Shetland returned for a six-part run on BBC TV yesterday evening, the day after I'd finally caught up with the latest series of DCI Banks, another of those cop shows where novels are turned into two episodes of one hour each. It's become a fashionable format, although this seems a little surprising, given the success of the two-hour episodes of Inspector Morse, the pre-eminent classic British cop show of the past thirty years,let alone shows split into eight or ten or twelve parts like Broadchurch, The Tunnel and Salamander. However, it can work pretty well when the ingredients are right, as they are in these two shows. The original Shetland Quartet began with the Gold Dagger winning Raven Black, and this was the story that started last night..
About twenty-five years ago, before my first novel was published, I wrote a short article called (as I remember) "Up the Garden Path". It discussed a number of recent novels with rural settings that I'd enjoyed, and which - I thought - suggested an increasing focus in the Britain of that time on rural mysteries. The article was rejected by the only magazine I sent it to, and so was never published (shame!) but it did highlight the first books written by Ann Cleeves and Peter Robinson, both of which I'd much enjoyed, and who are the creators, respectively, of Shetland's Jimmy Perez and Yorkshire's DCI Alan Banks. So perhaps I can at least claim to have been ahead of the game in spotting the excellence of those writers. I never dreamed that one day I would have the pleasure of getting to know both of them, or indeed that eventually I'd write a rural series of my own - for at that time, I was hard at work on Harry Devlin's debut, set in resolutely urban Liverpool.
The success of the books about Perez and Banks owe a great deal to the authors' shared ability to explore character, setting and storyline in an interesting way, and these attributes are reflected in the TV adaptations. There are, of course, some differences between Ann and Peter as writers, which are to some extent evident in the screenplays. Ann is fascinated by landscape, and the shots of Shetland are bound, I think, to boost tourism to this relatively remote island.. Peter is very keen on, and knowledgeable about, music, and this interest was central to Piece of My Heart, whereas music rarely plays a major part in Ann's work. But there are various similarities between Perez and Banks, two likeable characters with a touch of vulnerability in their make-up.
Both detectives are played by very good actors. Douglas Henshall is nothing like my mental picture of Perez, but he brings a sense of integrity to the part which is just right. Stephen Tompkinson plays Alan Banks with a kind of startled melancholy which again differs from my idea of the Eastvale cop, but which is growing on me. When I wrote that long ago article - perhaps I should disinter it - I had no idea that one day both writers would achieve so much success. But I was intrigued by the fact that they were people of my generation who had already shown that they could write mysteries of genuine quality while I was struggling to finish my debut. Over the years, they have shown great staying power, and today their mysteries entertain millions. And much as I enjoy seeing their work adapted for the small screen, I remain first and foremost a fan of the books.