When I heard that Grantchester, PBS’ new detective series that premiered last night, was a mystery featuring a “young Vicar and a gruff inspector” in a small town outside Cambridge, I laughed out loud. To be sure, it sounded like it simply reproduced the elements of every other British mystery I’ve read or watched on PBS. And as soon as the opening credits began to roll on the first episode, showing a low riverside that was unmistakably English, my viewing companion and I turned to each other and at the same time said, “I love it already.”
Familiar elements aren’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when it comes to “cozy mysteries,” which succeed when they reassemble a set of pleasing tropes in inventive new ways. The suicide in a small town that ends up being a murder; the stolen jewelry at fancy party at a “great house;” the dysfunctional and estranged family relationships under our noses that explode into violence. Last but not least, we need the tortured sleuths (Miss Marple excepted) who try to untangle other people’s threads while theirs remain hopelessly knotted.
Set in a 1950s suburb of Cambridge, Granchester has it all, and I think I can safely say for fans of the genre, the more you watch this show, the more you’ll be enchanted.
Episode 1 slowly introduces us to the cast of characters. Sydney Chambers (James Norton), our hero, seems in the opening shot like a handsome, carefree flirt, swinging into rivers with his lady-friend -Amanda. But nothing is as it seems, even in the show’s set-ups. When he puts his clerical robes on, Sydney suddenly assumes gravity, although his delightfully cross landlady is forever scolding him for his lack of proper mien.
And later, we learn that Amanda isn’t quite his girlfriend after all. In fact, they aren’t destined to be, in ways that pain Sydney considerably (think: British class rigidity!) and drive him right to the pub, and the bottle, and thankfully for us, investigating the sordid doings of his parishioners.
The first of said sordid doings is a suicide of a solicitor, whose funeral brings gossip and scorn to the vicarage. Sydney’s sermon at the man’s funeral is gentle, assuring the family of the deceased, including his very attractive German widow, that their friend and relative still has a chance at salvation. Then, when a “special friend” of the dead man insists, through tears, that the suicide was staged and she’s sure it was murder, the plot thickens. They were planning to run away together, you see! And given that people trust Sidney, couldn’t he just ask around a little bit?
Sidney is hooked, and so are we. He makes the first of several attempts at convincing Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) that there’s foul play afoot. Keating blows him off, urging him to get back to, erm, Vicaring and such.
But Sidney, making the first of repeated urgent bicycling trips through town to alert Geordie of developments, is undaunted. There are so many suspects! The sexy widow, the rival solicitor, the mistress herself. Sidney soon finds himself using his clerical privilege to get extremely nosy with this varied crew about “the human heart” and also the human killer impulse. At first part, his interrogations work. People accept that he’s trying to offer them counseling, and few suspect him of ulterior motives. But eventually, he finds himself up against evidence and stonewalling that could stall his efforts.
Finally, Sydney feels impelled to disobey some rules of Christian living in the course of his investigation, by “borrowing” the dead man’s calendar and making some pointed insinuations in front of some possibly homicidal people, in order to find out what he needs to know. And what Sydney needs to know is [spoiler!] that the mousy secretary was the deceased’s second mistress, who off’ed her boss when he tried to end their relationship so he could run away with the first mistress. Sidney and Geordie save the day when mistress number two almost pushes mistress number one (who was the preferred mistress) in front of the 3pm express to London, or some equally fast train. I’m proud to say I fingered the correct suspect before Sydney deduced the hidden truths through looking very carefully at certain markings on the dead man’s calendar.
So that’s that. The satisfaction of a good “cozy mystery” less in its tidy resolution, but the mystery-filled process that leads us there. We’re invested in whodunnit, of course, but even more in who’s solving it. And that’s where the show shines. As the episode unfolds, we have learned that Sidney is a war veteran with scars and PTSD, and a fondness for jazz. The German widow finds him very fetching while vivacious Amanda has removed himself from romantic contention, leaving a puppy in her wake. All this deepens his pretty boy image and makes us understand why cranky Georgie has begun to take to the lad, despite his meddling ways.
Sydney also, of course, has a new knack for solving murder mysteries, and you can be sure that by the end of the episode, he and Geordie have formed an alliance of sleuthing, drinking pints, playing backgammon, and wandering through the fields alongside Grantchester wading through the “murky waters” of the village’s criminal element. If you enjoyed the premiere, stick around, because the show genuinely gets better, and most importantly, Sidney is revealed to be even more of a tortured soul, which makes his show even more gratifying to watch.