This guest post about the Murder Rooms novelizations was written by the moderator of The Dark Beginnings. Frequent that tumblr all week for fun stuff!
When you turn a gaslight down a trifle, the shadows around you grow longer and blacker; then turn the light down more, until the flame is about the length of your fingernail, and these shadows begin to tremble, mingling with the surrounding darkness. This is how I would describe the change made to Murder Rooms when it was turned from a TV miniseries into a book trilogy. The book universe is an AU of the original production with all the lights turned down – a vividly Gothic work, its humour blacker, its descriptive language more genre conventional (cue epic thunderstorms every five minutes or so), its characters moodier and more mysterious, the central conflict more well-defined.
Now perhaps I should include in this review a short introduction to the series is a whole. In 2001, BBC produced a show describing the (largely fictional) adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his university teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell. The real-life Dr. Bell was quite the intriguing figure – not only did he possess the powers of observation that inspired Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes, but he also assisted the police on actual forensic investigations, which may or may not have included the Jack the Ripper case. A screenwriter of Murder Rooms, David Pirie, then went on to write a novelization of the series, which, however, turned out to be very different from its TV counterpart as well as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I will therefore be writing about the book version of Murder Rooms and not about the TV series – though I will throw in a few comparisons where appropriate.
Unlike the Sherlock Holmes canon, the literary version of Murder Rooms is, in my opinion, not primarily a study of its protagonists. Bell and Doyle aren’t the main driving force of the story – they do not shape it, but rather obey its rules. In the Holmes canon, the heroes command the balance of good and evil– in these books, this balance is quite independent of them. It is a great living thing, a horrible black diamond with a million facets. But, though they cannot affect this frightening force, their reactions to it aren’t the reactions of stock Gothic characters who are only there to prove the author’s point. Indeed, Bell and Doyle with all their worries, misunderstandings, sorrows, their thoroughly screwed up father-and-son dynamics, are very human and alive – insomuch as one can say that about fictional characters.
Bell’s way of thinking may seem – or be – slightly inhumane; but at the same time he continuously demonstrates tact, affection, and sympathy towards others. He has much more in common with his TV counterpart than one would think. Granted, TV!Bell is more open in his affections – as evidenced, in particular, by the ending of The White Knight Stratagem – but this is an external, not an internal difference. The two characters still have an important point of convergence – that where book!Bell would rather die than risk Doyle’s life; where it looks like he’s ready to kill Colin Macandrew (a scientist who used murder victims as subjects for his experiments) out of sheer anger at his lack of remorse.
Similarly,book!Doylemay not be exactly a cheery ray of sunshine, but there’s something fundamental he and his TV version share. Not once do they waver in the face of danger, or flinch away from their duty. In fact, this appears rather mildly put when we learn that the book-verse Doyle ends up literally setting Cream on fire and leaving him to die. If ever there was a metal character arc!
Awesomely, between them Doyle and the Doctor have quite the black sense of humour:
“‘You may not know I make a regular visit to Glendoick in Perthshire every year for the shooting. It is something I have done since I was nineteen and I am a tolerable marksman. Of course I would prefer to see [Cream] tried but, if the thing was in the balance, I have a firearm.’ Though Bell seemed quite serious I had to smile at this, for the idea of the Doctor entering the harbour inn at Southwold and shooting one of its guests in cold blood was incongruous.”
In short, despite being distinctly Gothic AU versions of their TV selves, they’re fascinating three-dimensional characters. And it is not the central ideological conflict of the series that is of interest (the good versus evil situation is, of course, the exact opposite of original), but rather the way the heroes treat and perceive it.
There’s the personal aspect to their struggle, seen especially clearly during Colin Macandrew’s character arc in The Night Calls. There’s a scene in an opium den where Bell almost gets electrocuted by the head of a fake giant dead lizard (and I must say that whatever questions you have about this last sentence, the answer is “I have no clue”). Doyle then says the following: “I wanted to know what was in the box and what had happened in that awful moment when for a few seconds I was sure the Doctor was a dead man“; but during the final confrontation between Bell and Macandrew, when the only danger is not to Bell’s life but that Bell will end up killing Macandrew, he tells the audience: “I felt more fear now that I had even at the den”.
Clearly Doyle is not scared purely for the well-being of Bell’s opponent, who is a despicable, malicious person and whom Doyle has never had any particular feeling for. Indeed, it turns out that he barely cares about Macandrewat all: “[after it becomes clear that Bell won’t go through with his intentions] But I admit I felt only relief. I had been half dreading that he would threaten the Doctor with some kind of lawsuit.”
This is a seriously A+ reaction, isn’t it?
I read these two scenes as Doyle half-consciously arguing with himself as to what would be worse: for the Doctor to die or for the Doctor to have his hands bloodied by murder. And in the end of the day, he seems to end up scared for Bell’s honour, sanity, moral principles — for what one would call his soul, in short — more than he’s scared for Bell’s life. It is clearly an in-narrative discussion of the problem of good and evil, masterfully reflected in the characters’ emotional reactions.
The trilogy’s exploration of human psychology is at times extraordinary in its depth. Not only are there intricate arcs pertaining to universal moral dilemmas, but there are also motifs that have to do specifically with the psychology of the historical period — notably, when it comes to Heather Grace, Macandrew, and, of course, Cream.
