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Sunday, September 11, 2011

MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 18 -- DVD review by porfle

Having recently reviewed the previous set in this DVD series from Acorn Media, I knew what to expect with MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 18.  Which, I suppose, is one of the charms of this calm, unhurried, not very action-packed detective series--it's like slipping into a pair of comfortable shoes and taking a relaxing walk down a familiar path. 

One of those comfortable shoes is Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), a former MI6 agent spending his later years solving homicides in pastoral Midsomer County.  Barnaby is sharp, straightforward, and keenly intelligent, with a very dry sense of humor and a slow-but-sure methodical approach to crime-solving.  You won't see him taking part in car chases, shoot-outs, or fistfights, because such things rarely occur in the sleepy English villages that are his beat.  And for a detective who'd rather spend his days off relaxing in front of the telly with his wife Joyce (Jane Wymark), that's just fine.

What does occur in these modest villages with disturbing regularity is homicide of the most peculiar kind.  In the first feature-length episode, "Small Mercies", the elderly caretaker of a tourist attraction composed of small scale models of buildings and people--an entire rural community in miniature--discovers the body of a murdered man trussed up exactly like Gulliver.  As usual for this series, the shocking nature of the crime, shown in mildly graphic terms, is in sharp contrast to the everyday surroundings in which it occurs.

Suspects include a variety of eccentrics with motives for murder, making this one of the more interesting stories in the set.  In fact, the sight of the old caretaker making his way through the tiny village like a giant would've fit quite comfortably on that classic cavalcade of British eccentricity, "The Avengers" with Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg.  Later, the community holds its annual boat race (during which another shocking murder is committed with a trident) complete with fanciful costumes and nutty makeshift boats.  Watching with his wife, Barnaby surmises that the British love to dress up because they're so boring the rest of the time.  To each other, perhaps, but to us there's always something interesting about these odd and rather isolated rural characters.

"The Creeper", a title that harkens back to the days when Rondo Hatton stalked the screen, takes place a bit closer to home with a black-garbed cat burglar causing a local panic.  Even Barnaby's boss the Chief Constable is victimized despite his home security system, and later Barnaby himself finds evidence of the Creeper's presence in his home.  Is there a connection between this and his investigation of a murder which took place in the mansion of a cash-strapped baronet and his family? 

A "Wuthering Heights"-style disparity between him and the wealthier tenant who now rents the baronet's former estate brings both families into the mix in unexpected ways.  The identity of The Creeper is easily figured out--I did, so it must be easy--but the reasons for the nocturnal activities of this character lead to other puzzles and other murders (including a shotgun blast to the face).  "The Creeper" is a somewhat intriguing mystery, but, all in all, it's dryer and less involving than other stories in the series and I had a hard time keeping all the characters and plot points straight due to lagging interest.  It's good, but comparatively a bit drab.  Jenny Agutter guest stars.

"The Great and the Good" gets back on track with another village and another series of strange homicides.  This time a young schoolteacher keeps hearing intruders in her house and screaming for help in the middle of the night, a "cry wolf" scenario that we know will lead to murder despite her neighbors' dubious attitudes.  When a local civic leader is found stabbed to death on her property, the teacher, in a strange twist, begins to suspect herself as the sleepwalking culprit.  Another grisly murder in her guest house seems to confirm this, but Barnaby isn't so sure and, naturally, neither are we.

This episode benefits not only from a baffling mystery but also from the little dramas going on between the village inhabitants, including the social-climbing wife of a local tycoon who's blithely alienating all her less prominent friends in a quest to draw a higher class of people to their annual charity auction.  This, along with the schoolteacher's romantic entanglements and a surprising conclusion which brings all the various plot points together, makes "The Great and the Good" one of the series' more absorbing mysteries.

The 3-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen Dolby Digital stereo and English subtitles.  Each disc contains one separate episode (approx. 100 minutes each) and comes in its own slimline case.  Also included is an interview with Jason Hughes, who plays Barnaby's assistant Detective Sergeant Ben Jones.

Fans of a more action-oriented brand of detective yarn will no doubt find these leisurely murder mysteries to be somewhat less than exciting.  But if you're already a "Midsomer Murders" fan, MIDSOMER MURDERS: SET 18 will be yet another relaxing stroll down a familiar path in those old comfortable shoes.

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