Most British TV detectives are usually DI’s or DCI’s (Morse, Lewis, Lynley, Frost, Banks), but P.D. James’ signature eventually rose to the advanced rank of Commander. He was also a published poet, with a tragic backstory, so he well understood the dark places of the human soul. Most importantly, Adam Dalgliesh was unfailingly professional and competent. The no-nonsense detective was a war-horse anchor for ITV (and then the BBC) in the UK and PBS’s Mystery in America, so it is not surprising to see him get a fresh new series treatment in Dalgliesh, which premieres Monday on Acorn TV.
In series’ first two-part case, “Shroud for a Nightingale,” DCI Dalgliesh is less than impressed with his new DS, the crass Charles Masterson. He does not take to Dalgliesh either, but he is somewhat intimidated by the detective’s commanding bearing. Still mourning his wife and unborn child, Dalgliesh is assigned the case of a poisoning in a nursing college, because of its sensitive nature. The school has powerful patrons and is expecting a high-profile visit. Tragically, there will be further murders, to cover the killer’s tracks.
The second two-parter, “The Black Tower” represents an improvement, because of the remote but visually striking location and it also gives us a break from the Dalgliesh/Masterson dynamic, which gets a bit tiresome. Dalgliesh arrives to visit an old friend in priestly orders, who is on staff at a provincial home for disabled residents, only to find he passed away a few days prior. That is just what Dalgliesh needs, more grief. However, he soon starts to suspect his friend was murdered, especially when more bodies start piling up.
Steven Mackintosh makes a worthy suspect and foil as Wilfred Antsey, the arrogant director of the almost cloistered home. He provides the sort of sparring partner “Nightingale” lacks. Although the local police chief is too lazy to mount a serious investigation, Dalgliesh finds an ally in Constable Kate Mishkin. In terms of themes, this could be the episode of Dalgliesh that hardcore fans of the original adaptations most appreciate.
The initial reboot season concludes with “A Taste for Death,” which auspiciously starts in a church. Inside, a disgraced politician and a local homeless man were sliced up, in a transparent effort to make it look like a struggle between them. To help his team, Dalgliesh has transferred Mishkin from Bristol, not exactly thrilling Masterson.
There is some decent procedural stuff in “Taste,” and it is great to see distinctive character actors like Jim Norton (seen on Broadway in The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and David Pearse pop up as Father Barnes and pathologist Miles Kynastone, respectively. Patrick Regis is also quite a notable presence as Gordon Halliwell, the loyal chauffeur of the deceased’s stonewalling mother.
Frankly, the rivalry between Masterson and Mishkin (nicely played by Carlyss Peer) feels flat and predictable, However, “Taste” really gives Bertie Carvel a chance to shine as Dalgliesh during the emotionally heavy third act. Although Martin showed a bit of feeling in his two Dalgliesh mysteries, Roy Marsden was always scrupulously reserved and detached (that was what made Dalgliesh Dalgliesh). Arguably, Carvel combines the best of both.
Dalgliesh is certainly watchable (sometimes highly so), but it is rather like so many other British mysteries. What set the Marsden-Shaw adaptations apart was the meticulousness. Each season focused on a single James novel, spanning five to seven episodes. Viewers were immersed in the investigation and each murder took on the tragic dimension any premature death deserves.
They also featured Richard Harvey’s elegant viola composition “Shroud for a Nightingale,” which became the opening theme for the entire series. It even took on a life of its own, due to haunting mournfulness. His music is absent from this Dalgliesh, presumably to avoid comparisons, but for fans, it is like the Lone Ranger without the “William Tell Overture.”
Acorn’s Dalgliesh has a similar brooding tone, but in most other respects, it is rather conventional. Carvel nicely embodies the DCI’s cerebral persona, but the mystery narratives are obviously streamlined and the music just can’t compare to Harvey. Still, if you enjoy watching a DCI catch culprits, the new series delivers, with some humanizing pay-off as an added bonus. Recommended for British mystery fans who have not watched the Marsden/Shaw series, Dalgliesh premieres this Monday (11/1) on Acorn TV.