Book vs Adaptation: The Field of Blood

The book

Published in 2005 and set in 1981 Denise Mina’s THE FIELD OF BLOOD introduces 18-year old Paddy Meehan; gopher at a Glasgow newspaper with a yearning to be a journalist. This stems from her lifelong interest in the real-life case of a man whose name she shares who was wrongly convicted of murder. As the book opens the story of a missing toddler has been front page news for several days until the body is found and two young boys, children really at 10 and 11 years old, are questioned over their involvement. One of the boys is a cousin of Paddy’s fiancé – a fact she lets slip to someone at the newspaper who urges Paddy to use her inside knowledge for a story. Paddy doesn’t, knowing how much it would hurt her family, but the story runs anyway and as she is shunned (literally) Paddy starts to question the official version of events, believing that the two boys must have had adult help.

The book is mostly good, at times utterly brilliant and, once or twice, a bit naff but overall makes for very good reading. Paddy Meehan is a more interesting character than any 18 year-old has a right to be but Mina has made her believable for her age with a mixture of insecurities, naivety and sometimes misguided stubbornness. Her yearning for a life other than what she was born to and her fear of achieving that dream and so leaving behind all that she is familiar with is compelling.

Another highlight of the book is its depiction of Paddy’s family and extended community. They are working class and devoutly Catholic with a raft of strict moral rules to guide them and we see how this restricts someone like Paddy who has ambitions beyond those a woman like her is meant to aspire to (a husband who doesn’t beat her and a bunch of children). At times they can be truly cruel such as when everyone stops speaking to Paddy due to their belief she sold their story to the newspaper but we also see the upside of living within such a strong community. For example when Paddy visits a colleague who has been taken to hospital she is shocked at his lack of visitors and gifts: in her world people would be lined up to visit and all manner of foodstuffs and other goodies would have been supplied to assure the patient they were being thought of. I liked the way Mina did not make it easy or even inevitable for her protagonist to walk away from the world she knew.

I must admit to being entirely disinterested in the few small interludes that are the story of the other Paddy Meehan. I think I understand the reason they were incorporated – to help show what it was that motivated the book’s heroine to become a journalist of the campaigning kind – but I got that point early on, before the half-dozen or so disjointed snippets from the life of the (not unreasonably) bitter wrongly convicted man took me away from the story that I was engaged with.

But for me this is a minor fault of a book which otherwise was compelling, even if the mystery supposedly at its centre often took a back seat. The real story is that of Paddy and her world – its good and bad points, its prejudices, its hardships and even its lighter moments. For me it’s a book about all the shades of grey between black and white, right and wrong. I loved it.

The adaptation

Two episodes of a TV show called THE FIELD OF BLOOD aired on UK television in 2011. Starring Jayd Johnson as Paddy, David Morrissey as the newspaper’s editor and a host of terrific actors in a strong ensemble cast.

It does suffer from one of the things I’ve come to expect of adaptations which is that people, especially young women, cannot be as unattractive or dumpy on screen as they are described in books. So although she is constantly dieting and repeatedly teased for her weight like her literary counterpart the Paddy Meehan of the adaptation could barely register as anything but svelte by most definitions. That aside though the casting of Johnson is a good one as she captures the essence of Paddy’s character, particularly her age and internal conflicts, well. The rest of the cast are equally good with stalwart David Morrissey being a standout as the jaundiced editor, a role which seemed to me to have been beefed up for the adaptation (perhaps taking advantage of the securing of Morrissey for the role).

Normally it is annoying when things are left out of adaptations but I thought the fact that the filmed version contained no interludes of ‘the real Paddy Meehan’s story a bonus. The incorporation of a 30 second conversation about the man proved that it was entirely possible to demonstrate Paddy’s motivations for becoming a journalist without needing the bizarrely disjointed snippets that were included in the novel.

Another bonus of the visual medium was the greater ease with which the time and place could be conveyed. The smoke-filled newsroom filled with typewriters and men, the clothing and the cars all screamed 80’s in a way that words can’t quite achieve (especially if you weren’t there and can’t conjure up your own images).

The film lacks most of the nuances of the book (time restraints demand this really) and almost entirely ignores the broader political themes Mina was exploring (the setting was switched to 1982 for example and I can only assume this was to avoid some specific political issues such as the links between the Catholic community in Glasgow and the hunger-striking prisoners in Northern Ireland). But it does have a jolly good stab at conveying the world that Paddy inhabited and the myriad of obstacles she faces including her own family’s fears about her ambition to leave their world and the prejudices against Catholics and women that she rubs up against in the wider world.

Adaptations have to change some things from their source material whether due to time constraints or the vagaries of different mediums. But this one stays true to the essence of Mina’s book and, probably due to her having a writing credit for the screenplay, retains some of her best lines (including Dr Pete’s dig at those sneaky bastards the meek who will inherit the earth – it was my favourite line of the book and I loved the fact it made it to the adaptation).

