Saturday, August 28, 2010


What do you remember learning in high school? I learned, from Miss Zamow, in A.P. English, that the landscape functions as one of the characters in Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native.”

I thought of this as I reflected on how Oxford, with its “dreaming spires,” twisted lanes, and ancient pubs serves as one of the characters in the PBS Mystery series, “Inspector Lewis,” the new season of which begins Sunday, August 29. And an engaging and engrossing character it is. In the same way that the geography and architecture of Oxford form the backdrop to every scene, the idea of Oxford is in the minds and, alas, the sometimes spilt blood of the characters. (This is a detective series, after all.)

“Inspector Lewis” is a sequel to the long-running PBS Mystery series, “Inspector Morse,” which came to an end upon the death of its lead actor, John Thaw, in 2002. A good deal of the entertainment in “Morse” was the relationship between the Oxford-educated chief inspector and his long-suffering, stalwart, blue collar sergeant, Lewis; a connection that had obvious advantages when it came to producing a crime-fighting team.

The fun (if predictable) development in “Lewis” is that the casting of character is reversed, and the now-elevated Chief Inspector Lewis – still very much blue collar – is served by the young Cambridge-educated Sergeant Hathaway. Hathaway, whose elite view of things is as maddening to Lewis as his former boss’s was, is a loyal sergeant and a wealth of knowledge – knowledge that often appears at first to be useless but turns out to be exactly what is needed to break the case. (And he’s a theologian!) In a telling bit of business from last season’s final show, Hathaway recognizes a painting – by artist, date, and style – from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum; Lewis knows it from a set of coasters he has in his apartment.

I agree with the New York Times critic that the writing is “sharp.” In a recent episode, Lewis struggles with questions about Hathaway’s sexuality in a way that is understated, true to the plot, and true to Lewis’ character. I found the dialogue and character development around this issue to be at least as engaging as the mystery of the crime, which was engaging, indeed. This is, after all, a series in the grand tradition of British whodunits.

Caryl and I have spent time in Oxford, which adds to our enjoyment of these programs, but I’ve never been to Egdon Heath, and it still comes to life for me when I read Thomas Hardy. Oxford comes to life in these dramas. It is one of the characters, along with Morse, Lewis, Hathaway, and, of course, the highly-educated villain.

That's it. This is just an "appreciation," and, I guess, a recommendation. PBS or Netflix.

The “Morse” and “Lewis” series are based on the crime novels of Colin Dexter, who appears in a cameo in almost every episode.


Caryl said...

It is great fun to watch each episode and see some of the streets we walked down, pubs we sat in, churches we visited for evening vespers and college quads we strolled through. Just had a thought...let's venture to Oxford again in the near future!

Joseph G. Crippen said...

Dick, you've been to Oxford? Who knew??? :)

Joseph G. Crippen said...

I'm a fan of the Lewis series - I missed most of the Morse episodes, so probably should go back and try and see some.