Top Ten favorite fictional mystery series characters that haven’t made it to American Television
I split my time between writing books and writing for television, so I’m always on the prowl for a thriller or mystery series to pitch to the networks. I look for a strong central character, someone audiences will want to watch week after week, and a high-stakes world where one mistake can end a life. But most of all, I look for books that have that ineffable something—an original point of view that hooks you from the first page.
So here are the top ten books I’d like to adapt for TV:
Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels. There’s something so compelling about a central character who is constantly torn away from doing the thing he loves in order to serve his country—or to serve all humanity. Allon, Silva’s art restorer spy/assassin, is the perfect blend of moral and vengeful. The books have lots of exotic locations (good for TV) and vicious bad guys (always a plus for the networks).
Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books. Renko is the archetypal TV hero: cynical, smart, persecuted by the powers that be. But he is relentless and always gets his man. He’s also an incurable romantic, which makes for juicy subplots. Although Smith’s books span the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I’d set them during the Cold War, in Moscow—the snow, the bureaucracy, the vodka swilling—that’s must-see TV.
Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro series. Boston, Catholicism, murder, violence, the Irish mob. Come on, I’m already binge-watching. The fact that Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are in love—but won’t admit it—is perfect for TV. (I would never let them sleep together; fulfillment ruins the sexual tension.) Lehane’s adoration of his native city is a selling point as well; the best television is rooted in a real place, and there haven’t been any good Beantown series lately.
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. Yes, there was a Tom Cruise movie, and yes, it was terrible, but one failure shouldn’t deter a persistent screenwriter. A Reacher TV series would have to be a cable show; it would need to be violent and nasty and relentless, which is what the moviemakers missed, if you ask me. The beauty of Jack Reacher is that he beats the crap out of everyone. My Reacher series would be stark and lonely and brooding. Oh, and unlike the movie, the lead would be tall. Very tall.
Patricia Cornwell’s Kate Scarpetta series. Okay, this pick is a little mainstream, and there have been plenty of coroner shows over the years, but Scarpetta is a special character. She’s a woman, for one, which is obvious but crucial: TV audiences are primarily female now, and they are underrepresented in leading roles. Also, Scarpetta’s got a nice team with her niece, Lucy, and fellow investigator Pete Marino, and teams are fun to write.
John le Carré’s Smiley books. In my opinion, these are the best spy novels ever written. There’s already been a solid BBC version of the books, but I would double down in my adaptation. Dense plot, sophisticated clues, tortured characters. And Carla is the perfect villain for a TV show: all-knowing and unbeatable. This would have to be done high budget and classy to be successful: HBO or Showtime, and nothing less.
Alan Furst’s The Night Soldiers series. Paris, the Nazi occupation, treacherous femme fatales, fatalistic resistance fighters. Good Lord, this series is so perfect for TV, how has it not been made already? Furst has a host of lead characters, but I would stick with Jean Casson, down-on-his-luck movie producer. He’s romantic, moral, but not above the occasional bad deed, and I could rest many episodes on his shoulders.
Alafair Burke’s Ellie Hatcher series. Hatcher is smart, tenacious, and ballsy. And Burke, a prosecutor, knows the streets of New York. I’d write the show ultrarealistic: gritty, tense, with real cops and real victims, a network version of The Wire.
C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels. I’ve always wanted to write a rural American detective show. The fact that Pickett is a game warden is a solid hook; that he can’t be corrupted puts it in my top ten. I’d give the show a little bit of a Fargo flair as well—don’t let the locals get off too easy.
Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. Supposedly, Paramount is planning to turn this into a limited series, but I’ll believe it when I see it on TV. In the meantime, I’ll dream about the dark streets of turn-of-the-century New York City, about the swashbuckling chief of police Teddy Roosevelt, and how I would scare the crap out of audiences with America’s first great serial-killer villain.
Drew Chapman is a novelist and TV writer. His most recent book, The King of Fear, comes out in February 2016.
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