Caroline Graham, The Killings at Badger's Drift (Century (U.K.), 1987; Felony & Mayhem, 2005)
A first edition of this novel, which inspired The Midsomer Murders series in Britain, will set you back some six hundred dollars! Fortunately Felony & Mayhem has published a new edition that costs considerably less. Now this an English mystery of the sort I dearly love. In this, the first of the Midsomer Mysteries, a gentle stroll in the woods for spinster Miss Emily Simpson, who is simply looking for an orchid,ends in tragedy when she is later murdered over what she saw. The village doctor says Miss Simpson died of 'old age, plain and simple, but her old friend, Lucy Berringer, is convinced otherwise. Lucy eventually convinces the reluctant Chief Inspector Barnaby that it is murder. Barnaby's investigation reveals old tensions, forbidden loves and even new. Then a second horrifying killing shocks Barnaby into realizing that even quiet Badger's Drift is not what it seems it is! As Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby said an early episode of the Midsomer Murders television series, 'Every time I go into any Midsomer village, it's always the same thing -- blackmail, sexual deviancy, suicide and murder.'
I first saw the Midsomer Murders series on A&E, the American cable station that has shown many a British mystery series, including both Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost. Like all televised drama that gets chopped into pieces by commercials, they suffered both in their storytelling and in my ability to truly appreciate them; I'm not a fan of commercials in any form what-so-ever! So I was quite delighted when the first four episodes that Acorn Media has released arrived here for review. (Acorn Media also sent along a number of the Lord Peter Wimsey tales but that's a matter for another review.) The Midsomer Murders is based on the novels by Caroline Graham, with scripts written by some of Britain's best television writers. These adaptations have captured the feel of the novels rather well, and Midsomer Murders is firmly established as one of the most popular television series in the United Kingdom. There's even a new book that covers everything, and I mean everything, you want to know about the series!
Now I saw nine seasons of the Midsomer Murders series on DVD before I ever saw any of the novels that inspired the series. The Killings at Badgers Drift is, befitting it being a mystery, a slim affair at some 270 pages. Now as I noted in my review of Grabien's Haunted Ballad series, 'if you're used to Stephen King or George R.R. Martin-sized tomes which run to eight hundred or so pages (!) and require days of reading to slog through, these roughly two hundred page reads might seem a bit more than slightly slim. They would be if they weren't mysteries. In my opinion, a good mystery is little more than a novella bulked up slightly to allow for more character development by the author.' As with the TV series, where an episode is a hundred minutes long, this is the the proper length for this genre.
My main interest in The Killings at Badgers Drift was to see how much it differed from the TV series in how the characters of Chief Inspector Barnaby and the supporting cast, such as Sergeant Troy, are portrayed. Graham,who was born in Warwickshire in 1931 and educated at Nuneaton High School for girls, and, later graduated from Birmingham University with an MA degree in Writing for the Theatre, which strongly suggests that indeed she is an English writer through and through. She apparently did a good enough job with this novel that it was was selected by the Crime Writers' Association as one of the top hundred crime novels of all time. So it with deep regret I must say that her Barnaby and Troy are less interesting, more dour than the ones played by John Nettles (Barnaby) and Daniel Casey (Troy). Neither are terribly sympathetic characters. Even the comic touch of the terrible cooking of Joyce Barnaby (played by Jane Wymark in the series) just doesn't work here -- it simply feels heavy-handed and depressing.
Unlike Deborah Grabien's characters in Haunted Ballad series, where each and every one of the cast there feels quite convincing, they simply do not here. They suffer from the same flatness, same lifelessness, as all of the characters in the earlier novels in Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad series. They feel like simple and not terribly interesting plot devices, not real beings. Now it is possible to create interesting characters in mystery series -- just go read James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series or Sharon Kay Penman's Justin de Quincy series, both of which demonstrate rather well that you can do character creation and development in a mystery series.
So should you read The Killings at Badgers Drift? Probably not unless you love the series and are feeling a bit masochistic about knowing its origins, as it's just not that good a read. Go read instead all four of the wonderful Haunted Ballad novels as they are definitely worth your time. In the end, Graham fails where Grabien, Burke, and (eventually) Mccrumb succeed in creating characters who are worth reading about. Kudos to the TV series' writers for changing Barnaby and Troy from less than appealing characters into something worth knowing! And I will continue looking through the offerings of Felony & Mayhem for another interesting mystery to read.