After successfully reviving such mystery story icons as Sherlock Holmes, Horace Rumpole and Hercule Poirot, British television producers, eyeing the lucrative American market especially, continued mining the genre in search of the next big thing. These series were often more popular in America than in Britain, first on PBS's Mystery! series, and later in perennially selling home video versions, but after several decades of those excellent shows the literary source materials began to run dry. The Alleyn Mysteries (1990-94), from the long-running collection of novels by New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, hobbled through nine feature-length episodes before its acrimonious cancellation. The original stories, themselves admittedly inspired by Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, might read well. There were, after all, some 32 novels published over 50 long years, from 1932 to 1982. As a TV series though, The Alleyn Mysteries is handsomely produced but dull as dishwater and utterly undistinguished. Acorn Media has collected four 98-minute shows as Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, Set 1, but only die-hard fans of the novel will want to race out and buy it.
The set does not include Artists in Crime, the 1990 telefilm that more or less served as the series' pilot film. That show starred Simon Williams as Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a cultured, well-bred sleuth whose brother is an ambassador and whose mother is "one of the Devonshires." In other words, he's the antithesis of Scotland Yard flatfeet like Conan Doyle's Inspector Lestrade. Indeed, Alleyn has a Lestrade of his own in Inspector Fox (played throughout the series by William Simons), a pocked-faced everyman who does much of the leg work. Alleyn also has a girlfriend, the long-suffering but always understanding Agatha Troy (a well-cast Belinda Lang), and their relationship is one of the series' few bright spots.
Patrick Malahide took over the title role for the remainder of the series, and while he's perfectly okay the character, at least in the series, is staid and austere to the point of madness. The best screen and television detectives are almost always either flamboyant or at least eccentric, from Margaret Rutherford's droll Miss Marple to Jeremy Brett's florid Sherlock Holmes to Peter Falk's slovenly, self-effacing Inspector Columbo. Alleyn, by contrast, is like an efficient, humorless accountant, and little more.
As mysteries, the shows are blah, pokey, and uninteresting. Outrageously overpopulated with red herrings and improbable, impossible-to-guess solutions, they're not at all satisfying. The best Doyle and Christie stories, among others, worked so well because they took strange, inexplicable crimes and had their sleuths uncover solutions that were generally quite simple and explainable (e.g., Doyle's The Red-Headed League), but the Alleyn Mysteries fudge their denouements with illogical or improbable motives and means. At 90-plus minutes apiece they're also shamelessly overlong, turgid and never-ending.
A Man Lay Dead, with its multiple murders and stolen chalice (from the palace?), is the first of the four shows in this package. It so overloads its narrative with suspects that Inspector Alleyn seems to have less screentime than girlfriend Troy, who figures prominently in the case. The solution to the title murder might work in literary form but looks only silly on film. Another show, The Nursing Home Murder, about a high-ranking minister apparently murdered on the operating table, finds myriad motives for most every nurse and doctor charged with his care, along with his wife, sister and mistress, yet the final explanation and method of murder is not credible and supremely unsatisfying.
At least the shows are well cast and somewhat lavishly produced. Set during the immediate postwar period, they do well in presenting a lived-in environment of Britain with all its rationing and gradual postwar recovery. Familiar faces like Julian Glover, Anna Massey, Eleanor Bron, and the late Peter Blythe make welcome appearances.
Video & Audio
The Alleyn Mysteries appears to have been shot in Super-16. In any case, these full-frame presentations look quite good, with excellent color and grain. The only flaw this reviewer noticed was on The Nursing Home Murder, which at 16:30 had a faint yellow horizontal line running through the frame for several minutes. The stereo sound is also impressive for its time and media. Unfortunately, there are no subtitle options at all.
As with other Acorn Media sets, the only supplements on this overpriced collection are incomplete filmographies of scattered regular and guest performers. Viewers are much better off looking up this info on the IMDb. Somewhat better is a short bio and list of Inspector Alleyn novels by Ngaio Marsh.
The Alleyn Mysteries has few defenders; even fans of the novels generally concede the show failed its source pretty miserably, and its demise after only nine shows was mourned by few.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.