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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

The British Have a Nose for Crime

April 14, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A grisly murder is making news in London, and Scotland Yard's stiffest upper lip is on the case.

As always, Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh--the stony, keen-minded, cultured poet of a police detective created by P.D. James, England's Queen of Crime--is gentle and unhurried, yet thorough and precise in his interrogation.

"It must be gratifying," a suspect huffs acidly at Dalgliesh, "to have a job that can be used to justify what in others might seem to be intrusive curiosity."

In fact, nothing appears to gratify this elite policeman, who is all the more fascinating for hiding his feelings as efficiently as the murderers he hunts do their guilt. His sensitive side does emerge, but only after making its way to the surface through thick layers of stoicism.

A decent, if uninspired, three-part adaptation of James' latest bestseller, "A Certain Justice," marks Roy Marsden's return to the PBS series "Mystery!" as Dalgliesh, one in a long line of imported British sleuths who have made U.S. television a more pleasant place not only for Anglophiles but for anyone with a yen for sophisticated mysteries.

The prominent murder victim here is brilliant but bullying and widely disliked defense attorney Venetia Aldridge (Penny Downie). We meet her knowing she has just days to live, time enough to introduce a queue of characters with a reason to want her dead. They include her law colleagues, her married politician lover and a clever, boyishly evil, working-class thug named Gary Ashe (Ricci Harnett). He's an accused murderer whom Venetia successfully defends but whose involvement with her 18-year-old daughter, Octavia (Flora Montgomery), she intends to stop. Unfortunately, Venetia gets stopped first. The means of her demise is deliciously exotic, and the TV story's oaken barristers' milieu wiggy wonderful. Yet the book is much better, deeper and inkier than Michael Russell's adaptation, which softens the mother-daughter relationship, saps Venetia of the icy ruthlessness she needs to earn such universal hatred, and poorly sets up James' explosive conclusion.

Yet compared with "Diagnosis Murder" on CBS--well, don't ask.

U.S. television has been no slouch in copdom this decade, creating a golden age of crime series with the likes of ABC's "NYPD Blue" and NBC's "Law & Order" and "Homicide: Life on the Street." Although mysterious on some levels, however, these are not classic puzzlers.

When it comes to pure whodunits on TV, Americans generally are chumps, the Brits champs.

The British crowd is not always top drawer, one relative "Mystery!" clunker being the shallow "Cadfael," even that fine actor Derek Jacobi being unable to find much spark in the 12th century yenta of a detective created by Ellis Peters. Plus the production values don't add up to much more than a few robes and sandals.

In addition to Dalgliesh, however, the A-list includes:

* My favorite, the memorably flawed Det. Chief Inspector Jane Tennison of "Prime Suspect," created by Lynda La Plante, with Helen Mirren just a stunner as a tenaciously ambitious, highly able but self-destructive cop battling as many personal demons as criminals. At their complex best, "Prime Suspect" and Mirren's Tennison surpassed everything on the TV planet.

* Ranking second for me, "Inspector Morse," which continues to be available in reruns on PBS and on cable's A&E network (tonight and Thursday night, for example). But it may have bid goodbye in first-run with a recent "Mystery!" two-parter in which John Thaw's hard-drinking, cerebral Oxford chief inspector solved from his hospital bed an 1859 crime for which two innocent men were hanged. Even that didn't make him smile. So morose and cranky that he makes Dalgliesh seem almost giddy by comparison, Morse will be greatly missed if reports are true about writer Colin Dexter deciding to permanently retire him.

* "Miss Marple," with the late Joan Hixon so subtly effective at locking like a laser on murderers as Agatha Christie's dowdy villager who wears her detective's mantle as comfortably as she does sensible shoes. Miss Marple: "I may be what is termed a spinster, but I know the difference between horseplay and murder."

* "Hercule Poirot," Christie's most famous sleuth, a self-described "bloody little Belgian," played to prissy perfection by David Suchet. Poirot is vain and conceited, but deservedly so.

* "Sherlock Holmes." Just as Hixon was the best Miss Marple and Suchet the best Poirot, so was the late Jeremy Brett the most complete Holmes (apologies to Basil Rathbone), projecting the troubled soul along with the remarkable crime-solving skills and mastery of the arcane that Arthur Conan Doyle gave his Victorian sleuth for all seasons.

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