushy abrasiveness. But she’s too typically either doing what Jackson wants or thanking him for solving her cases. (This raises another issue: when the private eye turns the police into his lapdogs, then the outcome of any episode is never in doubt.) The wisp of erotic attraction between Amanda and Jackson seems forced, as if to keep the audience’s attention from wandering, especially as he also seems to be succumbing to the prettier of two dotty, emotionally damaged Edinburgh spinsters, Julia Land (Natasha Little).
Such frantic overlaying of complication upon complication drives the script. The first episode featured not one, or even two, but four separate sets of prolonged and repeated flashbacks (three to the crimes Brodie is investigating and one to his own past). Add in the constant intercutting between all four storylines in the present, swaths of time wasted in driving or running from place to place, and amusing but not exactly spellbinding social chit-chat between Jackson and his clients, and even the one hour and 54 minute slot left precious little time for detection.
The Brodie backstory in particular, revealed fragment by fragment as the series progresses, wastes precious minutes and indicates a laziness in the writing. This dwelling on backstory is just a shortcut around character development, a kind of built-in guarantee of catharsis, without showing Brodie’s specific struggles and evolution.
Like so many crime novel adaptations, Case Histories leaves the audience with a faint echo of a delightful original, oozing with talent, budget, and location shooting, and almost bereft of compelling content. The more courageous adaptation would have left Jackson Brodie as freewheeling good Samaritan, moral but not lawful, ambiguous and mysterious. Instead, Case Histories succumbs to a dull domestication that courts boredom. By the end of Episode Two, this Scots exile was finding more entertainment in reconstructing the routes of Jackson’s improbable runs around Edinburgh than in the drama of the crime-solving.