The Only Way Out
Elizabeth George’s books, like earlier, classic British crime novels, focus on an aristocratic protagonist, Thomas Lynley, eighth Earl of Asherton. But where Dorothy Sayers’ foppish Lord Peter Wimsey and Marjorie Allingham’s enigmatic Albert Campion made the previously working-class business of sleuthing acceptable for middle-class readers, Lynley is more atavistic. George’s protagonist, imbued with a romantic noblesse oblige, often seems less reflective of contemporary Britain and much more reflective of an American author’s mythic vision of social class.
Prudently, the producers and writers of television’s Lynley mysteries have minimized the novels’ working aristo shtick and eliminated the subsidiary story of Lynley’s friend, the Honorable Simon, and his tortured relationship with his butler’s daughter. Instead, they have concentrated on George’s subtle, cerebral plotting, her insight into human fallibilities and relationships, and her memorably claustrophobic locations—where murder might seem the only way out.
Airing on August 10 and 17 on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery, the final two episodes of the series showcase both the best and the worst of televised crime drama. “Limbo” opens on Lynley (Nathaniel Parker) drinking himself into oblivion while on compassionate leave, six months after the fatal shooting of his wife. Not even his long-suffering partner, Havers (Sharon Small) can penetrate his isolation. Only the discovery of the body of Oliver Oborne (Nicholas Small), missing for 15 years and the son of Lynley’s now-distant friends, Sam (Nicholas Farrell) and Vivian (Samantha Bond), jolts him temporarily into cognizance. Through Lynley’s attempts to help the family, screenwriter Ed Whitmore slowly sculpts a vivid portrait of a person so impaired by despair that his lapses of judgment, ill-thought out decisions, and inability to control his emotions render him the prime suspect in not one but two subsequent murders.
While not even a casual watcher would imagine the inspector guilty, the solution to the crimes requires Lynley and Havers to excavate exactly how one good act can precipitate disaster upon disaster just as thoroughly as malfeasance can. Director Robert Bierman matches the somber story with a chilly, washed-out palette, and a command of framing and camera movement, especially once he dispenses with the early touristy shots of Rome and London. Aside from Parker, who never brings more than a reluctant animation to his rendition of Lynley, this BBC/WGBH co-production assembles a first-rate cast, including the lugubrious Nicholas Farrell as a grieving father, and John Shrapnel and Ed Stoppard as the policeman father and lawyer son around whom the story increasingly tightens.
The satisfactions of “Limbo” render all the more puzzling the slack plotting and disjointed characters of the final episode, “Know Thine Enemy.” While most viewers understand the protagonist-and-sidekick route to investigating murder adopted in the Lynley mysteries (and many others) bears little relationship to real-life murder inquiries, it can intensify emotional authenticity. “Know Thine Enemy” abandons this format, recasting Lynley as Olympian leader, commanding a team of investigators, of whom Havers is only one. Lynley is always right. Havers is gullible, misled, and easily disciplined. Interrogation, not investigation, leads to the denouement.
Whitmore’s script compounds these problems with yet another shift, from the classic “who done it” to a more leisurely “why and how done it.” As Prime Suspect has shown, the early identification of a culprit need not lead to bland storytelling. Robbed of the quest for the culprit, in this case the serial killer of young women, the script has to develop new sources of tension and uncertainty, such as crises on the investigative team, or pressure from superiors for results. Here, however, such alternative plot-twisters quickly fizzle out. Most of these potential conflicts—as when DC Nkata (Shaun Parkes) inadvertently leaks details of the crime to the press or the Assistant Commissioner (Michael Feast) attempts to cut costs on the investigation—feel more like script padding than threat.
As if these shortcomings were not burden enough for the series’ finale, director Graham Theakston shoots the entire film as if he were a tyro director who had just finished a crash course in chiaroscuro and film noir. No window is complete unless it casts its dramatic shadow across a hallway. No room is complete without its pools of impenetrable obscurity.
This visual treatment often isolates Lynley in the light, a position of prominence accentuated by high and low shots that emphasize his distance from his colleagues, and especially Havers, his partner. It thus exposes more clearly than in any other episode the limitations of the Lynley series as Elizabeth George envisioned it in her books. The unbridgeable social and cultural gulf George insists exists between Lynley and Havers has seriously limited the development of both characters—on TV as well as in the novels. She’s left consistently under his control or dependent upon his favor for her continued employment. Such old-fashioned exercise of patronage supports George’s idealistic vision of the British upper classes as the last bastions of decency against an encroaching barbaric proletariat, a theme accentuated in her more recent Lynley novels.
While this regressive nostalgia props up a lot of contemporary TV drama, particularly on PBS, it also reduces the complexities of citizenship in the 21st century to dangerous binaries of “us” and “them.” Perhaps, then, the departure of Lynley in so inept an episode is fitting: without plot or conflict, he appears most fully as George’s aristocratic cliché, surviving out of time and place, beloved of no one except his besotted creator.