One of my stay-at-home guilty pleasures these days are those detective-mystery series currently flooding the PBS prime-time airwaves. Based on popular crime novels featuring quirky murder-solving characters, these television shows typically originate in the United Kingdom and then make their way to America a few years later. There’s Sherlock, of course—a highly contemporized adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle detective stories that has become immensely popular on both sides of the pond—and over the summer I became addicted to two others: Grantchester (based on mystery stories, by James Runcie, about a clergyman in 1950s England who sleuths in his spare time) and Midsomer Murders (set in the English county of Midsomer, where upscale Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby solves crimes in adaptations of Caroline Graham novels).
The original Inspector Morse series (based on Colin Dexter’s novels about the Oxford-based detective) has spawned two equally good spin-offs: Inspector Lewis (which takes place after Morse’s death and concerns the adventures of his loyal sidekick) and Endeavour (a prequel, set in the 1960s, when Morse was a young detective constable). There’s also Father Brown (based on the short stories of G.K. Chesterton about a crime-solving Roman Catholic priest, set in the early 1900s), Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (an Australian series drawn from Kerry Greenwood’s novels about private detective Phryne Fisher, a 1920s Melbourne-based flapper), and The Artful Detective (an import from Canada, featuring a handsome police detective from Maureen Jennings’s novels who solves crimes using the latest steampunk technologies in 1890s Toronto).
But if you long for the genre-defining, well-plotted tales of Agatha Christie—and don’t necessarily miss Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple—it’s time to say au revoir to the British exports and cross (or should I say change) the channel to France. Thanks to MHz Networks (a U.S.-based broadcaster and distributor of foreign-language television content subtitled in English), American audiences can now enjoy a new collection of highly amusing French TV movies based on Christie’s famous novels. The catch, however, is that while these films are all based on stories that revolve around the iconic Poirot or Marple characters, the adaptations feature newly created French detective characters solving the familiar mysteries amid French settings. The series’s first season of five films, The Little Murders of Agatha Christie (available on DVD), is set in the 1930s and tracks the sleuthing adventures of old-school, skirt-chasing Superintendent Larosière and his modern-minded gay sidekick, Inspector Lampion.
The main appeal of all these murder-mystery shows is how totally transporting they are. They let us indulge in armchair travels, overseas and back in time—to charming rural villages, idyllic countryside estates, or thrilling international cities—and peek into the minds and behaviors of the bizarre characters who always seem to populate these “faraway” locales. But in these French Christie adaptations—though the scenic elements are gorgeous and the period costuming is scrumptious—the emphasis is on naughty comedy. The relationship between Larosière and Lampion is marvelously multilayered, yet delightfully silly. The characterizations border on caricature, the dialogue is fast and sexy, and even the scary parts are amusingly spooky rather than seriously bone-chilling.
The mismatched pairing of Larosière and Lampion really grows on the viewer, and it’s gratifying to witness how the crimes are solved through a combination of their opposing approaches. Yet the choice to foreground “fun” in a series set in the 1930s is curious, if not disturbing. Can we really revel in these merry characters’ murder-solving shenanigans when we know there was a Depression going on and Nazism was on the rise? Maybe that’s why the series’s second season, Criminal Games, has been moved forward in time. Its six episodes are all set in the 1950s and introduce a trio of new investigators. Showing now on the subscription-based streaming service MHz Choice, Criminal Games should be available on DVD by the end of the year. Check it out, fellow mystery fanatiques!