Daily Archives: June 15, 2011

   by Victor Hugo

     Hugo    

 

As a rule, I avoid abridged versions of the classics.  If Tolstoy or Melville wanted me to read a 900-page novel, why on earth should I trust some modern-day editor who’s pared the thing down to 550 pages?  However … after slogging through 1,200 pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I’m changing my mind – a bit.  That’s because Hugo pauses – often – in his engrossing tale of the cursed ex-convict Jean Valjean for interminable digressions about 1) the history of the Paris sewer system; 2) the origins of French slang; 3) convents; 4) the battle of Waterloo.  At times, I wondered if Hugo concocted the story of Jean Valjean and company merely as a pretext to interject his own musings on politics, religion, and philosophy.

But there’s a reason we call certain books “classics,” and Les Miserables certainly has memorable characters and a powerful story.  Hugo does resort to narrative cheats – unlikely coincidences, characters who suffer convenient memory lapses – but his writing is so sincere and heartfelt that when I got to the final pages I experienced something rare for me:  goose bumps.

 

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Poirot1    Brett

 

The persnickety little man is back — and not a moment too soon.

I’m referring to Hercule Poirot, as personified by British thespian David Suchet, the actor who has been absolutely nailing Agatha Christie’s fictional detective for 22 years.  PBS will broadcast the first of three new Poirot mysteries, “Three Act Tragedy,” this Sunday.

New episodes of almost any British detective show are always welcome.  I think that’s because in America we are fed a steady diet of car chases, gunfights, explosions, and special effects.  In Britain, the TV-crime aficionado is fed “little grey cells.”

All of these great shows from “across the pond” have this in common:  They are based on popular books that feature quirky, flawed, and brilliant protagonists.  Sure, in America we have our oddball sleuths, our Monks and Houses and Columbos.  But none of them have the literary pedigree of a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes.

 

Poirot2     Poirot3

Poirot4     Poirot5

 

And so we have a new Poirot this week.  I have just one complaint.  Since 2002, Poirot has dispensed with a trio of supporting actors who lent much-appreciated humor to the series:  (above, clockwise from top right) Hugh Fraser (Hastings), Pauline Moran (Miss Lemon), and Philip Jackson (Chief Inspector Japp).

I’ve missed out on some of these delightful British imports, including the acclaimed Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren, but here’s a rundown of my favorites:

 

Morse

 

Inspector Morse    I love this cantankerous old coot.  Maybe that’s because Morse and I have so much in common:  same age, a weakness for beer, a bachelor lifestyle, a love of opera and poetry — well, maybe not that last.  Morse, as played by John Thaw, is forever irritable, forever single, and forever perplexed by the modern world.  But the bad guys don’t fool him, and he’s at home while prowling the halls of Oxford, where he and sidekick Sgt. Lewis (Kevin Whately) bump heads with stuffy professors, insecure students — and murder on a regular basis.

 

Branagh

 

Wallander    Technically, this is a British series that isn’t all that British.  It’s based on a series of Swedish novels set in Sweden.  But Wallander meets most British mystery requirements:  a flawed, interesting hero; clever plotting; moody atmosphere; and a first-rate actor (Kenneth Branagh) in the lead role.  Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been grabbing a lot of attention lately, but author Henning Mankell’s protagonist, the glum, middle-aged Inspector Wallander, is a more nuanced character than anyone found in Larsson’s Girl trilogy.

 

Sherlock

 

Sherlock     When this update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation premiered last year, my expectations were low.  Contemporizing the 19th-century stories had been done before, with decidedly mixed results.  And who the hell were these upstart actors playing Holmes and Watson?  Not to worry.  Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) have traded in gaslight and The Times for computers and texting, but the magic is still there.

 

Baker

 

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes    If you mention Sherlock Holmes, I tend to visualize actor Basil Rathbone, pipe in hand, prowling the artificial mists of what passed for London on a Universal Studios back lot in the 1940s.  But ask me which actor has given us the definitive Holmes, and I have to go with Jeremy Brett, who starred as the iconic cocaine addict in 41 television episodes from 1984 to 1994.

 

Midsomer

 

Midsomer Murders    Midsomer is a fictional English county, home to charming villages and nice families like that of DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), a pleasant man who shares a close bond with his wife and his daughter.  Midsomer would seem idyllic were it not for one nagging little problem:  It seems to be the murder capital of the world.

 

Poirot6

 

To see the Masterpiece Mystery! schedule, click here.

 

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