My mother is probably one of the most avid readers I know of the mystery genre. Every so often when we do a bit of spring (or weekend) cleaning there’s are dozens and dozens of mystery books lying around, from Rex Stout to Conan Doyle and sometimes a touch of Agatha Christie. Being a fan of this genre, she also flocks towards the television adaptations of the stories. She doesn’t mingle over the details or what parts of the story aren’t fitting to the book. She does, however, expect the characters are well acted and fit somewhat to the style of the way the author characterized them.
I’m not the reader my mother is, and I could never see, at a younger age, the attraction of these adaptations. For one, Americans expect excitement within every page of the script. That excitement usually consists of harassing suspects, lots of car chases, and murders with a beautiful woman somewhere in the mix. There can be variety in the manner in which they showcase these and other familiar extremes, but they never go completely without them. Change the language, lose the guns, subtract the violence, and you get Midsomer Murders.
John Nettles plays Tom Barnaby, a family man who works as a Detective Chief Inspector in the fictional English country of Midsomer in the town of Causton. He enjoys the quiet life he has with his wife Joyce (Jane Wymark) and his actress daughter (Laura Howard). He is often called to handle the murders within the Midsomer counties – including his own. Helping DCI Barnaby with all of this is a very young Detective Sergeant (he’s had three) who usually comes late in thought behind his older partner, but always comes in handy when least expected.
“Holmes and Watson,” you might say to yourself as you read this review. You could say the twosome is very much like that, but Barnaby doesn’t thrive on the mysteries that come his way. Most of the time they appear to interfere with his own family life, something Holmes never had. He’s also not quite as sure of his own intellect and sometimes is as dumbfounded as the DS he works with – and that would make them both like Watson in that case.
So what is the attraction to this show that you possibly haven’t found in reading this review? As with all genres in visual media, the presentation is the selling point. Midsomer Murders presents well.
As far as I can remember, most of England (where Midsomer is mostly shot) seems to always remain intact, as if the centuries passing have shown no change. Even towns that are suburbs in the fictional Midsomer don’t appear like the gaudy suburban homes that currently exist in America. Probably due to the style of filming, the country still remains king over all housing and institutions present.
For those of you who are fans of Doctor Who’s synth sound, you’ll find an interesting combination of that and orchestra in the music of Midsomer Murders. It also gives an extra characteristic to whichever county of Midsomer the detectives find themselves in. I would suggest renting Blood Will Out and The Killings At Badger’s Drift for a good idea of what I mean.
I never heard of John Nettles in my life, but it turns out he had one prior crime series to MM. Of the whole lexicon of actors in modern-day mysteries, he's been the most compelling to watch. Rather than take the every-situation-is-serious approach of John Thaw (Inspector Morse), Nettles isn’t afraid to step out of character and be comical from time to time. In the episode “Killings,” he does show signs of going ballistic, which might suggest that’s not the case. The more lighthearted approach comes from episodes like “Faithful In Disguise,” which features a very high moment for Nettles’ Barnaby when one of the suspects offers him some very strange brownies for desert.
The weight of the show’s greatness doesn’t merely rest on the shoulders of its lead actor, but also from the many co-stars that have played as the lackey to Barnaby. There have been at least three of them on the show: Daniel Casey, John Hopkins, and currently Jason Hughes. As partners go they do the usual grunt work that the smarter policemen do, but they do more to help the show break away from the sameness of the genre in their own individual ways.