Long before I had ever seen that odd little half-jig that John Nettles’ version of Tom Barnaby does to indicate amusement or interest, I was aware of Midsummer Murders purely in a comedy sense. It was regularly mocked by the clever kids of BBC Radio 4 and similarly august personages as a bit twee… a bit Middle England. Finally, years later, having seen the full run of the adaptations and stories based on Caroline Graham’s characters, it seemed like time to actually read the first novel. Enter The Killings at Badger’s Drift.
Unfortunately, there were two problems. The first problem is the dreadful Felony & Mayhem edition itself, which is riddled with typographical errors and faults of basic typesetting that are infuriating and unnecessary. I’m not sure what the problem is with publishers who do reprints of mystery and detective stories, but F&M appear to have the same difficulties that I’ve observed with Rue Morgue reprints of Gladys Mitchell novels in the past, i.e.; that they don’t appear to have been proofed at all. If they did experience the touch of an editor’s hand, it was an indifferent one, to say the least.
The second problem, and one which is a little more severe from a reader’s standpoint, is that Graham is not a particularly gifted writer, even for a first novel. Her prose is wooden and stilted. The characterizations of most key players in the story are one-dimensional at best, and even Barnaby, the central figure, is woefully under-constructed. He is shown as older than his television counterpart, dyspeptic, and devoted to his garden. Troy, his dogsbody-cum-Sergeant, lacks the charm that Daniel Casey brought to the character in the television series, and is again a hollow, characterless-character. Joyce Barnaby is as underdeveloped as she is on television (she’s a terrible cook, that’s pretty much it), and Cully, Barnaby’s daughter, is made out rather more unpleasant than her on-screen counterpart, less of a shrew, more of a harpy.
Having seen the adaptation of Badger’s Drift fairly recently, the plot of the book was not a surprise, and neither did it lend any depth or nuance to the story. The village of Badger’s Drift is shaken by a series of particularly brutal murders, all of which are commissioned in aid of concealing a particularly unsavoury secret. The adaptation proved quite faithful, with a few exceptions in the body count. But the preoccupations of the fictional Midsummer County, with its seemingly endless range of obscure village fêtes, peculiar religious sects, archaeological digs, historic preservation sites, jam-making, sinister beauty spots and the like do not find their origin here. Which is a pity.
On the whole, if I’d read this first outing back in 1987, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with any more of them. As it is, I may try another, to see if the writing improves. But things stand, if you’re looking for more to satiate your appetite for Barnaby and company, it’s unlikely that you’ll find what you’re looking for here. Two stars.
Originally reviewed 13 October 2014.
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