While Heather herself is not a particularly sympathetic character, one has to remember the social conditions that shape her and provoke her to do what she does. At first she’s not allowed any freedom of choice in what in the Victorian era was, in the vast majority of all the cases, the most important part of a woman’s life — romantic relationships. This incites in her an unjustifiable but not inexplicable burst of fury that leads to her murdering her parents. Years later, she’s being literally blackmailed into marriage — the situation has not changed one iota. This is a society that seems to make every effort to breed hatred and violence; one where people kill out of despair.
Seeing as this arc exists in both canons, the same is true of the TV series. The Victorian Britain of Murder Rooms is in many ways a rotting, self-destructive entity. “I will tell you the unwritten law of this city – do as little as possible!”
But in the books, the new, oncoming epoch is shown as no less frightening. The dread the Victorians experienced when presented with less-than-glorious glimpses of the future is palpable. Colin Macandrew, for one. A scientist whose moral dilemma is whether to advance science at the expense of living human beings or to put the well-being of his fellow men above all else — is it not an echo of the kind of dilemmas faced by the authors of the demonic military inventions of the First World War, the “great wind from the East”? Is it not a hint at the Manhattan project, at the invention of the hydrogen bomb? There’s a chilling breath of the Twentieth Century in this arc.
And then there’s Thomas Neill Cream, the serial killer who appears in the pilot episode of the TV series as well as in Pirie’s novels. Cream, with his hellish vision of a “better future” where men will not be constrained by the notions of morality, is a Nietzschean hero. He seeks to destroy the rotting Victorian world and to erect on its ruins a truly twentieth-century dystopia. Here, Pirie employs the imagery of sinking — the city of Dunwich which is being physically consumed by the sea (and is, I must add, a real location; thanks to coastal erosion, its population was reduced from 3000 in the 11th century to 237 in mid-19th century). As Dunwich sinks, so does the whole of the human society as the heroes of the Murder Rooms trilogy know it.
And in its wake come fire and darkness. In its wake come people like Colin Macandrew and, more horrifyingly still, people like Cream. The picture this motif creates is as grand as it is apocalyptic. In this regard, the book series is very much a Victorians versus History narrative. “And if we must fight the future, so be it!” The past — Heather Grace — haunts them; the future — Cream — terrifies them.
What both the historio-psychological and the personal conflicts clearly show is that if there’s one amazing thing about these books, it’s Pirie’s ability to demonstrate how absolutely complex and overwhelming the good versus evil concepts become when seen through the eyes of actual living people. In a way, it’s a story of inescapable, unending, omnipresent evil that cannot be handled or dealt with because it is entangled with everything around — a scarlet thread, in the words of Sherlock Holmes. Now, this is the best thing about the trilogy — its essence. What about the formal criteria, such as the literary technique, language, and other minutiae?
The plots of the series aren’t always flawless. While in any given case, the general idea is always rather satisfying, some particularities may cause (and have caused) people to go a bit ???? at the author. Perhaps the best and most well-executed plot belongs to The Patient’s Eyes, the first book of the trilogy (that shares its synopsis with the TV episode of the same name); I do not think I have any issues with it at all. The Night Calls and The Dark Water, however, both contain their share of strange moments.
Those who have read the trilogy will perhaps agree that stabbing someone with an icicle (which is, incidentally, described by Bell as a “deadly weapon,” while anyone who’s ever lived in a country with cold winters could confirm that icicles are normally nothing of the kind) and the use of water divination as a legitimate forensic technique take the cake. Thomas Neill “Fireproof” Cream comes a close second — while he’s a great antagonist, his continuous survival during the three novels worth of cases as well as the fact that he proves to be alive in the end of The Dark Water cause the reader to ponder the possibility of his being a satanic cyborg of some sort.
The language of the novels is a delightful thing. Pirie mostly employs laconic but expressive sentences with few commas, creating a great syntactic flow and a unique intonation. Sometimes the resulting effect is truly heartbreaking — in the scene where Doyle finds what he thinks is Bell’s corpse, what he says is simply this: “And in that moment I saw him. I saw his broken lifeless body stretched out far below me, twisted by the impact, covered in blood. And I wept.”
This leaves a much greater impression on the reader than a few paragraphs worth of descriptions would.
Another thing worth noting is Pirie’s use of cryptography — a nod to The Dancing Men, of course. In the Murder Rooms trilogy, he’s managed to find the perfect balance between making the codes interesting and making them comprehensible to a casual reader; in terms of complexity, the ciphers he picked are a step up from Doyle’s dancing men, and yet they manage to keep you interested even if you have no prior knowledge of cryptographic techniques.
All in all, the trilogy is put together admirably, and the occasional campiness does not disrupt the larger continuity (who said that campiness is a bad thing, anyway? There’s certainly plenty of it in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories). The amount of historical research done by the author is staggering; and yet it does not interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of the text — as one reviewer has put it, “Doyle’s voice is excellent and the mystery is chewy and dark and Doyleish with little pockets of poignancy everywhere and the author does a great job of evoking a time and place without wearing his research like a giant heavy cloak with “I DID RESEARCH!!” in rhinestones.” The case arcs are clever. The friendship between the protagonists is not without its ups and downs; in comparison to the TV version of the dynamics, it is not an easy relationship – but at its core are the same affection and loyalty. And the larger message is satisfying, albeit extremely dark. The Murder Rooms novel series is a worthy tribute to both the original TV production and its fascinating real-life back-story, which has served as an inspiration to writers for a good century and will hopefully continue to do so.