Nancy N. Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing
I confess I have become addicted. With a new, large-screen TV and Amazon Prime for the first time, we have “improved” the staying-at-home time by getting interested in, and viewing, English detective series. There are many types on Prime, probably twenty or thirty different detectives, male, female, black, white, working class, spy-types, brilliant misfits and gentlemen and ladies. Their settings range from the British Isles to India and Canada.
We sampled various English series ready for streaming. We had experienced this year’s detective series on weekly TV, which we found often of poor quality. The recent PBS English series like “Grantchester” Season Five don’t add up at all to the richly portrayed and plotted series from about 2000 to 2015. Weak, repetitive plots about the mistreatment of certain groups, and hard-to-believe personal conflicts, stereotypical portrayals and poor acting on the point of the leading characters have dragged down this sparkling and usually interesting genre. So we didn’t know how good the earlier series were.
In its heyday Inspector Linley and Barbara Havers in “The Inspector Lynley Series” are seen speeding through about fifteen episodes now available on Prime and cleverly stopping bad guys from Cornwall to the Lake District (the script writers always have the team requested on loan to come from their London posting). The variety of settings and characters is wonderful and the interaction of the detectives originated by novelist Elizabeth George believable, even though the TV version has a much prettier and thinner version of Havers than George’s chubby gal.
At best, the variety of geographical police department in these series allows us viewers to sample the countryside of Wales, Scotland and beyond. Best in this “scenic sleuthing” department is “Shetland,” which is a series of about ten episodes on Prime which reveal not only a sensitive and intelligent detective and his staff in dramatically excellent portrayals, but also the starkness and wind-swept beauty of the Shetland Islands, about which I knew very little.
As a writer I see the elements of excellence in story-telling in the best of these English detective mysteries. The elements of the spinning of tales has remained the same since the greatest of all the adventure stories was told about 600 B.C “The Odyssey.” Set up a variety of characters and settings amidst which the leading characters will journey, give all the characters flaws which emphasize human nature, bring in a variety of exciting adventures before the revelations, keep everybody in suspense until at the end and pepper the narrative with songs/poetry/ background.
Colin Dexter’s Morse was a marvelous series of novels before his episodes were adapted for TV. There are 33 episodes, originally seen 1987-2000. His character Chief Inspector Endeavor Morse played by John Thaw is salty, very intelligent, basically a loner who yearns for companionship and the best detective in England, relying on his experience and instinct—and the desire to go beyond.
His assistant Lieutenant Lewis, a working class “natural” played by Kevin Whatley, is a perfect addition to the plot as well as a foil for the older Morse. Beautiful women adorn each segment and Morse usually ends up taking one or two to the local pub for the English beers he habitually downs (and which are ruining his health.)
These episodes, with soaring or ominous background music and the settings of green and blossoming traditional Oxford University, appeal to the viewer’s ability to concentrate. They are a real embellishment to the genre established by Edgar Allan Poe in his scary short stories of “ratiocination,” like “The Purloined Letter.”
We hated to see the series end, unusually, with Morse actually dying. I’m looking forward to having Prime pick up the “Lewis” series which was done later in time and shows a mature inspector, well trained by Endeavor Morse in the earlier episodes.
Nancy Niblack Baxter has written her own detective novel set in Indianapolis 1895: Charmed Circle. It is Novel 5 in the Heartland Chronicle Series.