Rachael Stirling, left, as Millie, Anna Maxwell Martin as Susan, Sophie… (PBS )
Thanks to Sherlock Holmes and his Doctor Watson, we are used to detectives coming in asymmetrical pairs: Your Batman and Robin (superheroes, you say, but their career began in Detective Comics), your Poirot and Hastings, your Morse and Lewis, your Lewis and Hathaway. Your Doctor and his current companion. The hero and the protégé, the genius and the occasionally inspired sidekick.
More satisfying to my sensibility is another sort of crime-solving unit: the cooperative team, with or without leader, in which each brings to the table a necessary specialty, the Scooby Gang, as it is often short-handed nowadays.
Such is the stuff of "The Bletchley Circle," a smart and highly suspenseful miniseries premiering Sunday on PBS (KOCE locally), and it brings with it an extra-powerful element of sisterhood. Set in 1952 in a Britain still feeling the privations of war — its palate is appropriately muted, in brown and gray, rose-pink and brick-red — its heroines are challenged not only by the mystery into which they dive and delve but of a society controlled (if not actually run) by men, who do not take them quite seriously.
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Reunited to solve a crime are four women who worked together during the war, cracking codes at Bletchley Park (thus the title). There's serious Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin), who sees patterns and leads the charge ("We could be useful again," she tells her friends); bold Millie (Rachael Stirling), who knows maps and geography; naive Lucy (Sophie Rundle), who remembers everything; and stern Jean (Julie Graham), their former, feared supervisor, who knows how to look things up and get things done. If their differing characters are heavily underlined and special skills sometimes stretched to a point just short of supernatural, the production and performances keep things lifelike.
Because of the Official Secrets Act, none can share her wartime triumphs except with the others; when they gather to discuss the case, it is under the cover of a book club, where they also smoke and drink, signifying freedom. It seems worth pointing out that this ode to female capability was written by a man, Guy Burt, who is good with the way that women had to — have to? — talk to men, who here tend to be thick, patronizing and/or dangerous.
It is a serial killer story. I am on record, serially, as having had my fill of such things. But if you are going to make a picture about sleuths who specialize in pattern-recognition, you are pretty much stuck with a person who, having killed, is going to kill again — which means you are pretty much stuck with a madman. (Or, rarely, madwoman.) Still, its genre thrills are enriched by the way the mystery mirrors its social context: On both levels, it's about the supposed weaker sex showing its strength.
And it does not linger on the murders — indeed, compared to your average American procedural it's a walk down "Sesame Street."
'The Bletchley Circle'
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)