Monday, October 13, 2014

Inspector Lewis: “The Lions of Nemea” (BBC/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on KPBS for the next Inspector Lewis episode — Inspector Robert Lewis (Kevin Whately) was “inspired” by the Inspector Morse novels and he, like Morse, is an avuncular man who works for the police force in the university town of Oxford, though he’s a much less quirky character (for good or ill — the one scene that “humanizes” him is when he tries to cook cannelloni for his wife and his police partner Inspector James Hathaway (Laurence Fox, a tall, gangly blond who’s not drop-dead gorgeous but is oddly attractive) and ends up with a horribly burned mess in a casserole dish. “What’s that?” asks his wife. “Cannelloni,” he says. “That’s what it started as, but what is it now?” she replies. The episode was called “The Lions of Nemea” and — perhaps because I was watching it with far fewer distractions — I liked it a lot better than the Inspector Lewis program the previous week, even though it had a flaw typical of British mysteries: too many characters with too many motives to kill the original victim, and so many plot lines it was hard to keep them all sorted out. The scene opens with a not-bad looking man riding through Oxford on a bicycle and being deliberately run down and off the road by a woman driving a small car. The woman is Robin Anderson, and later she’s found in the road herself, first hit over the head to incapacitate her and then sliced to death with a surgical cut to the carotid artery.

Also among the dramatis personae are a classics professor at Oxford whose chief claim to fame is having discovered a previously unknown play by Euripides and having published it in his own translation, which is about to be reissued; a couple — he an optometrist and she a housewife — whose daughter Tabby (short for Tabitha) has a rare blood disease for which she needs a bone-marrow transplant; Felix Garwood, a professor at the college (who was the bicyclist run down in the opening scene) and his wife Philippa, who was Robin Anderson’s Ph.D. advisor (the official synopsis on says Robin was supposed to be an American exchange student at Oxford but that isn’t made clear in the show itself); Robin’s roommate, bartender Chloe (Jessica Henwick) — who was constantly having rows with her over Chloe inviting over her violent boyfriend Harrison Sax (the genuinely hot Michael Ryan) coming over and staying the night. Needless to say, the “new” Euripedes play turns out to be a fake, concocted by the old professor who claimed to have discovered it (much like the Chansons de Bilitis, which French writer Pierre Louÿs claimed were his translations of recently discovered poems by Sappho but were actually the work of Louÿs himself), and the episode title, “The Lions of Nemea,” refers to the reference in the play that gives it away: an anachronistic mention of two constellations named Leo, Leo Major (which was known to the ancients) and the adjacent Leo Minor (only identified in 1687). The professor himself turns out to be a con man who served a seven-year sentence for fraud involving his rare-book business and then concocted a fake set of academic references for himself, got hired as a classics professor by a small women’s college and then won an Oxford appointment on the strength of his discovery of a “new” Euripides play.

His fear of exposure at Robin’s hands makes him a prime suspect, but like a lot of shows taking place in the Inspector Morse/Inspector Lewis universe his alibi was that he was teaching a class, leading a seminar, or otherwise appearing in front of hundreds of people, all of whom can alibi him. Eventually it turns out that the disabled daughter Tabby was actually the product of a brief affair between her mother and Felix Garwood — something her (presumed) dad found out when he heard that she might be treatable if she had a brother or sister from whom they could extract genetically compatible bone marrow for a transplant, only during DNA screening to prepare for this procedure her dad finds out he’s not her real biological father. So he asks Felix to provide semen for artificial insemination, and Robin — who was also having an affair with Felix even though he’d been warned twice previously that sleeping with his students was a firing offense — agreed to provide the donor womb, but so did another student Felix was sleeping with. Anyway, the husband knocked off Robin because she was trying to blackmail them, then killed Felix (one wonders why, since with Felix no longer producing genetic material that would eliminate his one chance of saving his daughter with the new treatment) and for good measure knocked off Robin’s roommate Chloe (ya remember Robin’s roommate Chloe?) when she caught him doing in Felix. Despite the wild plotting and the absence of clarity — after the show was over Charles asked me what the killer’s motive was in doing in Robin, and damned if I could remember either — this was still a fun show, genteelly polite even in the business of murder the way British mysteries generally are. The rules of British mystery writing have changed so little since Agatha Christie ruled the roost that it’s a shock to watch a show like this and suddenly see a cell phone on screen, an indication that the story takes place in the present!