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March 19, 2014

Inspector Alleyn Mysteries: Not Your Average Cop Drama

BY CHANDRA WOHLEBER

Having devoured several of the novels of New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, featuring the soft-spoken, elegant, impeccably well-mannered gentleman detective Roderick (Rory, to his beloved Troy) Alleyn, I was thrilled to discover the BBC’s excellent adaptations. As one of the imdb reviewers notes, the only disappointment is that they made so few (only nine episodes, each around an hour and a half long). What I love about these adaptations is the complex characters, the vividly realized settings, and the fascinating evocation of the times: more or less the late 1930s to the late 1940s.

From a fishing village (that looks an awful lot like the one in “Doc Martin”) in Cornwall to high society London to country estates to Argyll, the gorgeous cinematography falls upon narrow, winding roads and lush greenery, sparkling waters, windy bluffs for sketching from, foggy midnight streets, after-hours clubs, mysterious waterfalls, art galleries (both shady and legit), and majestic homes.

And then there’s how modern the stories are, in a completely non-anachronistic way: there are independent and feisty women, gay men and women as par for the course, early practitioners of alt med, political intrigue, art forgery and gallery wheelings and dealings, a lot more pre-marital goings-on than some of us may have thought was the norm in that time period (and really, of course there would be—plus ça change). But then at the same time you have a picture of a fading England: the one of strictly observed class hierarchy, coming-out balls, servants who stay with their masters for a lifetime (servants at all), the writing of proper letters of condolence, those wacky nicknames the upper classes use, men standing up when a woman enters or leaves a room, hats tipped, bags lifted, train conductors in spiffy uniforms …

My favorite character is the marvelous Agatha Troy, called Troy by Alleyn, who’s smitten with her; he also benefits from her astute observations concerning cases he’s working on. She lives alone in a cozy, tidy little flat and is a successful painter and sharp-tongued independent spirit who is afraid of letting Alleyn get too close for fear she’ll lose her identity in being nothing more than one half of a couple (like a panto horse, she says!). To this end she keeps the dear inspector at arm’s length though her keen disappointment whenever he has to cancel their meetings (due to all those murders cropping up) makes clear her true feelings for him. They’re like Mulder and Scully in an earlier age. Minus the aliens, and with much better fashion sense.

Inspector Fox is another favorite—a kind of iron fist in a velvet glove. He’s quiet, with a very dry sense of humor, and although he puts across an air of being a dear old teddy bear with his round figure next to whip-thin Alleyn, and his slightly rumpled brown suits, his sharp eyes don’t miss a thing and you get the sense that were violent action called for he wouldn’t hesitate for a moment. But then he’s also very good at making sure the perhaps too-ascetic Alleyn takes an occasional break for sandwiches and tea—even refusing to phone him with a vital new clue when Alleyn needs his sleep after a crime-solving all-nighter.

There are brilliant touches of humor—snappy comments by characters about one another and little details such as the vain villain’s toupee slipping off into an officer’s hand when he’s tucking the fellow into the paddy wagon: the final insult. Not only were his crimes exposed but so too his male pattern baldness! Cats, trout, and dogs also play excellent supporting roles, and the arts are a common thread, with writers, painters, or actors making appearances in almost every episode. And this last point is out of my area of expertise—I either hear it or I don’t—but my partner tells me the sound design and production is superior for an early 1990s TV series.

Highly recommended—even for people who claim they don’t like mysteries (though these people are not likely reading this blog; but they should be!) because the stunning scenery, the intelligent and perceptive dialogue, the wit, the depiction of a long-gone era with surprisingly modern mores, and the nuanced studies in character lift these stories far above formulaic police drama.

“Inspector Alleyn Mysteries” (1990–1994, BBC)
Patrick Malahide as Roderick Alleyn; William Simons as Br’er Fox; Belinda Lang as Agatha Troy
(The first 6 episodes are available for streaming on Netflix.)

 

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