The winner?

For me this one’s a tie. As a reader of course I’m always going to fall on the side of read the book first but I think the film is a good one which stands on its own merits and if you happen to have seen it first I think you could still enjoy the book. And if you have read the book you would be hard-pressed to be disappointed by the film and would likely enjoy seeing early 80’s Glasgow brought to life.

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Book vs Adaptation is an irregular series of posts stemming from the fact that sometimes I’m too tired to read and so turn to DVDs and downloads (all legal I assure you, I am far too terrified of prison to turn to channel bittorrent). If there’s an adaptation you think I should look out for do let me know.

The book 4.5/5, 367 pages, published 2005, I borrowed it from the library
The adaptation 4/5. 2 hours, aired first 2011, I bought it on DVD from the UK

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Review: THE BLACKHOUSE by Peter May

Of late it seems to be the books with a really strong sense of their time or place that hold my attention. I suspect it has something to do with my yearning for a holiday I can’t have just at the moment. Not that I’m sure I would choose to have a holiday on the island of Lewis as depicted in Peter May’s THE BLACKHOUSE. While undoubtedly a spectacular place physically, May has depicted one of those remote settings full of troubled souls that makes this city girl quite comforted by the anonymity and crowds of urban sprawl. But I am a sucker for visiting such places virtually.

It is the story of Finn MacLeod, an Edinburgh-based detective who has just returned to work after a family tragedy. He is sent to the island because a murder there bares a strong resemblance to one he investigated several months ago in the city and as he is from the island originally he is thought (by the police computer system) to be the obvious person to investigate. Finn is ambivalent about the case, wanting to be away from his present circumstances where grief is overwhelming but reluctant to travel to the place he left 18 years earlier which still holds many memories, not all of them pleasant. So it is with a sense of foreboding mixed with curiosity that he – and we readers – set out on our travels.

The murder victim was the school bully of Finn’s childhood and few people have a kind word for the adult he became so there is a plethora of suspects in his brutal murder. But as is the way of things in small communities the secrets must be uncovered slowly and, in this instance, involve Finn re-living his own history of old friendships, a great love and some hazily remembered but significant events. May has created a group of very intense and credible characters for us to get to know over the course of these events: all of them with human frailties and secrets small and large that are revealed compellingly.

The book is told in two intertwining narratives: one a historical one which delves into Finn’s personal history and the recent history of the wider island community. We learn of Finn’s great childhood friendship, which was eventually tested by the girl both boys loved, and about the harsh environment and the ultra religious community. The annual guga hunt, where a dozen local men are selected to go to an off-shore rock to hunt the nesting birds which are a local delicacy, plays a pivotal role in the community and, at least for one year, in Finn’s life though it takes almost the whole book for all the details of this event to unravel.

In the present-day story which follows the investigation it is comparatively easy to see where the story is heading (if you’re a regular crime fiction reader anyway) but because we are meeting many of the people who have been introduced in the historical narrative it remained a compelling story for me. I was thoroughly hooked on wanting to see how the two versions of each character and the village community (which is a character of its own) would be connected.

This is a hard book about which to convey all the reasons I stayed up late into the night to finish it. Suffice it to say that it is a psychological study of an insular society and the lives, choices and actions of its key players. I found it totally engrossing and am looking forward to the second book in what is to be a trilogy. Happily for me a copy of that arrived on my doorstep this very afternoon.

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THE BLACKHOUSE has been reviewed at Petrona (the review which prompted me to buy the book) as well as CrimepiecesEuro Crime and The Lit Witch

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My rating 4.5/5
Publisher Quercus [2011]
ISBN 9781849163866
Length 498
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in a trilogy
Source I bought it
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Best new-to-me authors Q1 2012

I could probably do all my reading from new books published by authors I know and love. But I do like to try new authors (both début writers and authors who are simply new to me) to keep my reading varied. For the first three months of this year I haven’t read as much as I normally would but nearly a third of the books I have finished (9 of 30) are by new to me authors.

Interestingly my four favourites of the books are all local. Well local-ish anyway

  • THE MISTAKE by Wendy James (Australian author)
  • SURRENDER by Donna Malane (New Zealand author) (a début novel)
  • WATCH OUT FOR ME by Sylvia Johnson (Australian author) (a début novel)
  • THE COLD, COLD GROUND by Adrian McKinty (Irish author who lives here in Oz now so we’ve appropriated him)

These are all authors who I want to read more books by and who make me glad I find time to try out new writers.

Mysteries in Paradise is hosting a new meme to highlight books new to us. Head over to participate or check out other people’s lists.

