The characters have settled in for series 5 with a slower, less edgy second episode. The story begins in a classic theater showing old mummy thrillers featuring Emil Vandemar, the fictional third star in a trifecta of horror masters (together with Karloff and Lugosi). Vandemar is preparing to show his new film, The Pharoah's Curse, also starring Jason Curwin, Veronique Carlton, and directed by Zoltan Xarkoff.
The next day, theatergoer Ronald Beavis is found dead in his bed in Jericho. He died due to strychnine poisoning from an orange squash. Beavis was a former sergeant for the Oxford City Police, but he'd recently been working in a museum of antiquities. His Egyptian co-worker, Dr. Moharram Shoukry, spends most of the episode bitter about culture appropriated from his home country, be it artifacts or cheesy movies. (My impression is that he's a bit of a stereotype - the mystical foreigner who asks questions about "the after life" and says self-importantly that he "speaks for the dead.")
Among the characters at the theater are Betty Perske, a popcorn girl (who shares Lauren Bacall's real name), Leslie Garnier, the flamboyant organist, Kenneth Bullings, a younger employee, his grandad the projectionist, Lambert Kegworth, the one-armed doorman, Commissionaire Edmund Gordon, and Armand De Vere, the theater manager who wishes the owners would sell.
The story sees the return of Eddie Nero, the crook that Thursday tried to slap with procurement charges last week. He's still a slimeball. I was surprised to find he's returning as a regular character. Is this one of the season's themes? Thursday's ongoing battle against Oxford Organized Crime?
Kenyon Asian families receive petrol bombs through their letterbox and then later, a brick through a window at a public advice center where Joan Thursday works. Combined with Shoukry's complaints about imperialism, it seems like the episode is going to have a racism theme, but instead this turns out to be a red herring. We don't escape a moral-of-the-story moment, though as Thursday and Bright's private musings about racism, nativism, and the future of the country drag on just long enough to feel preachy ("Making Britain Greater" feels like a rather clumsy reference to Donald Trump).
One of Eddie Nero's men, Liam Flynn, is operating a protection racket, squeezing cash out of a storeowner father and his daughter, Guilia Gallo. He's later stabbed to death in the street. "I didn't know better," Thursday tells Nero, "sounds like someone's trying to turn you over."
All of this is happening as our main cast are dealing with their own troubles. There's a sitcommy aspect to Adventures With the Thursday Extended Family, as Morse jumps in bed with Joan's cousin, Carol (keep it in the family, eh?), Fred is constantly embarrassed by his gauche, hard-up brother, Charlie ("What'll you have, Reg?" "Reginald."), and Strange calls Joan "Joanie" and Joan calls Strange "Jim" which is Pretty Familiar Don't You Think?? (Flashback to the time I played with the ridiculous fan theory of Joan Strange).
Cartouche isn't the greatest effort. It plods along, and parts of it don't pay off. There are some good guest performances (Donald Sumpter is always terrific - check him out in Poirot's ABC Murders), but nothing really special. The Thursday family subplot doesn't feel like it adds anything to the story. Coincidental plot devices abound. We need another scene with Joan? Someone throws a petrol bomb through the window of the place she works. We need Morse and Thursday to find out about the history of the theater? They go down that unconnected line of inquiry just because. Maybe those coincidences will tighten up as we learn more about Eddie Nero, but otherwise they just feel like a whole lot of foreshadowing for a future episode has ended up as padding here.
That said, it does have its charms. The scenes between Thursday and Joan remain smartly written, as two proud, stubborn, too-much-alike characters try and relate to one another. Everything with Jim Strange is terrific. While the Carol-and-Morse plot is a little lazy, it's not awful. Still, here's hoping for better next week.
My review of next week's episode: Passenger.
- Thursday going on about Laurel and Hardy is delightful - he's really quite cheerful this season.
- Is Fancy/Trewlove gonna happen? I could ship it.
- Joan/Strange? Definitely shipping it in a this-can't-possibly-work-but-I-want-to-see-Russell-Lewis-try kind of way. After all, there was always an unseen Mrs. Strange in Inspector Morse.
- How many times have we had poor Oxford detectives dragged out of burning buildings? At least twice before. Some random extra policeman pulls Morse out of his burning flat in Masonic Mysteries, and Lewis drags a comatose Hathaway out of the murderer's burning flat in Life Born of Fire.
If you enjoyed this article, check out my full list of detective reviews.
If you want to keep up with great TV mysteries, follow my detective news site Murder! 'Orrible Murder! on Tumblr, Twitter, or Facebook.