Joan Hickson, as Miss Jane Marple, the most acute of octogenarian aunts, is turning back perceptions of the aged as doddering.
Hickson, sprightly in her eighties and rightly honored by Queen Elizabeth for her acting in the role, is back among us in "Mystery!" tonight at 9 on WETA (Channel 26), and tomorrow at 9 p.m. on WHMM (Channel 32). She ferrets out evildoers through three new episodes and a reprise of one more from last season in episodes running through Jan. 28.
Agatha Christie wrote 20 short stories and 12 novels about her spinster sleuth, whose parlor trick is solving crimes from her experiences with evil in her village of St. Mary Mead. The ever-diminishing population there seems to have murder as the local industry.
Christie may be the only novelist whose work is far better on the telly or in the flicks than between covers. You could be forgiven if you believed she wrote with a camera instead of a typewriter. And indeed, it's not surprising that her play "The Mousetrap" has been running for more than 40 years in London.
In these winter television episodes you can see why: She guides us through puzzles like those country house mazes with twists and turns, horrors in the center, and many despairing sighs on the way out.
The three new episodes are among the elderly lady's best. "Nemesis," airing today and a week hence, takes its title from the nickname given her by an old millionaire admirer whose will sets her on her quest after his death. Miss Marple is told by the solicitor that the millionaire friend, owner of more than one elegant and photogenic house, has left her a pair of bus tickets for a country house tour. If on the tour she finds and solves a mystery ("You'll know you're successful when you succeed"), she's to receive 20,000 pounds. So she and her nephew start out on the tour, only to find various suspicious characters along for more than the ride.
Dec. 24 and 31 offer a rerun of "A Pocketful of Rye" from last season. "Sleeping Murder," Jan. 7 and 14, is adapted from the novel published after Christie's death. A New Zealand couple (John Moulder-Brown and Geraldine Alexander) buy a house in England, though on their first inspection of it the wife has a vision, or memory, of a woman lying strangled at the foot of the stairs. As she lives in the house, she remembers other things. Miss Marple discovers the visions are no dream.
"At Bertram's Hotel," perhaps the most stylish story of the three, Caroline Blakiston, as the notorious swashbuckler Lady Bess Sedgwick, almost manages to pirate the show. Joan Greenwood, as the well-named Lady Selina Hazy, and Brian McGrath, as the sort of Irish stableman that daughters of the house run away with, and Bertram's Hotel itself are just the sort of characters and settings we read English mysteries to experience.
As might be expected of the BBC series, the episodes are beautifully filmed. British mansions have found new leases on life -- and mortgage payments -- by playing themselves on television.
One cavil: The cutesy lead-in graphics drag on forever. Edward Gorey's cartooning was amusing the first season, but in the amount of time wasted on the additional BBC doodlings every week, we could have an entire extra "Mystery!" episode.