Inspector Lewis: Your Sudden Death Question on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Recap & Review

Image from Inspector Lewis: Your Sudden Death Question © 2010 MASTERPIECE

The fascinating and fatal world of quiz challenges is explored in Your Sudden Death Question, the fourth episode of Inspector Lewis Series III airing tomorrow night on Masterpiece Mystery PBS. Six teams of quizaholics have assembled for the weekend at an Oxford College to compete for cash and the honor of facing that final do or die question, unfortunately, none of them ever expected to die in the process. An ensemble cast guest staring Alan Davies as the smooth quizmaster Marcus Richards and Nicholas Farrell as manipulative Professor Charles Milner challenge DI Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whatley) and DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox) to outsmart the contestants whose brainpower is no trivial matter when it comes to murder.

RL: What do you think of quizzes?

JH: Terminally pointless. Right up there with slugs and black pudding.

It’s a bank holiday weekend, and surprisingly, Lewis and Hathaway have separate out of town social plans with their shared interest, music. Lewis is off to the Glyndebourne Festival to see an opera with a mysterious lady friend and Hathaway is off to Somerset for a World Music Festival with his own amore. All festivities come to a halt when the body of Ethan Croft (Adam James) is found floating in a fountain at Chaucer College. Lewis is still in Oxford and first on the scene. Hathaway arrives later, and in a foul mood. His cherished significant other, a 1948 Gibson L5 guitar has been nicked from the boot of his car at the music festival and he is furious.

The College is on lock-down while the contestants are assembled and interviewed individually. First up is Ethan’s quiz partner Ava Taylor (Tabitha Wady) who openly reveals that Ethan had been a brilliant Oxford scholar but now worked as a Primary school teacher. Was this because he was a drinker, a womanizer, and a showoff? Meanwhile, Hathaway interviews arrogant attorney Sebastian Anderson (Alastair Mackenzie) who with his partner Jessica Neill (Emma Cleasby) are there for a romantic getaway. He also attended Oxford at the same time as Ethan but claims to not have known him. “The world is full of people I’ve never met.” he chimes, paradoxing Ethan’s previous remark, “The world is full of people I don’t remember. ” to fellow contestant Robyn Strong (Ruth Gemmell). This is a shock to Robyn who does know Ethan very well, he is just such a playboy he does not remember that she is his ex-girlfriend. When he flirts outrageously with her partner Eve Rigby (Sally Bretton), could her plans of a failed “grand reunion with her first love” have turned to a crime passion?

Next up Lewis chats with Diane Baxter (Anna Koval), an Army Lieutenant who with her partner Sergeant Brian Kaye (Jamie Michie) just don’t’ seem to quit fit the quizaholic profile. She is quick to change the subject to their host, quizmaster Marcus Richards (Alan Davies) who she feels is “a bit too smooth for her taste.” The events of Ethan’s last night become seedier when the police pathologist Dr. Hobson reveals that Ethan had sex before he died. Prime candidates as a partner are Eve and Robyn who admit to touring the College and all its dark secrets with him, but neither accepted his invitation for a nightcap in his room. Later that day, Diane’s observation comes true when Marcus confesses to Lewis that his credentials are exaggerated and the £5,000 prize money is funded by charging the contestants and not by sponsors. Could he have killed Ethan to protect his livelihood?

No one and everyone could be the murderer. The two Oxford dons also seem dodgy. Professor Donald Terry (Timothy West) an Oxford research fellow denies knowing Ethan, students not being his primary concern, and his partner engineering Professor Charles Milner (Nicholas Farrell – Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park 1985) reveals that Ethan was a brilliant student and junior lecturer in modern languages but left Oxford under a cloud of sexual scandal. Why is he freely offering this information? And, then there are the two Oxford students, affable Alfie Wilkinson (Jack Fox) and perky Sophie Barton (Natalie Dew), suspiciously smart on a vast range of subjects.

The shocked widow Jean Croft (Susannah Doyle) confirms Ethan’s adulterous lifestyle, bitterly confessing that “there were times that I would have happily killed the guy myself.” Ironically, she does believe that in professional matters, he was an honorable man. As Lewis and Hathaway dig deeper to find out what went so terrible wrong with his academic career the trail leads to his work as a Russian interpreter on a high profile project for the government. A second murder of one of the prime suspects confirms that the killer is among them, but is this a crime of passion, revenge or a contract killing?

Your Sudden Death Question was a fun parody of the classic country house murder mysteries where a set of colorful guests, each with an incriminating secret, begin to murder each other off before the detective solves the case with a “left field twist.” The only thing missing was the final denouement where all of the remaining guests are assembled in one room and the detective dramatically exposes the killer! I will not reveal who Lewis and Hathaway cleverly discover, but I will mention two great literary references that our cerebral Sergeant Hathaway uses in the final shakedown scene. “Mccavity wasn’t there” is a line from T.S. Eliot poem, The Mystery Cat. Google it to understand the reference, and a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanity. All is vanity.” Of course our former priest in the making would quote from the bible as an allegory to the reason for the murder. If you were sharp, you might have also caught a bit of subtle foreshadowing of the killers motive by screenwriter Alan Plater, or was it director Dan Reed’s choice of symbolism? This image below is from the floor of the chapel at Chaucer College depicting a skull,  an ancient representation of vanity. Don’t ‘ya just love the stuff they throw at us?

Comedian Alan Davies was an interesting casting choice as quizmaster Marcus Richards. There is an inside British joke about it, that being a Yank, I did not catch. Davies previously played a detective on the series Jonathan Creek and is currently a panelist on the BBC quiz game QI, which is hosted by Stephen Fry. Laurence Fox’s baby brother Jack as Alfie Wilkinson, appears to be the latest Fox family member to break into acting. The Foxes seem to be in a race against the American Baldwin dynasty over how many siblings need an agent. If genetics predetermine our destiny, then I’d say he has a great chance of a long and illustrious career. And, one last word on cast regular Rebecca Front as Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent and her wardrobe. Makeover!

Next week is Falling Darkness, the final episode of the season. :-( Police pathologist Dr. Laura Hobson’s (Clare Holman) college friend is murdered and the investigation reveals some hidden secrets in Laura’s past that are very incriminating. You can watch Your Sudden Death Question online at the new PBS video web site September 20 through October 19, 2010.

Image courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE