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Although nearly everyone knows Sherlock and Poirot and Miss Marple were based on novels, a lot of people don't realize just how many other British television shows began their lives in novel form. The great upside for us television fans is that once we've watched the show and fallen in love with the world and its characters, we can hunt down the books and enjoy it all over again with vivid mental images of those much-loved actors and locations. There are too many shows like this to cover in a single post, so we'll start with 5.
Sadly, Colin Dexter, author of the Morse novels, passed away earlier this year. He certainly left a legacy, though. He wrote 13 Inspector Morse novels, along with a few short stories and novellas. From these novels, we get not just one, but three wonderful British mystery series: Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, and Endeavor.
The novels, listed below, were written between 1975 and 1999. You can get the first three in a single volume here, or check out individual volumes below.
- Last Bus to Woodstock (1975)
- Last Seen Wearing (1976)
- The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977)
- Service of All the Dead (1979)
- The Dead of Jericho (1981)
- The Riddle of the Third Mile (1983)
- The Secret of Annexe 3 (1986)
- The Wench is Dead (1989)
- The Jewel That Was Ours (1991)
- The Way Through the Woods (1992)
- The Daughters of Cain (1994)
- Death is Now My Neighbour (1996)
- The Remorseful Day (1999)
Where to Watch Inspector Morse (and Inspector Lewis and Endeavor)
Need to catch up on Inspector Morse episodes? You can watch it with a Britbox subscription, or get the complete series on DVD. Edit, Feb. 2018: Inspector Morse is no longer on BritBox, but you can still order it on DVD. Note that the complete series DVD set is “Region 2”, which means you'll need a region-free DVD player if you want to play it in the United States (standard American DVD players can't read them). If you want DVDs encoded for American viewing without a region-free DVD player, you'd need to buy the smaller box sets here: Set 1, Set 2, Set 3, Set 4, Set 5, Set 6, Set 7, Set 8, Set 9, Set 10, Set 11.
Unfortunately, the US-encoded DVD sets don't appear to have closed captions (there are complaints about that on several sets). This is also a case where the Region 2-encoded DVD set is often considerably cheaper than buying the separate US-encoded DVDs, so a region-free DVD player can save you quite a bit of money.
Though you can't stream either of the other two shows on Acorn TV or BritBox, you CAN stream them for free with an Amazon Prime membership, or you can buy the DVDs.
As much as I love Cadfael, it's always seemed to me an unlikely hit. If you're not familiar with the series, Cadfael is a 12th-century Welsh monk living in Shrewsbury (western England) after spending time as both a soldier and a sailor. Living in a time far removed from modern-day specialization, he's able to take on roles like medical examiner, detective, doctor, and diplomat – which makes for interesting variety in the episodes. Like any good mystery protagonist, Cadfael is exceptionally skilled at reading people and drawing the right conclusions.
The Cadfael series is based on the novels of Edith Pargeter writing under the pen name of Ellis Peters. There are 21 Cadfael in total, listed in order below.
- A Morbid Taste for Bones (published in August 1977, set in 1137)
- One Corpse Too Many (July 1979, set in August 1138)
- Monk's Hood (August 1980, set in December 1138)
- Saint Peter's Fair (May 1981, set in July 1139)
- The Leper of Saint Giles (August 1981, set in October 1139)
- The Virgin in the Ice (April 1982, set in November 1139)
- The Sanctuary Sparrow (January 1983 set in the Spring of 1140)[note 1]
- The Devil's Novice (August 1983, set in September 1140)
- Dead Man's Ransom (April 1984, set in February 1141)
- The Pilgrim of Hate (September 1984, set in May 1141)
- An Excellent Mystery (June 1985, set in August 1141)
- The Raven in the Foregate (February 1986, set in December 1141)
- The Rose Rent (October 1986, set in June 1142)
- The Hermit of Eyton Forest (June 1987, set in October 1142)
- The Confession of Brother Haluin (March 1988, set in December 1142)
- A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael (September 1988, set in 1120)
- The Heretic's Apprentice (February 1989, set in June 1143)
- The Potter's Field (September 1989, set in August 1143)
- The Summer of the Danes (April 1991, set in April 1144)
- The Holy Thief (August 1992, set in February 1145)
- Brother Cadfael's Penance (May 1994, set in November 1145)
Where to Watch Cadfael
I hesitate to call this series a true British mystery – both because some Scots have been known to bristle at the term “British” and because Hamish MacBeth is often more funny than mysterious. Acorn TV has it under mystery, though, and there's generally SOME element of mystery in the episodes.
Hamish MacBeth is based on the Highland novels of Agatha Raisin author M.C. Beaton. It's terribly sad they only made three series of this weird and wonderful show, but the good news is that the novels have been going strong for over 30 years now. After watching the show, it's delightful to read the books and find all kinds of little details about the world that didn't make it into the show.
In addition to the single volumes listed below, Amazon also offers an ebook package of all 31 Hamish MacBeth books here.
- Death of a Gossip (1985)
- Death of a Cad (1987)
- Death of an Outsider (1988)
- Death of a Perfect Wife (1989)
- Death of a Hussy (1990)
- Death of a Snob (1992 )
- Death of a Prankster (1992)
- Death of a Glutton (1993) Also published under the title “Death of a Greedy Woman”
- Death of a Travelling Man (1993)
- Death of a Charming Man (1994)
- Death of a Nag (1995)
- Death of a Macho Man (1996)
- Death of a Dentist (1997)
- Death of a Scriptwriter (1998)
- Death of an Addict (1999)
- A Highland Christmas (1999)
- Death of a Dustman (2001)
- Death of a Celebrity (2002)
- Death of a Village (2003)
- Death of a Poison Pen (2004)
- Death of a Bore (2005)
- Death of a Dreamer (2006)
- Death of a Maid (2007)
- Death of a Gentle Lady (2008)
- Death of a Witch (2009)
- Death of a Valentine (2010)
- Death of a Chimney Sweep (2011) Also published under the title “Death of a Sweep”
- Death of a Kingfisher (2012)
- Death of Yesterday (2013)
- Death of a Policeman (2014)
- Death of a Liar (2015)
- Knock, Knock, You're Dead (2016)
- Death of a Nurse (2016)
- Death of a Ghost (2017)
- Death of an Honest Man (Available February 2018)
Where to Watch Hamish MacBeth
Wycliffe is a Cornwall-based detective series inspired by the novels of W.J. Burley. Protagonist DS Wycliffe is a quiet and thoughtful detective who enjoys playing jazz piano and spending time with his family (when not being dragged all over Cornwall by various investigations). The only downside to the show is that it was filmed before modern camera technology became what it is. More vivid HD footage would definitely enhance the already impressive scenery.
Though author Burley got a relatively late start on his writing career (publishing his first novel at 51), he was prolific and continued writing until his death. He once said his intention was, “to write interesting detective fiction which did not exploit extreme forms of violence or sex and was relatively free of four-letter words. In doing this I thought I might help fill a gap that was left in the market by the gradual disappearance of the traditional whodunnit.” He definitely succeeded in that regard – but modern readers should be warned that some of the older novels may feel a bit dated in terms of sexism or silly assumptions (like the assumption that an unmarried 30-something woman would be a virgin).
The final Wycliffe book remains unfinished due to the author's passing.
- Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy (1968)
- Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat (1970)
- Wycliffe and the Guilt Edged Alibi (1971)
- Wycliffe and Death in a Salubrious Place (1973)
- Wycliffe and Death in Stanley Street (1974)
- Wycliffe and the Pea-Green Boat (1975)
- Wycliffe and the Schoolgirls (1976) – Also released as Wycliffe and the School Bullies
- Wycliffe and the Scapegoat (1978)
- Wycliffe in Paul's Court (1980)
- Wycliffe's Wild Goose Chase (1982)
- Wycliffe and the Beales (1983)
- Wycliffe and the Four Jacks (1985)
- Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin (1986)
- Wycliffe and the Winsor Blue (1987)
- Wycliffe and the Tangled Web (1988)
- Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death (1990)
- Wycliffe and the Dead Flautist (1991)
- Wycliffe and the Last Rites (1992)
- Wycliffe and the Dunes Mystery (1993)
- Wycliffe and the House of Fear (1995)
- Wycliffe and the Redhead (1997)
- Wycliffe and the Guild of Nine (2000)
- Wycliffe and the Last Lap (2003) unfinished
Where to Watch Wycliffe
Fans of the dark and atmospheric detective series Vera will be pleased to know there are 8 novels in the series with more continuing to come out every so often. Vera is the creation of Ann Cleeves, who has also created another series that might be familiar – the Shetland Island Mysteries (now a TV show, Shetland).
Amazingly, the tone of the show and movie manage to be quite similar despite the different mediums. Cleeves has managed to create stories that manage to be both dark and also sort of cozy (though they're definitely not cozy mysteries). I think much of that can be attributed to the characterization and Brenda Blethyn's outstanding interpretation of what Cleeves has written.
Given that the novels are quite lengthy, you get a much deeper experience through the reading – to the point that some may even find them a bit slow, especially after the pace of the television show. That can be good or bad, depending on the type of novels you enjoy.
- The Crow Trap (1999)
- Telling Tales (2005)
- Hidden Depths (2007)
- Silent Voices (2011)
- The Glass Room (2012)
- Harbour Street (2014)
- The Moth Catcher (2015)
- The Seagull (2017)
Where to Watch Vera
More to Come
There are dozens of British shows based on novels, and we'll cover more in the future. In the meantime, feel free to share your favorites in the comments – or let us know what you thought about reading the books vs. watching the shows.
UPDATE: Here's Part 2: 5 More British Mystery Shows Based on Novels