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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Masterpiece Mystery!: Miss Marple'

Agatha Christie's beloved spinster is back on PBS. Her first case: 'A Pocket Full of Rye.'

July 03, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Dame Agatha Christie remains the gold standard of mystery writers not only for her productivity -- the woman wrote 80 detective novels -- but also for her permanence. One could argue that Sherlock Holmes is the most universally famous detective, but Arthur Conan Doyle had but one iconic offspring while Christie had two -- Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. (Four if you count the wonderful Tommy and Tuppence; five if you add, and I do, Mr. Satterthwaite of the Harley Quin stories.)

Of these, Poirot is probably the best known -- there are more than twice as many Poirot novels -- but Miss Marple is the best loved. Also the most influential. Poirot, like Holmes, was an actual detective, whereas Miss Marple was an aged spinster living in the seemingly tranquil village of St. Mary Mead. It is Miss Marple who introduced the notion that detecting is more about understanding human behavior than about analyzing evidence with the gray cells or knowing far too much about tobacco ash and the various soils of London. It is Miss Marple who introduced the revolutionary notion that people are essentially the same wherever one goes and that while it is sad to believe the worst of people it is also often the truth.

In other words, everybody lies.

Not surprisingly, both Poirot and Miss Marple have been portrayed countless times in film and television, their most recent PBS incarnation being on "Six by Agatha," which began in June on "Masterpiece Mystery!" with two Poirot mysteries. But while Poirot was once again played by the redoubtable David Suchet, it's a different Jane who kicks off the Marple run Sunday with "A Pocket Full of Rye."

Replacing Geraldine McEwan, the star of 12 previous "Marple" mysteries, is Julia McKenzie ("Cranford," "Notes on a Scandal"), a more solidly tweedy than feathery presence. Stout of shoe and clear of eye, her Miss Marple is a much more intentional detective, less given than the original to couching her observations in self-deprecation, but equally fond of knitting, eavesdropping and mining idle conversation for nuggets of vital information.

In "A Pocket Full of Rye," a rich and not particularly nice man is poisoned, and there is, of course, a country house full of suspects and, quickly, more victims. It isn't until the housemaid Gladys winds up dead among the drying laundry that Miss Marple shows up to explain, among other things, the grains of rye that were found in the dead man's pockets.

She trained Gladys, don't you see, and feels responsible for the poor girl, who has no other family. In the way of these novels, Miss Marple is quickly ensconced in the house, endears herself to the local inspector (Matthew Macfadyen) and is thus made privy to the entire investigation.

The acting is, of course, marvelous. As the prodigal son Lance, Rupert Graves is handsome and human, and Macfadyen, who was Mr. Darcy to Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride & Prejudice," provides a perfect stoic recipient of Miss Marple's shocking revelations. McKenzie is delightful to watch, if a bit direct for the purist; her most Marple-like feature is her piercing blue eyes, which she uses to great effect. A bit more disappointing is the loss of the main theme of the Marple mysteries -- that nothing happens in the halls of power that doesn't also happen, one way or another, in the smallest village.

Miss Marple solved most of her mysteries by drawing upon experiences she had with grocers who drank or clergymen who stole or maids who succumbed to the local heir. But none of that is in evidence here, which may cause an aficionado to feel something is missing.

Also, it must be noted that as there were so few Miss Marple mysteries, screenwriters have a history of sticking the old lady into other Christie stories. Here, in the fourth installment, "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?," the original non-Miss Marple story has been mangled beyond recognition, and Miss Marple takes on characteristics more appropriate to the satire "Murder by Death" than an actual Christie. But Natalie Dormer, fresh off her stint as Anne Boleyn on "The Tudors," costars, and if you pretend you've never read the book, you may enjoy it anyway.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Masterpiece Mystery!: Miss Marple'

Where: KCET

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

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

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