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The Loneliness of Inspector Lewis

Detective Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whatley) is missing something.
Detective Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whatley) is missing something.

There is a great void in the life of Detective Inspector Lewis. And no, it’s not Morse.

Morse, British crime writer’s Colin Dexter’s grumpy, intuitive detective, was much loved by British and American television audiences for many years. Ah, the crossword puzzles. The Mozart. The drinking. The totally wrong guesses. Morse was a great character, but he vanished with the death of John Thaw, the actor who inhabited him, and I’m fine with that, as Inspector Lewis seems to be.

The second season of the Inspector Lewis mysteries has just ended on KPBS’s “Masterpiece Mystery” series, and a third is already completed and waiting in the wings. At first I found the whole package delightful. Actor Kevin Whatley continues to make former Morse acolyte Robbie Lewis a complete and completely believable person. He’s a very good detective (he always was, though Morse never admitted it), and he’s a recent widower still grieving over the sudden loss of his wife. He has an acute nose for the absurd and the pompous, and he has his own sidekick now, the giraffe-like Detective Sergeant Hathaway (Lawrence Fox), whose educated sarcasm compliments him perfectly. So far, so charming.

But when I had slogged through three of the four episodes, rolling my eyes and peppering my husband with questions about what the heck was going on, I realized that what was missing in Inspector’s Lewis’ life was Colin Dexter himself. Although the TV credits say the stories are “based on the novels of Colin Dexter,” that’s a red herring itself. Dexter didn’t write any Inspector Lewis novels.

Dexter’s 13 Morse books were generally mysteries of murder committed because of greed, jealousy, racial hatred or something explainable in one paragraph. Once Morse and Lewis fished out the red herrings, identified the lies and set the traps, the villain was caught. The crimes and the motives were readily apparent. The plots of the Inspector Lewis series are anything but.

Here’s a description of the episode titled “Music To Die for”, which aired this month:

Ageing gay lecturer R.G. Cole is strangled after going to watch an illegal bare-knuckle boxing match. He was also due to stage a Wagner festival sponsored by South African club owner Hansie Kriel, whose daughter Sarah was literally being fought over by two of the young boxers. One of them, student Milo Hardy, is also murdered following a trip to Berlin, where Hansie plans to open a new club and from where Cole's protege Richard Helm and his mother Valli escaped during the Cold War. Robbie believes that the victims were about to identify the Stasi informant responsible for Valli's liberal husband's death over twenty years before and sends Sergeant Hathaway to Germany to prove this .

The Stasi, yet! And a Wagner festival, South African club owner, and bare-knuckle fighting club.

Another recent episode, “The Great And The Good,” starts out with a rape, progresses to a couple of murders, doubles back to a Ponzi scheme and ends up with the murderer having done it because of his daughter, who actually wasn’t his daughter. I’m not sure I can recount the plot of “Born Of Fire,” but it has something to do with a Christian cabal, the symbol of a phoenix and homosexuality. Or maybe not.

I generally admire and look forward to new “Masterpiece Mystery” episodes. But in this case, the waste of two fully realized (and absolutely adorable) characters on really bad story-telling is a crime in itself.