Not only lauded but also honoured (with the George Medal) at the end of the last series, E. Morse is now a fixture in the new Thames Valley constabulary – but as we move into the late 60s, what political shenanigans and social revolutions will now complicate the detective’s cosy murder investigations?
It’s 1st April 1968, and Morse is now a Detective Sergeant and lodging with Strange, though his position in the reorganised nick is hardly secure. He’s investigating a handbag snatching, but there’s more skulduggery going on, including the auction of a Faberge egg, that old cliche of caper movies, and a shooting in a taxi.
The dead taxi driver is a boxer, Sikes, and to add insult to injury he has a metal spike driven into his ear. The egg is being auctioned in Morse’s old college, Lonsdale, so he has to confront his old masters. Jokes about Simon Templar (The Saint), the Pink Panther (the Lugash Diamond), heist classic Topkapi (the Golden Dagger of Sultan Mahmud) and an art art thief known as The Shadow abound.
Joan Thursday (Sarah Vickers) is back in town, her dalliance in exotic Leamington evidently having come to a sticky end, but there seems no prospect of her resuming any relationship with Morse, or indeed her dad Fred.
Morse meets old sparring partner Dorothea Frazil (Abigail Thaw) and new boy Constable George Fancy (Lewis Peek), who turns out to be a ghastly sexist, who soon offends WPC Trewlove. Investigating Sikes, they find contact magazines (remember them, from the days before Tinder?), which also seem to be the vice of Lonsdale’s Dr Grey (Roger Barclay). The magazines use a message service, at which works a Ruth Astor (Antonia Clarke), who puts in such a brief appearance that she must be significant.
When Dr Grey is found dead, stabbed in the eyes, there seems to be a link with a mysterious life model Evie – or is his randy wife Lucy (Emily Barber) to blame?
Morse questions Grey’s colleague Lake (Tom Durant-Pritchard), who did his national Service with Grey in Altdorf (this must be significant – Altdorf was the birthplace of William Tell). He also questions obnoxious artist Pickman and his wife Cassie (Nathalie Buscombe). Pickman makes jokes about David Hockney and puts Morse onto life model Evie (Charlotte Hope) (incidentally, ‘Pickman’s Model’ is a short horror story by HP Lovecraft, but that can hardly be relevant here).
Another lead is entertainments manager Lefty (Geoffrey McGivern), who used to work for ‘Lou and Leslie’ (presumably the Grade brothers). He puts them onto stripper Delilah, who turns out to be none other than life model Evie. She had slept with Grey and used Sikes’ taxi, so she’s the only link between the two dead men.
Then art dealer Lake is found decapitated, the Faberge egg missing, and a red rose left at the scene, the trademark of the Shadow. What can the link be, and could a woman have committed all three murders?
Evie seems the obvious suspect – too obvious. Perhaps it’s one of the many men who are infatuated with her, artist Pickman perhaps. But his involvement seems to suggest that the Faberge egg is a fake.
Morse listens to Verdi’s La Traviata – the story of a prostitute’s doomed love affair – while trying to make sense of Evie’s involvement – and figures there’s some connection with a flying club. Lake’s glider (a Schleicher KA6, correct for the period, as the type first flew in 1955) contains a black balaclava – so was Lake the mysterious Shadow?
Fred Thursday makes a link between the dead men and a decadent dining society, the Berserkers (the modern equivalent would be the Bullingdon Club). But what’s the connection with artist Pickman and his national service?
Under Morse’s questioning, Pickman’s wife admits that the provenance of the egg is faked, and there was a conspiracy to steal it and claim the insurance. But who did the killings, and where is the egg? Fred questions another member of the Berserkers, the foppish Croxley, giving him a terrific Thursday-style tongue-lashing, and he points them to the Shiplake Chase hotel, which ties in with evidence found at the murder scenes.
The manager of the Shiplake recounts tales of the Berserkers’ terrible debauchery, including something unspeakable done to a pig’s head – David Cameron, are you paying attention? – and Fred nicks crime boss Eddie Nero, figuring he’s in charge of a call-girl ring which supplied girls to the event.
Evie confesses to Morse that she was abused (we’re meant to assume by the Berserkers), so is this her motive for knocking them off – and if so, how was Sikes involved? More likely the victim was Miss Astor, who then worked at the Shiplake. Fred makes the connection as Morse works on the Christian allegorical theme of the murders.
Together they figure out that Croxley – who likes dressing up as a woman – is the last victim on the list, and that Ruth Astor, then a call-girl working for Nero and Sikes, is the killer. They’re too late to save Croxley, or Ruth, who kills herself – but how much did Eve know? Not enough to charge her, certainly.
Fred has the last word, a homily about wanting what you can’t have (very much what Evie accused Morse of), and in a coda, we hear that Martin Luther King has been assassinated – doesn’t seem particularly relevant, but it’s this week’s historical footnote.
Not a bad start to the season then, with an increasingly grumpy and irascible Morse taking on more and more of the characteristics of his older self, a more energetic Fred getting a fair crack of the whip, and the plot incorporating the usual mixture of red herrings, cultural and historical references, and bloody murders, none of which Morse succeeds in stopping. It’s a wonder there’s anyone left alive Oxford by the 70s.
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