When the character is made for the actor

When both the character and the actor are brilliant in their own right, we get something close to perfection

Published - July 06, 2024 08:24 pm IST - Bengaluru

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.

As an avid reader of detective fiction in my youth, I was in good company. Philosophers Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein were fans too, perhaps because the genre asks the same question as philosophy: Whodunnit? 

Now I prefer watching on television such fine actors as David Suchet (Poirot), Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes), Geraldine McEwan (Miss Marple), John Thaw (Inspector Morse), John Hannah (John Rebus), Peter Falk (Columbo). 

The British bias is not accidental. American detective fiction was initially all atmosphere and wisecracks and later all action and lacking in complexity.  In both cases, the mystery-solvers were often mysterious themselves; either unidimensional and brooding (not always succeeding in suggesting depth) or conventional and with personal issues. 

The British had more women solving crimes. Prime Suspect made its debut in the 90s. It was produced by a woman (Sally Head), written by a woman (Lynda La Plante) and starred a woman (Helen Mirren). 

Television has further widened the gap between the American detective and their counterpart from Britain. 

We watch two different people when a book becomes a TV serial. First, the character, the detective, who is fictional, has their own idiosyncrasies that might be either endearing or irritating. This person has been created by the writer. Then there is the actor, interpreting the character, bringing their own understanding to it, an existing person adding another layer to a non-existing one. 

Bad characters can sometimes be rescued by good actors and vice versa. But when both the character and the actor are brilliant in their own right, we get something close to perfection. 

Such a one is Vera, another series written by a woman, Ann Cleeves, and starring Brenda Blethyn, the finest detective on television. Blethyn portrays Vera Stanhope, the no-nonsense, middle-aged, hat-wearing, jalopy-driving, sharp-tongued but compassionate detective who lives alone. She drives through bleak, stark regions of northern England which are both attractive in a desolate sort of way, and depressing. 

It’s all in her eyes – the intelligence, the empathy, the mischief, the humour, the nuances of meaning, the hurt and occasional confusion. A glance reveals either the world-weary Vera or the little girl hidden under the layers of clothing and police experiences. 

P.D. James, who wrote some of the finest in the genre, said a detective story is not about murder, but the restoration of order. Perhaps that is why it is so popular – we breathe a sigh of relief when after the physical and psychological mayhem, order is restored, god’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. 

Episodes of Vera don’t stop with the revelation of the murderer, but continues just that bit longer to show Vera restoring some order to a disrupted  life or two. 

You might imagine that with so many detectives having solved so many crimes since Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin made his entry in 1841, we would know all the tricks by now. Yet, Vera often amazes us with the resolution –  combining surprise and inevitability like the best of them do. 

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