Mysteries with Oxford educations


PBS pretty much invented smarty-pants television, and it's still the best place to find shows that are both entertaining and literate, with story lines that will allow you to drop bits of fascinating knowledge about, say, Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope into any conversation. Throw in a little murder and it's the best of both worlds, and nothing mixes up the higher mind and the baser nature better than the "Inspector Lewis" series, which returns to "Masterpiece Mystery!" on Sunday night.

"Inspector Lewis" is a spinoff of the popular "Inspector Morse" series, which was based on the crime novels of Colin Dexter. Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately) originally appeared as the working-class sergeant to the rather snooty Inspector Morse as they patrolled the hallowed streets of Oxford. After Morse died, Lewis appeared in what was supposed to be a single episode, but it was so popular that a new series was born.

Lewis, now an inspector, is back in Oxford, with his own detective sergeant, James Hathaway (Laurence Fox), who, though not as arrogant as Morse, does have a tendency to quote Shakespeare a bit too often for Lewis' taste.

So not only is a viewer treated to the stately spires and cobblestone charm of Oxford, each episode inevitably imparts some bit of scholarship or other, and a pretty decent mystery too.

On Sunday, Percy Bysshe Shelley is the focus, so brush up on your knowledge of the Romantics, or clues like "Prometheus" (as in "Prometheus Unbound") will whiz right by you. Just so you know, the title of the episode -- "And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea" -- comes from Shelley's "Love's Philosophy," parts of which are repeated a few times with enduring lyricism even as the body count rises.

Far from a model student, Shelley, who was himself "sent down" from Oxford, would have no doubt approved of the episode's cast of characters, which include students who take unsuspecting tourists on a phony tour of secret Oxford in the name of art and a math tutor who gave her students assignments in bookie lingo.

But as inevitably happens, someone winds up dead -- the first victim is a janitor found shot in the basement archives, prompting Hathaway to comment that they have at last found "a body in the library" -- and then another until all sorts of plots and plans are unearthed, with smart references to Claude Monet and "Frankenstein" thrown in for good luck.

The next episode makes a U-turn into Wagner, the world of boxing and the fall of East Germany. It would be a, well, crime to say more because the beauty of "Inspector Lewis" is watching how seemingly unconnected incidents emerge as a single series of events that inevitably expose some odd subculture or other, all within the confines of the still formidable setting of Oxford.

"And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea," written by Alan Plater, is especially well-done, with a terrific main conceit, a very believable set of players and a genuine ongoing conversation about the nature of art itself.

"Inspector Lewis" provides a fine and captivating 90 minutes on a Sunday night, though at the end of it, you may find yourself doing some serious time with an Oxford Companion to poetry or music, or, more probably, Wikipedia. But just think of how smart you'll sound on Monday.



'Masterpiece Mystery!'

Where: KCET

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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