Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys: Julia McKenzie and Stephen Dillane © 2010 MASTERPIECEThe fifth series of Miss Marple continued on Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday with a new episode, The Secret of Chimneys. I was not familiar with this Miss Marple mystery novel written by Agatha Christie in 1925, so I just sat back and let it take me by surprise. It certainly did. There was distinct difference in this episode. The script, direction and editing were a cut above the normal fare which piqued my curiosity to investigate the original novel and the production team. I do not know whose feet I should throw all the accolades at or who deserves the laurel wreath of distinction, but screenwriter Paul Rutman, director John Strickland and film editor Nick Arthur made a triple play worthy of Eric Bruntlett. This is the best Miss Marple episode I have seen so far in the new Julia McKenzie reign. Fast paced, packed full of red herrings and double takes, I was questioning each character’s motives and analyzing every possible clue to the last, and then was totally surprised by the final reveal.

Ambitious M.P. George Lomax (Adam Godley) is pressuring the Revel family on many fronts. He has given their young daughter Virginia (Charlotte Salt) a deadline to accept his marriage proposal and her father the ninth Marquis of Caterham (Edward Fox) must entertain an Austrian count Ludwig van Stainach (Anthony Higgins) at his grand, but fading, country estate Chimneys to seal a deal for iron ore that England is desperate for after the war. The guests assemble for the weekend including cousin Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie), eldest daughter Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent (Dervla Kirwan), National Trust advocate Miss Hilda Blenkinsopp (Ruth Jones) and faithful servant Miss Treadwell (Michelle Collins).

The count arrives and agrees to the deal on the condition that Chimneys be given to him in compensation. This does not sit well with anyone but Lord Caterham whose reputation and finances went south after the theft of the Mizoram diamond at a Chimneys party twenty years ago. His daughter Bundle is determined to carry on in grand decline, Miss Blenkinsopp wants the property for the National Trust and Miss Treadwell silently observes in disapproval. When the count is found shot with Virginia’s beau Anthony Cade (Jonas Armstrong) standing over him and the smoking gun near-by, scandal seems to be following the family across the generations as Miss Marple and chief inspector Fitch of Scotland Yard (Stephen Dillane) team up to investigate the murder discovering clues to the past that will unearth the deadly secret that happened at Chimneys so many years ago.

Faithful readers of the Miss Marple mysteries will be quite puzzled by this new adaptation. The original novel of the same name does not include Miss Marple at all, the plotline has been changed drastically and characters have been interchanged at random. Even the murderer is not the same. If this was a Jane Austen adaptation I would be screaming bloody murder in her defense. Having not read the original novel, I just took it for face value and loved it. Happily, Miss Christie did not write only six major novels so the offense seems less invasive to me, but short shrift for Marple book fans. Screenwriter Paul Rutman who I have admired in the past for his previous Miss Marple episode from last year, They Do it with Mirrors (2009) and two Inspector Lewis episodes, The Vanishing Point (2009) and The Great and the Good (2008) is a superb storyteller and a master at multilayered suspense. I am certain that the Marple die hards will not agree with me on that, but que sera, sera. It was a great story and ironically a cut above some of the previous episodes even though it has little Christie in it. I was thrilled to see Miss Marple do something besides observe and drop hints to the inspector on the case and enjoyed Julia McKenzie’s performance thoroughly. Finally they gave her more than one sentence of dialogue at a time.

The staid and measured performance by Stephen Dillane as Inspector Fitch was the highlight for me. He stole every scene that he appeared in because I was so intently listening and watching his every word and gesture that the other characters were secondary. If he could have his own series I would be enthralled. Virginia’s beau Anthony had me squinting in deep thought to place him before I realized it was Robin Hood without his bow and arrows. Ah, and Edward Fox as Lord Caterham. What distinction. What grace. Besides coming from the distinguished Fox acting dynasty (his brother is James Fox, nephew Laurence Fox and daughter Emilia Fox) he is a national treasure and never disappoints. As usual, the locations and costumes were superb. I want the Austin Healey that Miss Marple and Virginia arrive at Chimneys in. Ah, perchance to dream.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE