With the news that crotchety Edinburgh D.I. John Rebus is on the verge of retirement in the 17th entry of Ian Rankin's popular mystery series (Exit Wounds), it's a good time to do some catch-up with the TV version of this irascible homicide detective. Acorn Media's newest frill-free Rebus set, number three in the series, features four 66-minute mysteries (originally broadcast on ITV in 2007), all of based in varying degrees on Rankin's novels. How close these adaptations hew to the books has long been a bone of contention for many fans of the written series, though it's my suspicion that the further they stray from the plot specifics of the novels, the better they work as teledramas.
This has long been an issue with televised mysteries, of course: a good twisty mystery novel should be too detailed to comfortably fit within the confines of ninety-minutes-with-commercials. In America, for instance, Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason lasted eleven years on television as an hour-long teleseries, and in most cases the least successful entries were those based on one of the eighty-plus novels featuring the character: the books' plots were too dense to compress into a single hour of commercial television. As a result, they frequently came across as a series of disconnected events with only a tenuous connection to the characters.
You can see this occurring in the first of the new Rebus set's episodes, "Resurrection Men." It opens with a scene where our hero throws a fit (and a tea cup) at his superior DCS Gill Templar (Jennifer Black) in the middle of a briefing. The tantrum sends him to "retraining" with two thuggish fellow coppers, but since we never accept the act that sent him to the class in the first place, we instantly recognize it as a story ploy to send our hero undercover.
More believable are the "The First Stone," which pitches Rebus against the Church of Scotland, and "Naming of the Dead," wherein our man knocks against sinister security types while investigating a suspicious death at the World Trade Summit. In both cases, Ken Stott's Rebus remains his bulldoggedly tenacious self. In a way, he could be considered the Anti-Columbo: where the former wheedled his moneyed and high-profile murder suspects through his ineffectual seeming mannerisms, Rebus bullies and pushes his upper-echelon suspects with a willful disregard for social niceties. In the fourth episode, "Knots and Crosses" (fast-and-loosely based on the very first Rebus novel), his approach derails a trial after his reputation as a rough interrogator gets a murder case thrown out of court. Throughout it all, our hero remains his unapologetic hard-drinking, hard-assed self.
He's abetted – and in the last episode rescued from the machinations of an arrogant prosecutor (Nicholas Farrell, best known to Americans from Chariots of Fire) – by his young partner DS Siobhan Clarke (Claire Price). Their relationship remains a tricky one throughout the series: at any given point, he can be her mentor and guide into the convincingly grubby world of Edinburgh policing or a liability on Siobhan's own career. Observing it all from above is DCS Templar, who sees herself in Rebus' young partner and hovers over each case with a mixture of protectionism and jealousy.
As mysteries, the offerings in Set Three are fairly straightforward and not too difficult to parse out ahead of time. When we see the poster for a Shakespeare play in the background of one character's questioning, for instance, it clearly cues us to the real motives behind what appears to be a drug-related murder. But Stott's lived-in take on the alienated police detective keeps you watching even when you think you've figured all the facts behind the case. You believe his irritation and his anguish: there's a moment in "Resurrection" where the character's role undercover puts him in a moral bind that is particularly devastating.
Reportedly, the actor has announced his retirement from the character that he has so made his own. Perhaps this is apt, given the book Rebus' own forced departure from police work, though this fan would like to at least see the character's swan song adapted to the TV screen. It's the least they could do for the old bastard.