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July 16, 2015

Inspector Barnaby on Screen and on the Page


I make it a point never to watch a movie or TV show that is based on a book without having read the book first. It’s just one of my things. I’m a reader. And a stubborn one. I live in my imagination, and I don’t like to have a book I love sullied by someone else’s (lesser) interpretation of a character. I have also been known to avoid watching a show based on a favorite book in case it somehow does not live up to my inner imaginings, no matter the cajoling of friends or family.

So one evening last winter, when I was home alone and—shock, horror—with nothing new to read, I was flipping through Netflix looking for a replacement for good old Inspector Lewis. Because the current season was over, and I was in need of a murder-mystery fix. I love a good old-fashioned British crime solver. I always have. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes started it, and it continued with any and all Agatha Christies and Margery Allinghams and later some P.D. James, with a smattering of Colin Dexter and Ruth Redford thrown in. I’d read the “Morse” novels, which lead me to the Morse TV series, and to the spin-off, Lewis. So now, here I was, in search of something similar. And I stumbled across Midsomer Murders. I had a vague recollection of watching an episode or two with my parents at some point, and I recognized John Nettles, so I selected an episode and hit “start.” An hour and half later, I was hooked. Inspector Barnaby, his sidekick Sergeant Troy, Barnaby’s wife Joyce and their daughter Cully—I had already fallen for them and their world of idyllic English villages, scattered around an idyllic English countryside, marred only by the regular murder of two or three of its inhabitants. So began a binge-watch that lasted weeks. Midsomer Murders is one of the longest-running murder mystery shows on British television, and Netflix has most of the episodes. I got my husband involved, and together we spent hours with Barnaby as he tracked down murderers, suffered through his wife’s cooking, his daughter’s choice of career, and his sergeant’s driving, all with a good-humored commitment. When Sergeant Troy left the show, we were appalled, we could never grow to love Sergeant Scott. But we did, and when his replacement Sergeant Jones took over, well, it was an adjustment but one we made happily. Because we were part of Inspector Barnaby’s world, and if he said Sergeant Jones made the cut, we’d agree.

And then it was over. We’d watched all the episodes. The show continues, but without Barnaby, he’s retired. And I have no interest in watching it without him, Inspector Barnaby was the show for me. But towards the end of our viewing, I discovered that Barnaby did not spring forth fully formed from ITV. Inspector Barnaby had been a book first! Several books in fact. Some of the early episodes are based on these novels by Caroline Graham. And now I was faced with the flip side of my usual dilemma. How could I read the books when the actors and writers of Midsomer had so fixed these characters in my mind? But when I was given an opportunity to read them, I decided to go ahead with it. After all, I’d sat through movies of beloved books. I would do the same with this. I would want to like them, but I was fully prepared not to.

But I loved them. Graham’s Barnaby is not John Nettles’ Barnaby, but I think the two men would find a lot in common. Midsomer’s Sergeant Troy is not Graham’s Troy, but both will win you over in spite of being intensely annoying. Graham’s Cully is a tougher, less accessible version of TV Cully, while Joyce on screen remains the closest to Graham’s vision, but Barnaby’s family unit shines through as a beacon of stability to him on the roads he travels during his workday in both mediums.

Graham is a wonderful writer, and her Inspector Barnaby lives on the page in the tradition of the many great detectives who have gone before him. He’s a man you would want around if someone decided to whack a loved one on the head with a blunt instrument. I may even be more open to the possibility of watching a movie or show without having read the book because of Caroline Graham. And for that, my friends and family are extremely grateful.



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