Friday, July 08, 2011

Miss Marple Crashes at the Pale Horse

She might seem like a sweet old dear a bit tipsy with the sherry, but if you have a garden party poisoner on the loose, Miss Jane Marple is a good amateur sleuth to have handy. Despite a popularity that rivals Hercule Poirot amongst Dame Agatha Christie’s fans, no actress has yet to truly put their stamp on the role as Finney, Ustinov, and Suchet have with the fastidious Belgian. Nevertheless, Miss Marple has been a staple of Masterpiece Mystery, returning this Sunday with the one-off Miss Marple Series VI: The Pale Horse.

In her eighth outing as Miss Marple, Julia McKenzie best known for the BBC’s Cranford, is clearly comfortable in the part, neither too frail nor too cute to lower the deductive boom on unsuspecting murderers. This time around, it is personal. A friend of Miss Marple has been brutally struck down—a priest no less, on his way home from administering last rites for one of his faithful. Of course, Miss Marple suspects the two deaths are related.

Before his untimely demise, Father Gorman mailed a list of names to Miss Marple, rather than the dumb coppers. After an easy bit of detective work, she determines each person named died in a manner similar to the good Father’s parishioner and they all visited an eccentric country inn called the Pale Horse that specifically caters to visitors for village’s annual witch burning recreation.

If Marple fans do not remember her appearance in the original Pale Horse source novel that is because she was not there to be found. It was Poirot’s colleague Ariadne Oliver who first snooped around the suspicious inn. Given the gothic elements of the story, it seems like an odd choice to remix for Miss Marple, the quintessential cozy detective, but so be it.

McKenzie might be the series’ best Marple to date. Indeed, she has some nice moments in Pale, rather forcefully arguing evil must resisted head-on, in what constitutes a big message for the series. In Pale, probably the biggest name amongst the guest stars is J.J. Field, who has had some high profile work, but just has not broken out yet (though O Jerusalem is still worth checking out). However, Paul Osbourne, the slightly twittish boardinghouse neighbor who finds himself pulled into Miss Marple’s orbit, is a good part for him, essentially requiring a middleclass man’s Hugh Grant.

Miss Marple and Poirot have been the bread-and-butter series for Masterpiece Mystery because they establish a reliable baseline for quality while offering built-in name recognition. Pale Horse is similarly dependable, with the slightly darker tone somewhat differentiating it from the rest of the series. Basically, the word nice applies to the series, character, and star. However, the forthcoming Aurelio Zen will ratchet up the coolness for Masterpiece Mystery, Italian style. For mystery fans looking for a comfy fix right now, Pale Horse makes its American broadcast premiere this Sunday (7/10) on most PBS outlets.