Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Raskolnikov in Shetland, or Anna Karenina goes to Grantchester

The recent media agitation about the BBC adaptation of War and Peace has alerted me to subtler cameos by Russian literary masterpieces in popular culture. To my surprise (and to Chernyshevsky's, no doubt, were he still around to insist on utility over aesthetic value), I have discovered that these are useful. In particularly essential ways. Russian novels help the police with their enquiries - literally. If you're a detective, forget background checks - a squint at your chief suspect's bookshelf will tell you all you need to know. If you've got your suspect fingered but can't make an arrest, a knowledge of Tolstoy will help you stay one step ahead of his or her nefarious game.

Starting, naturally enough, with the BBC, let's take their northerly crime series Shetland, now on season three. When DI Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) gets leery about his only suspect in a murder case, played by Ciaran Hinds, he invites himself around to tea and checks out Mr Hinds's reading matter. And this is what he sees:

Suspicious tomes in Shetland

Reunited with his colleagues, DI Perez is quick to share his deductions: ".... His books. These big tomes. You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of a lifer's cell. No possessions and it's full of these books that no-one but a lifer's got time to read."

Take that, War and Peace - thought you were on-trend? Only a lifer would read you. And as for you, Crime and Punishment, lurking there in the David McDuff translation -  more exciting than picking oakum, but only just.

Channel-hopping to ITV's Grantchester series, or rather to the series of novels by James Runcie that inspired the television drama, we find crime-busting vicar Sidney Chambers already at the top of his game in the opening story of Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (2012). The villainness attempts to tip her love rival into the path of a train at Cambridge Station, but plainclothes detectives foil her on the platform. How did Canon Sid know what she was about to do? He explains that he '"noticed that she liked to read Russian novels. [...] The first time I spoke to her I realized that she was reading Anna Karenina. [...] A story of adultery that begins and ends on a railway line. I informed Inspector Keating of my suspicions..."' Busted! Another fair cop, thanks to Tolstoy.

James Norton, who plays Sidney Chambers in the ITV series, also stars as Prince Andrei Bolkonskii in War and Peace. Now there's a suspicious coincidence...

James Norton before Bald Hills
By Punting Cambridge: Website - Scudamore’s Punting Cambridge - https://www.flickr.com/photos/punting/21028740138, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45084760