PBS's "Mystery!" -- starting at 9 tonight on Channel 26, 9 tomorrow night on 32 -- cooks up crime poached, not hard-boiled -- stirred, not shaken.
The "Inspector Morse" series of three new stories of two episodes each begins its six-week run following the traditional English detective story recipe.
Chief Inspector Morse is an English wise man, not an American wise-guy sleuth. Author Colin Dexter might even recognize in actor John Thaw the character from his seven novels. British television casts actors, not stars: Not all the men wear toupees, or have perfect teeth; the women are sometimes scrawny or even plump, and not all frizzle their hair.
So we have Morse, whose first name, even initials (could it be "R.E."?), remains secret. The detective has a bald spot, a paunch resulting from years of emptying ale glasses, a face wrinkled with the tracks of life -- but eyes that haven't given up yet.
Without hesitation you believe Chief Super (James Grout) when he comes to tell Morse that he isn't going to be promoted, because though often brilliant, he says what he thinks too often and doesn't fill out all the forms and doesn't want to be a superintendent anyway. Besides ale, Morse likes crossword puzzles, and one of the victims is a crossword deviser who, surprisingly, is not murdered by someone who couldn't finish the puzzle.
Dexter plots his mysteries as though they were crossword puzzles, with wayward words and devious definitions. On the other hand, his detective tries to solve them not by the book (though he does accuse Sophocles of being the murderer once) but by inspiration. Morse usually leads himself and the viewer astray, down enticing but erroneous paths.
The detective's madness for Mozart, an essential bit of the plot, makes for much better background music than usual, though it often drowns the dialogue.
The series begins with alternating scenes of Morse foiling evildoers and practicing with his choir. The singers rehearse in a building that is itself like a "Hallelujah Chorus" in stone. "Inspector Morse" would be worth watching with the blab-off off, for the great octagonal library named for Sir Thomas Bodley alone. All episodes are filmed in Oxford, where the author lives.
Gemma Jones (in an earlier TV life the "Duchess of Duke Street") briefly but memorably plays a fellow chorister. She lives in a gentrified street of Oxford called Jericho, thus providing the first story's name, "The Dead of Jericho."
Bright-faced Kevin Whately plays the detective sergeant who does the dog work throughout the episode. His wife and children provide his excuse for not drinking in pubs with Morse.
Dexter, obeying the dictum that writers should use what they know about, cut the second episode, "The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn" (Feb. 18 and 25 on Channel 26, Feb. 19 and 26 on 32), from his own life. The story concerns the Oxford Examinations Board, which sends its tests out worldwide. The first victim is a deaf man (as is Dexter) who lip-reads a dangerous secret. In the beginning of the episode, the sound track "hears" like a malfunctioning hearing aid, an effective ploy.
In "Service of All the Dead," the third episode (March 3 and 10 on 26 and March 4 and 11 on 32), Morse and Detective Sgt. Lewis sleuth their way through more multiple murders, with characters you might expect to find in the paneled studies of Oxford: a church warden and a retired headmaster.
Having complained about the excessive use of lead-in drawings, in other "Mystery!" series, I'm pleased to report that they have been eliminated for these episodes, except for the Edward Gorey details PBS has added for American audiences. Another note of cheer: Thaw and Whately have already filmed four more episodes with plans for another four, promising well for "Mystery!" next year.
The screenplays are well written by Anthony Minghella and Julian Mitchell. Kenny McBain has produced all three. Alastair Reid, Brian Parker and Peter Hammond are the directors. As usual, Vincent Price is the Cerberus at the gate of Hell.