And the best book adaptation for TV, hands down, EVER, is…

Sometime in the last couple of years — it’s hard to say when, it all blurs together now — I joked on this blog that I’m a “social distancing hobbiest.” Oh ha ha. So funny. Since then, whenever that was, I have become a serious social distancing professional.

Memo to New Yorkers thinking of moving to my idyllic town: No one delivers food here. No kind of food delivered anywhere in this village from any place at any time of day or night. Yes, I’m aware that Oakland pizza place delivers, but if you live beyond the intersection of  routes 8 and 11, you have to meet them at the intresection to pick it up. Might as well drive to Augusta. Still want to move here? No, I didn’t think so.

Do I sound cranky? You bet I am. That’s what a diet of Cheerios, tomato sandwiches and triscuits with cheese will do to you. The tomatos, of course, slightly soft and shriveled from sitting on the counter in a kitchen that won’t go above 58 degrees, no matter how high I turn up the thermostat. Because apparently people who built houses 100 years ago liked to make them crooked, so there are a lot of gaps to let the winter come in and make itself at home.

And yes, part of that is that I now hate going to the grocery store. It used to be my one exciting social event, but now it entails changing into real clothes and all that other stuff. And rather than running into people I know and like, it’s just strangers with their eyes darting furtively above their masks as they try to get through as fast as they can, or the smug unmasked swaggering down the middle of the aisles, leaning in to you to get something out of the dairy case and talking loudly to their unmasked family who all inexplicably had to join them shopping.

So,  yeah, I like it here at home. Aside from the lack of food. I have plenty of paying work, I have the neverending writing of my book, books to read and the TV. My schedule includes a nightly wind-down of TV watching. I don’t have cable, I do the streaming shuffle. [Pro tip: Spring for a $35 Google chromecast, Roku or some other device that plugs into your TV and allows you to stream to that nice big screen. I have a seven-year old Chromecast device plugged into my 12-year old TV and it’s TV heaven.] I watch a lot of junk, because, like food, sometimes you just have to watch comfort TV. It astounds me how many “Seinfeld” plots wouldn’t work now in the cellphone era. Still though, so funny. gress.

Bertie Clavell IS Adam Dalgliesh in the best-ever adaption of a mystery series to the screen in the history of adapting beloved mystery series. Seriously. (Photo courtesy Acorn TV)

Yes, I’m getting to the point, which is the best TV discovery of the past few months, or actually in a long time. The British TV show “Dalgliesh,” which can be found on Acorn streaming service, is hands-down the best adaption of book series by a favorite mystery author I’ve ever seen on TV. Seriously. Ever.

I was part of a brief Twitter conversation with some authors a few weeks ago where we mused about how we’d feel about our books being made into TV shows or movies. There’s a general feeling that you have to accept that it’ll likely suck and wreck your vision and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Though, I admit, it’s a problem I’d like to have.

“Dalgliesh” bucks that trend, big time. The creators are true-blue to the P.D. James Adam Dalgliesh series despite condensing three books into six one-hour episodes. The shows are not only are faithful to the stories, but the creators also made a huge and succesful effort to maintain tone and spirit, even when they change things around. This includes updating for race and gender awareness in an organic way that doesn’t feel as though 2021 is awkwardly elbowing its way into these mid-1970s stories. That’s a hell of a tightrope to walk, and I’ve yet to see it done effectively anywhere else [listening “Endeavour”?]

The biggest example is two female characters who were white in the original books, but are played by women of color in the series. The change enhances each character in ways that highlight the challenges they have in the books without changing their who the characters are. The change adds a new and genuine layer to the stories without deviating from what P.D. James intended.

And in a huge departure from every TV and movie adaption I’ve ever seen in my life of any mystery book I loved, casting of the lead character is perfect. The actor who plays Adam Dalgliesh, Bertie Cavell, captures him perfectly. He also looks eactly like he’s supposed to look, acts like he’s supposed to and reacts like he is. It almost makes me want to cry.

Even plot and story changes that weren’t for the purpose of compressing for the short time period work, rather than being the random Hollywood changes for no good reason we’re so used to. One good example is that in the TV show, Dalgliesh’s wife and baby recently died before the first episode. In the books, they died 13 years before the first book. Rather than being a gratuitous change to up the drama, the change allows the tone of the books to come through without a lot of exposition, which would be weird coming from the stoic, taciturn and melancholy Dalgiesh. It’s a change with a purpose that circles back to the writing — a way to make things that are hard to transfer from book to the screen work.

The two middle episodes take place at a home for adults who use wheelchairs. I didn’t realize until watching the “making of” doc after the last episode that all of them were played by actors who use wheelchairs in real life.

The shows are compelling — you won’t be scrolling your phone while you watch and if you are, what the hell is your problem — but they aren’t frenetic. They demand attention in a quiet way. There are no car chases, no groups of cops standing around a big white board expositing on the case in that staged and awkward way that’s the hallmark of modern cop shows. OK, there is a scene with some stuff tacked up to a wall, but there are no stagey speeches about it.

The series is filmed beautifully both in the English countryside and in London, looking every bit the 1970s that it’s supposed to. All of the acting, down to the most minor character, is spot-on. I defy you to not be transfixed by the young boy in the final two episodes. The series has a grown-up sense of humor, subtle and dry, that you’ll also find in James’ books.

“Dalgliesh” should give mystery writers something to feel good about. It means that there are dedicated TV producers, directors and writers making shows who care as much about the books they’re adapting as the people who’ve read and loved them. They are willing to take care to get it right. They understand that a writer, even one of mystery novels, may have a vision that deserves to be honored. If my books are ever adapted, I want someone like these people to do it.

On a more basic level, that attention also makes for better TV. So do yourself a favor and pour a bowl of Cheerios, pull the fuzzy blanket around tight,  spend $6.99 for a month of Acorn and watch “Dalgliesh.”

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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4 Responses to And the best book adaptation for TV, hands down, EVER, is…

  1. Anonymous says:

    Always enjoy your posts!

  2. Speaking of adaptations, many years ago, when I was on the cusp of publishing my first book, I went to a conference in Seattle and ended up riding in the elevator with Tony Hillerman. He was very kind to this newbie. We discussed how one of his books was being made into a movie and I said, but it’s such an interior book, how will they do that. He told me that as a writer, when your book is made into a movie, you have to let it go, that they will have their own vision for the book. It seemed awfully wise. He also told me to sign a number of copies of the first edition of my first book and put them away. It was magical to talk to him, and a great introduction into the often very egalitarian crime writing community. I’m still waiting for my books to become movies. The adaptation of his couldn’t come close to his books.


  3. susanvaughan says:

    I loved those Adam Dalgliesh novels, so thanks for posting this. I was afraid a TV series would ruin the stories for me. I’ll definitely watch!

  4. itslorrieswp says:

    Based on this post, the Adam Dalgliesh stories as well as your books are now on my tbr list. Thanks!

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