When an irascible invalid is pushed off a cliff in his wheelchair, and a priest is found dead shortly after, suspects abound – but Dalgliesh knew the priest, so his interest in the case is more than professional.
Having enjoyed last week’s opening two-parter, Shroud for a Nightingale, we were looking forward to more of Bertie Carvel as the thoughtful, poetic Detective Chief Inspector Dalgliesh.
It did occur to us to wonder, though, whether the plots might not start to look a bit cobwebby – Shroud, for instance, pretty much had to be set in the 70s, as it dealt with memories of the Second World War. But its plot has been adapted many times since, including in an episode of New Tricks about Balkan war crimes. Will other episodes of Dalgliesh, based, let’s remember, on books written in the 1960s, start to show their age?
In The Black Tower (and we like the way the opening credit graphics change to reflect the location), Dalgliesh drives his lovely E-Type Jaguar to care home Toynton Grange, located in the original book on the Dorset coast (though the series is filmed around Dublin). The local cops are a bit ‘ooh-aar’, so maybe it is meant to be Dorset.
Dalgliesh is visiting childhood friend Father Michael Baddely, but finds that the priest had died two weeks previously (in March 1975). What was the troubling matter he had asked Dalgliesh to look into? (In his house, Dalgliesh finds a copy of the comic novel The Diary of a Nobody by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith – perhaps a favourite of the directors of this episode, Belfast-born brothers Andy and Ryan Tohill (The Dig)?)
Flirty local Maggie Hewson (Mirren Mack, The Nest) gives Dalgliesh the rundown of local gossip, including news of the clifftop death two months previously of resident Victor Holroyd, and the background of the Grange’s owner Wilfred Anstey (Steven Mackintosh, reliably sinister). Anstey is eager to get rid of Dalgliesh, who of course decides to stay to investigate – oddly, no one asks why he’s so curious, and he doesn’t explain he’s a policeman until much later.
Apart from the monk-like Anstey, suspects include po-faced nurse Helen Rainer (Sally Scott), bullied caretaker Dennis (Paul Mallon), ex-Foreign Office accountant Julius Marsh, (Jonjo O’Neill) who has a Luger in a cabinet, Maggie’s shifty husband Doctor Eric Hewson (John Hollingworth) and the various residents of the care home, all of whom are wheelchair bound. It’s a weird set-up, with a handful of residents, yet a thriving cottage industry in cosmetics and a biannual pilgrimage to Lourdes, but something sinister is going on in the background.
Anstey seems to have an obsession with apocalyptic revelations and suicide – he quotes John Donne’s sermon, “My body is my prison , and I would be so obedient to the law , as not to break prison ; I would not hasten my death by starving or macerating this body …” – one of the characters pronounces the name ‘Don’ instead of ‘Dun’. Later Dalgliesh quotes Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush – a meditation on loss and the uncertainty of the future.
Dalgliesh finds typewritten poison-pen letters in Father Michael’s house. Immediately we know that the old ‘raised letter on the typewriter’ clue is going to come into play, something which would not have been feasible in a modernised version. We saw the same typewriter clue used in the first episode of Endeavour, and it was a trope of detective fiction right up to the invention of the home computer.
It’s not hard to find the typewriter, but this gives no clue as to who used it, and it turns out that several people got the letters. Listening to the other residents’ sob-stories doesn’t help either (Dalgliesh notably doesn’t raise the death of his own wife and baby). Dalgliesh stops in on the local cops who tell him they have no suspicions about either death – ‘We may not be the Sweeney, but we know how to do our job’ they say, in a pointed reference to a TV classic of the era. (Later there’s a reference to Z-Cars.) But Dalgliesh asks Sergeant Miskin (Carlyss Peer, Holby City) to do some more digging.
As Dalgliesh questions timid Dennis on the beach, they see that the Black Tower, Anstey’s favourite meditation spot, is on fire; Anstey survives, but why won’t he call the police?
Sergeant Miskin digs up some dirt on the staff, and at dinner at Julius’s, we get a bit more of his background in the diplomatic corps – he was posted to Marseilles, which as we all know is a hotbed of drug smuggling…
Then there’s another shock death as one of the residents is suffocated by a cowled figure. What secret is being covered up? Who will be the next to die? And why doesn’t Dalgliesh just call for help from the Sweeney?
Complete with a 70s soundtrack – T.Rex’s 20th Century Boy and Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love – The Black Tower has much of the same air of gloom and grief a did Shroud for a Nightingale. In fact it also has much the same set-up, with an enclosed environment and a limited circle of suspects, but we’ll give it a chance to develop in the second part.
There are plenty of red herrings in the stew – an embittered ex-actress, a frustrated gay love affair, a medical scandal, and let’s not forget Julius’s Luger – and remember Anton Checkov’s principle of drama, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE ONE REVIEW
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE TWO REVIEW