News on Australian Women Writers

There has been much talk in book-ish circles here in Australia recently about the place of women in the publishing industry – as writers, reviewers and readers. One event which has helped spark discussion was the announcement of the 8 books (one from each state in the country) chosen in a public vote to represent ‘Our Story’ for the country’s national year of reading and the fact that only one of them is by a woman. This fact has been discussed in disparate snippets in the press and and radio but this Crikey piece gives a fairly balanced take on the complicated issue. The response by organisers of the National Year of Reading to any criticism is, not unreasonably, that the voting was open to the general public. However they’ve been far less forthcoming about how the shortlists were chosen (shadowy ‘independent panels’ were involved) and there were 48 books on the shortlist (6 for each state) and only 18 of those were by women.

Another factor prompting discussion of this issue was the release of a second year’s worth of figures from the US showing the percentage of books written by women being reviewed in the media and also delving into the gender of the reviewers themselves. Locally the ABC’s new daily Books & Arts show took a look at the Australian perspective on this subject last week with a lively discussion between Monica Dux (board member of the new Stella Prize), Jason Steger (The Age literary editor) and Linda Leith (a Canadian writer and publisher). The discussion went for about 20 minutes and is a good one if you are interested in this subject, and the Australian version of the US figures also make for interesting reading.

Of course it could be a coincidence but surely mine are not the only eyebrows to have raised at the announcement of this year’s Miles Franklin Award longlist. The Awards’ historical domination by male authors, including an all-male shortlist last year, was part of the impetus for the establishment of the Stella Prize (an annual prize for Australian women’s writing) but this year its longlist of 11 books contains 6 books by female authors! I am, of course, a crusty old cynic but I can’t help wondering if the Miles Franklin people haven’t been tempted to take the wind out of the sales of the Stella people.

Or it could be that all the discussion of this issue over the past year or so has made everyone, including the judges, more award of author gender as an issue which in turn has had an impact on their thinking. Much of the commentary about this issue has revolved around the idea that the bias towards male authors in many spheres of reading is the result mostly of unconscious biases in all of us so the mere fact of raising awareness of this issue must be having an impact. Surely?

And if you’re worried that you might be suffering an unconscious bias of your own why not join the Australian Women Writers reading and reviewing challenge? It can be as easy or as arduous as you choose and it’s a good way to motivate yourself to read books you might not otherwise read.

 

Books of the Month – March 2012

The upside of the fact that my February reading slump well and truly leached into March is that I don’t have quite so many finished books from which to make the difficult choice of book of the month. However Australian author Wendy James’ THE MISTAKE could take its rightful place as the best book of any month, being a cracker of a read. It tells the story of a young girl desperate to escape the life of neglect and poverty that she was born to and the secrets she keeps so she can keep her new life. I’d recommend it widely.

In the end I only finished a total of 7 books including that one, and haven’t even found the time to review most of those! I’ll be kicked out of the book bloggers society if I’m not careful. The other books I can recommend are

  • A BALI CONSPIRACY MOST FOUL by Shamini Flint (3.5 stars, no full review but a brief discussion in this post)
  • FEAR NOT by Anne Hold (3 stars, I hope to write a review still)
  • INTO THE DARKEST CORNER by Elizabeth Haynes (3.5 stars – I hope to write a review still)
  • THE BLACKHOUSE by Peter May (3.5 stars? or 4? haven’t decided yet – the review is half written)
  • THE POTTER’S FIELD by Andrea Camilleri (3.5 stars)
  • THE ROPE by Nevada Barr (3 stars)

The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

My only novel completed for this challenge was Wendy James’ THE MISTAKE which takes my tally to 5 and puts me half way through the challenge, though I do plan to read more than my allotted 10 books (now that I appear to be out of my slump). There’s still time to join this challenge if you dare.

I’ve also been listening to and reading lots of news about the topic of women writers which seems to be on everyone’s minds at the moment. I was going to post some links here but there seems to be rather a lot of them now that I’m looking so I’ll do a separate post later.

Next month?

At this point I’m just hoping my whole reading (and reviewing) slump and the disgruntlement it causes in my psyche is finished with. I’d like to go back to being gruntled – which means lots of reading and then rambling about it here on the blog (which I have, surprisingly, missed nearly as much as the reading itself).

I’ve got virtual trips to Iceland, Scotland, Washington DC and Sydney planned and then who knows? Got anything to recommend? Rhian over at It’s A Crime has made me very aware that we readers need to support new authors not just our old favourites with her new series of posts focusing on new authors (it’s called Starting Out and the first post was  from an author who has chosen to self publish) so let me know if you think there’s a good debut out there I should read.

What about you…was March a good reading month? Did you have a favourite book? Or did you acquire anything you’re itching to read? Any issue you need to get off your chest?

If you want to see other people’s crime fiction picks of the month head over to Mysteries in Paradise for the Pick of the Month meme