Sharon Small, Nathaniel Parker, ...

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries: A Great Deliverance


”TV wouldn’t be the same without PBS” goes the current slogan for the Public Broadcasting Service, and indeed, that’s true: Where else would we go for Ken Burns documentaries, genteel ”Survivor” rip-offs like ”Frontier House,” or adaptations of high and low fiction such as this week’s somewhere-in-between edition of ”Mystery!,” a BBC/WGBH Boston coproduction of Elizabeth George’s best-seller A Great Deliverance?

Well, to answer my own question, millions of people have gone elsewhere for what used to be considered PBS fare — specifically to cable, where the likes of the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel have usurped genres PBS used to own. As far as dramas go, A&E long ago outpaced PBS in serving Anglophiles. The most recent example: A&E’s airing of the tingly good ”Armadillo,” a high-class thriller drawn from William Boyd’s novel. ”Armadillo” was so patently superior to ”Mystery!” offerings like this summer’s dreary Arthur Conan Doyle ”Murder Rooms” whodunit that it makes you wonder for the umpteenth time, why can’t PBS take a few chances, get more competitive? How can they continue to support the superlative ”Frontline,” yet also bring back for a 24th season the literally watching-paint-dry ”This Old House,” long after that show’s desired demographic switched away to brisker phenomena such as TLC’s ”Trading Spaces”? Why didn’t the former home of Julia Child gobble up the sleek, fun food show ”Nigella Bites,” instead of letting cable’s Style network snag this impudent newcomer?

In recent years, PBS’ primary idea of innovation has been to change the nights its franchise series air. All this does is rile up the formerly faithful, like me poor old mum in Florida, who has to call me up to find out when ”Masterpiece” or ”Mystery!” is on.

At least ”A Great Deliverance” is solid stuff. American author George has created a densely populated world of contemporary London crime solvers; this tale, based on her 1988 debut novel, introduces us to her two most intriguing characters, New Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley (played by Nathaniel Parker) and Sergeant Barbara Havers (Sharon Small). The potentially trite set-up is that the pair is an odd couple: Lynley is an upper-crust Brit, the eighth Earl of Asherton, tall and dashing; Havers is working-class and blunt, and on the short side to boot.

In ”A Great Deliverance,” Lynley and Havers are meeting for the first time, paired to solve a homicide in the English countryside: A farmer has been ax-murdered, and his teen daughter Roberta (Rebecca Gallacher) is found at the crime scene, stunned into a breakdown that has left her mute. Who did it? Roberta? The wife (Denise Black) who left the farmer a while back? Maybe the farmer’s nephew (Brendan Coyle), who was to inherit the farm? Lynley and Havers sift through the clues while also grappling with that profound English divider, the class system. Lynley initially finds Havers sullen and bafflingly uncommunicative; Havers thinks Lynley is an ”arrogant aristocratic ponce” who does police work for a lark.

As Lynley, Parker has the dark, floppy hair and angular moodiness of the British singer Bryan Ferry — when Lynley stands on a hillside mulling things over, you half expect to hear ”Avalon,” by Ferry’s old band Roxy Music, playing on the soundtrack. Small, meanwhile, has wide-set, fierce eyes and a perpetual scowl. Both prickly personalities who bridle at bureaucracy, the characters bond over the fact that their superiors have assigned them this knotty case in hopes they’ll screw it up, and thus provide the bosses with an excuse to reprimand or demote the duo. The rules of mystery stories assure us, of course, that the pair will come through, but it’s fun to watch the process, especially since early on, George and her ”Mystery!” adaptor, Lizzie Mickery, make it clear that the story will not include the most obvious cliché in fiction like this — that the couple will become, y’know, a couple. Jolly good for them — and us.

Since ”A Great Deliverance” arrives under the rubric of ”The Inspector Lynley Mysteries,” I assume PBS plans to air more of George’s Lynley-centered capers. (One way the author keeps her series fresh is to focus some books on regulars other than Lynley.) The filmmakers might take heed of my mother’s complaints about this one, though. (I admit it: Rather than put her through PBS’ stupid scheduling misery, I sent her my ”Great Deliverance” review tapes.) I’d only read ”Deliverance,” but Mom’s a big fan and has plowed through all of George’s books. She thought Parker and Small were drab (something about there being a difference between stiff-upper-lip and just plain stiff; I know — critics run in the family), and that, since it was spread over two nights, the screenplay should have contained more of the book’s additional characters and subplots.

So, I guess, die-hard fans be forewarned. Me, I had a good time — something one can’t say very often about PBS product these days.

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries: A Great Deliverance
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