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TELEVISION REVIEW

A pleasant Victorian mystery

September 27, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

Billie Piper, beloved as Rose Tyler in the renascent "Doctor Who" and somewhat less adored as the star of "Secret Diary of a Call Girl," gets back to saving the world Sunday night as Victorian girl detective Sally Lockhart in "The Shadow in the North." (Sally would probably not countenance being called a girl detective; as much of a Nancy Drew as she is, she's also a proto-feminist and a businesswoman.) A presentation of PBS' "Masterpiece: Mystery!," it's a sequel to last year's "The Ruby in the Smoke," based on the second of a series of young adult novels by Philip Pullman, better known for "His Dark Materials" (whence comes the recently movie-fied "The Golden Compass").

I say "young adult," and I did indeed buy my copy of the novel in the YA section of my local independent bookseller, but it's a little more adult than young. Pullman calls his Sally Lockhart mysteries "historical thrillers. . . . Old-fashioned Victorian blood-and-thunder," written "with a genuine cliche of melodrama right at the heart of it." They are cousin to the works of Sax Rohmer and H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle, with freethinking heroes and a strong female lead.

When first we met Sally, in "The Ruby in the Smoke," she was investigating the death of her father, drowned at sea. In the course of this business she fell in with photographer Frederick Garland (the charming J.J. Feild) and aspiring thriller writer Jim Taylor, and by the end they were all partners in a kind of semi-utopian work-live arrangement.

Now it is six years later; Sally has set herself up as a financial advisor, while frustrated almost-love interest Frederick continues in photography, Jim hangs around theaters pitching a play about vampires, and the two men dabble in detection on the side.

Like "Ruby," the events of "Shadow" are put into motion by a sinking ship, as Sally sets off to discover whether the collapse of a shipping line was a matter of fraud. The chase takes our heroes into the world of the theater and the houses of the rich; there are a magician, a spiritualist, a woman with a birthmark, a mysterious industrialist. There is murder in it too, of course. And love -- in one way or another many of these characters are driven by it.

Piper plays Sally as a mix of Victorian rectitude (which is not to say prudery) and 21st century moxy, with perhaps a shade too much emphasis on the rectitude. Still, she is so formidable a character that even her nemeses fall for her. This time it's the quietly villainous Mr. Bellman (the always great Jared Harris, lately of "The Riches"), an immensely rich Swede building a weapon too horrible to contemplate, although worse have been invented since, and we have been forced to contemplate them. He imagines it is for the good of the world, which I think is meant to suggest a kind of nuclear-madness allegory; certainly, he is not the first crazy millionaire on this sort of mission.

As adapted by Adrian Hodges ("Primeval"), who also wrote the teleplay for "The Ruby in the Smoke," and directed by John Alexander, it follows the lines of the story while necessarily losing much of the detail and characterization. (I do recommend the book.) The production is a little low-boil given the many terrible things that happen; it lacks the pulpiness and the exotic charm and some of the fun of its predecessor. Still, Piper and crew are pleasant company, and if this sort of thing is at all your cup of tea -- no reference to British drinking habits intended -- I wouldn't warn you off.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Masterpiece Mystery! The Shadow in the North'

Where: KCET

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children.)

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