Case Histories

The final installment of Case Histories, "When Will There Be Good News?", debuts tonight on PBS as part of the network's Masterpiece Mysteryprogram. It will air at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain in most markets, but you should check local listings.

Taken in a vacuum, the three telefilms that make up the detective series Case Histories are enjoyable enough examples of the form. They boast a compelling lead character and performance. They’ve got intriguing plotting. And the cases of the week, such as they are, are fascinating and easy to get invested in. It’s not a perfect example of the genre, since lots of stuff leans toward cliché, but if you’re in a mood for a crackling detective story, this will hit the spot until Sherlock gets back in the spring.

On the other hand, when compared to their source material, the three telefilms of Case Histories can’t help but feel disappointing. Based on three of the four Jackson Brodie novels by Kate Atkinson, the episodes slide right past what makes Atkinson’s moody, detailed prose work and focus mainly on her strong sense of how to build a mystery plot. Unfortunately, this also means that the aspects of the story that Atkinson pulls out of the bog of cliché through riveting and intricate character detail are often played flatly here, seeming for all the world like just another take on, say,  a detective whose life was too dangerous for his ex, who now fears for their daughter when she spends time with her dad. This is something you’ve seen millions of times before, as is, say, Brodie’s flashbacks to the death of his sister, the formative event that made him the man he is today, and without Atkinson’s probing prose and character depth, everything feels just a bit eye-roll worthy.

The problem is likely that Atkinson’s novels have enough stuff crammed into them for a whole season of television. The best possible adaptation of this series of books probably involved the BBC investing in a 10-13 hour series per book, one which would take its cues from Justified by taking the compelling Brodie and inserting him in other situations and really playing up the texture and interesting aspects of his Edinburgh world. Then the incidents from the book could play out at a more leisurely pace over the course of the season, and everything wouldn’t have to feel so rushed. More attention could be paid to the relationships in Brodie’s life, and those relationships wouldn’t feel so much like the stuff the production team has to get through to get to the scenes where he’s solving mysteries.

Make no mistake: Atkinson’s plotting is so solid that these three telefilms are enjoyable examples of the form all the same. Her first Brodie novel, Case Histories, whose adaptation aired two weeks ago, is one of the best mysteries of the last decade, and its central conceit of Brodie taking on three cases that have no immediately obvious links between them but all stem from the same rotted place, as it were, is a great meditation on the ways we cope with death and loss, one that maintains a sense of humor about itself and introduces Brodie to a long series of fascinating characters who both challenge and compel him. The second, One Good Turn, whose adaptation aired last week, wasn’t quite as good, straining a little too hard to reach the conclusion, but the story of a bunch of people (including Brodie, who wanders into situations like this through dumb luck much of the time) who witness a road rage incident and Brodie’s attempts to understand what happened still boasts great characters and some wonderful moments as it builds to the climax. The third, When Will There Be Good News?, whose adaptation airs tonight, offers its own compelling story—about a nanny who’s convinced there’s something sinister in the way the mother who employs her has abruptly gone on holiday—and a character, the motor-mouthed, nervous-to-a-fault nanny, Reggie, who’s a great foil for Brodie. (The fourth book, Started Early, Took My Dog, will be adapted and aired next year.)

For the most part, these virtues remain intact. The stories are still largely there (though Case Histories suffers a bit from the show trying to cram far too much of the novel’s incident into a two-hour running time, thus muting some of the more emotional moments), and the characters are fascinating studies in survivors, in people who’ve learned to live with the things they’ve seen and done and who don’t particularly want Brodie poking around in the sad traumas they’ve suffered. The supporting casts are particularly good, and the episodes do solid work of getting viewers invested in new figures each week, as well as bringing back the recurring players in Brodie’s life who drive him up the wall or make his heart ache. The basic structures are all there, and the outside surfaces are bright and shiny, and that makes everything feel compelling and enjoyable, so long as you don’t think about it too hard. (The best episode is likely “One Good Turn,” which had the weakest book to work with. Make of that what you will.)

The work of Jason Isaacs—probably best known for his work as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, though he was also wonderful in P.G. Hogan’s vastly underrated Peter Pan adaptations and the little-seen Showtime series Brotherhood—as Brodie is also a great reason to tune in. The scripts do little of the heavy lifting in making Brodie as compelling a character as he is on the page, where his dour world-weariness and rumpled sense of self evoke nothing less than a film noir hero somehow transplanted into the world of an intricately observed literary fiction novel. Isaacs, then, simply does his level best to make the guy as fascinating to viewers as he was to readers. He gets down deep into Brodie’s soul and keeps going, and by tonight’s final episode, he’s really mastered what it is that makes Atkinson’s hero tick and what it is that’s made him so compelling to readers. It’s easy to complain about scenes where he, say, winces as he realizes he’s exposed his young daughter to something potentially scarring and that he might lose her to his ex’s new husband (who’s moving far, far away), but Isaacs makes you feel them acutely, even as the script’s glossing over Atkinson’s wonderful details.

Case Histories will be a bit of a mixed bag even for those who’ve never read the novels it’s based on. Everything moves so quickly that just about anybody will realize they’re missing stuff in the headlong rush to get to the end of the plot, and there are far too many attempts to inject emotion into the proceedings by playing a sad song and letting the characters stare soulfully into the middle distance. The score, for lack of a better word, is awful, making a bunch of curious choices—including the rampant use of steel drums—that don’t make a whole lot of sense. The direction is mostly unremarkable, but for some intriguing uses of color shading and hazy angles in several flashbacks in tonight’s episode. And yet the core of Atkinson’s stories is present, and Isaacs does great work as her hero, who’s a figure all mystery fans should get to know. It’s tempting to just say, “Go and read the books!” in disappointing adaptations of this sort, but there’s enough good in Case Histories to recommend it.