Now Sonnenfield has borrowed another Leonard novel, Maximum Bob, and, together with the writer Alex Gansa, he has turned it into a TV series. It's not quite an adaptation, though, but a spin-off: same characters and setting, extended quotes from the dialogue, but new stories each week. (Countless hit movies, from M*A*S*H onwards, have been transposed to television in this way, which just goes to show how innovative and daring studio executives tend to be, but it's rare for a book to make the same jump.) Only last Sunday's opening episode was based directly on the novel, and even that one was hardly faithful. Sonnenfield squeezes all the fun stuff into 45 fast, freewheeling, colourful minutes, and discards the gritty, bitter-tasting rind.
One of the few components that does filter through is "Maximum" Bob Gibbs himself, a girl-chasin', orchid-growin' redneck Florida judge who earned his nickname by taking the legal limit for sentences as a starting point. The series applies this idea rather more literally than the novel. On the printed page, a juvenile violates his parole by punching a strip club bouncer, and Bob gives him five years in jail; on TV, the equivalent character simply swigs an under-age beer. Bob sends him to the electric chair. (Don't worry, the sentence is overturned.)
Also making the transfer from the novel is Bob's trophy wife, Leanne. She was once a mermaid in an underwater circus - a mesmeric flashback to this scene opens the series - and is now a new-age space cadet who is convinced that she can commune with the spirit of a mid-19th-century slave girl named Wanda. One of Gansa and Sonnenfield's more inspired touches is to have Wanda's ghost narrating the programme.
Leonard, then, is not averse to a bit of wackiness now and then - another reason why his books are so irresistible to film-makers - but it is always anchored in well-researched, seedy realism: the physical and psychological details of the crimes he writes about are almost grounds to have him arrested on suspicion of committing any atrocity that's discovered within a hundred miles of his house. Sonnenfield, on the other hand, pulls up this anchor and lets the series drift into the realm of cartoons. Bob's nemesis, Kathy Diaz Baker (played by ER's gorgeous Liz Vassey), has changed career from from parole officer to the more TV-friendly job of lawyer. Gary Hammond (Sam Robards) is no longer a smart, fastidious sergeant, but a tango-dancing sheriff. And Bob himself, described in the book as the spitting image of Harry Dean Stanton, has taken on the cuddly form of Beau Bridges. He's not the only thing that is more cuddly in Sonnenfield's mind's-eye than in Leonard's.
In place of the shootings and the crack addicts, there is a parade of glamorous women in their underwear; an inbred hick family who all wear identical glasses; a coffin, too long to fit in a hearse, which is used to hide an alligator; and the obligatory soundtrack of frogs and skeeters and front-porch slide guitars. Florida, home of the world's most famous theme park, has been reduced to being a theme park itself.
In the first episode, this doesn't matter: the theme park's rollercoaster ride of oddball action is well worth the entrance fee. But from tonight onwards, as the source material dries up, we're left with the sort of small-town American weirdness we've seen many times before - think of those whiskey commercials which boast that folks do things differently in the South. Sonnenfield has rung up Quirks-R-Us and ordered a boxload of idiosyncrasies. And he should ask for his money back: he's been sold second-hand stock. Yanking open the mouth of an unfortunate defendant, Bob announces that he can tell all he needs to know about the people in his courtroom by examining their teeth. A judge in Ally McBeal has already come to the same conclusion. Are they, by any chance, related?
BBC2 are promoting Maximum Bob as a successor to Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, but fans of either programme will be asking for their money back, too. David Lynch's series was considerably more strange and disturbing than Sonnenfield's, not to say considerably more baffling. Northern Exposure was set in Alaska, a rather less obvious territory for an offbeat comedy- drama than the deep South, and it was built on soapy human interest. In Maximum Bob, no one has as much depth as the alligator.
No, this is familiar, stranger-in-a-kooky-land Sunday night fare. It's not aiming to be Twin Peaks, it's aiming to be Hamish Macbeth or Ballykissangel, except with reptiles instead of sheep. But Maximum Bob's true ancestor is that good ol' classic of Seventies teatime TV, The Dukes of Hazzard. It can't be long before a car with a confederate flag painted on the roof goes arcing through the torpid air.