The Mystery! series, produced by PBS Boston affiliate WGBH, has been on the air for an astounding twenty-four years, presenting a seemingly limitless series of British mystery tales. A spinoff from Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery! maintains the high production values of its predecessor. Its witty Edward Gorey opening credits and classy host Diana Rigg have become the hallmarks of a series that ranges from lighter, tongue-in-cheek fare such as Agatha Christie’s elderly snoop, Miss Marple, to classic Sherlock Homes to the gutsy Helen Mirren portrayal of Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennyson in the gritty and supremely dramatic Prime Suspect.
The Inspector Lynley mysteries, now in its third series, center on a team of two investigators–Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley (Nathaniel Parker), the rather low-keyed blue-blood senior member, and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers (Sharon Small), his partner from a working class background. Class distinctions carry a good deal more weight and significance in Britain than they do in the U.S., so American audiences may find somewhat less resonance in this central premise of the Lynley series.
The premiere episode of Series III, Playing for the Ashes, wastes no time, beginning right off with the arson murder of cricket star Kenneth Waring (Mark Brighton). Even as the fire is being set, there is a nearby raid of a puppy-farm by an animal rights protest group; having removed the dogs, they torch the kennel. Nothing like a few dozen whimpering beagles to win audience empathy.
The required range of suspects quickly lines up for consideration. There’s Waring’s estranged wife, Jeannie, who refuses to accept the end of their marriage; Waring’s mistress, Gabriella, with whom he fought the night that he was killed; Waring’s wealthy mentor and mother figure, Miriam Whitelaw, whose estate was largely willed to Waring; her daughter, Olivia, a drug addict and sometime prostitute who now stands to inherit all; and Olivia’s roommate, Chris Faraday, leader of the animal-rights protestors.
But it is Waring’s 16-year-old son, Jimmy, who confesses to the murder early on, and the forensics seem to back up his confession. Lynley doesn’t believe Jimmy did it and follows his own bloodhound instincts to root out the truth.
It’s a marginally better than average setup, with smooth exposition and just enough mystery to keep you guessing. But it is a rather bland group of characters, excepting, perhaps, for Neve McIntosh’s performance which injects some believable angst into the character of Olivia. The animal rights issue isn’t explored at all and, oddly, nothing is made of the fact that Waring was black, while all the other characters (save his mixed-blood son) are white. With all the fuss about the class differences between the two detectives, the lack of racial overtones here seems an oversight.
The second story in this series of four, In the Presence of the Enemy, offers a little more suspense in its kidnap-murder plot–there is a child to be rescued. Once again there is an interracial relationship, presented without comment or implications. There is a nicely worked secondary theme about parenting with various characters demonstrating a range of parental behaviors–neglectful parenting, nurturing parenting, smothering parenting. But the underlying plot premise is contrived. Once again, the two detectives demonstrate all the verve of postal clerks and Lynley’s forever up-and-down romance with profiler Helen Clyde has all the fizz of day-old champagne.