Friday, February 14, 2014

Murder on the Home Front: It Beats Being a Land Girl

What good is a bomb shelter if nobody feels safe in them? It is 1940 and the Blitz is in full swing, but crime still continues on and below London’s darkened streets. With most able-bodied men in military service, a squirrelly pathologist finally has an opportunity to apply modern scientific methods in Murder on the Home Front (promo here), a one-off (so far) that premieres this Sunday as part of the current season of PBS’s Masterpiece.

Molly Lefebure became a popular British writer in multiple genres, who found early source material as a clerical assistant in the London pathologist’s office. She will be known as Molly Cooper in Home Front, which adapts her memoir, or at least the first big composite case she works with Dr. Lennox Collins, an academic crime fighter in the tradition of Wire in the Blood’s Dr. Tony Hill.

There is no shortage of deaths in London, but the recent rash of murdered women cannot be blamed on the Germans. The cops have a particularly convenient fall guy: a social outcast of German descent. However, Collins identifies several more likely suspects, but the powers that be might have reasons for protecting them. The hidebound chief pathologist is also not so keen on Collins’ new fangled methods, but Cooper might be able to win over the working class coppers to his rigorous style of investigation.

Someone high up in the PBS hierarchy must have a personal interest in the early history of forensic criminology, considering Home Front comes on the heels of Poisoner’s Handbook and How Sherlock Saved the World. It duly features a fair amount of CSI business, but there are also the requisite flirtations between Cooper and Collins.

While Home Front is currently a one-shot, it looks an awful lot like a backdoor pilot for a regular series. The basic concept is sturdy enough and Tamzin Merchant (previously seen in Masterpiece’s Edwin Drood) brings some engaging Jessica Chastain-ish screen presence as Cooper. However, prospective follow-ups will have to refrain from falling back on the old Germans-bombed-the-crime-scene and the-suspect-fled-into-the-bomb-shelter plot devices. Patrick Kennedy should also step-up his game a little, either taking Collins in a twitchier Robson Green direction or a crank up the geeky charm.  The various cops will also need a bit more personality, but Richard Bremmer adds a touch of class as Charlie Maxton, the rumpled morgue attendant with a big heart.

As Brit crime dramas go, Home Front has respectable looking period trappings and fairly solid procedural mechanics. It suggests decent series potential, but it is not yet near the level of a top shelf historical mystery like Endeavour. Recommended for Anglophiles and CSI junkies, Murder on the Home Front airs on most PBS outlets this Sunday night (2/16), following Downton.