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DVD Review: Midsomer Murders, Set 13

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The Midsomer series is probably best described as "cozy" mysteries, despite the fact that the the main character, Detective Chief Tom Barnaby, is a police officer, not an amateur sleuth. As with most cozies, the stories take place in a small town, focus on the relationships between characters, and eschew gritty, hard-boiled subject matter for a more pleasant take on murder.

Midsomer Murders could also be described as anti-CSI, with little sex, violence, or glitz, where mysteries are solved through understanding human nature and not fancy forensic techniques. The series, made for British Television, is inspired by the novels of Caroline Graham. Set 13 contains four feature length episodes of the series that have not been shown in the U.S. As with all of the episodes in series' twelve years, each of the crimes revolve around the sleepy villages in Midsomer county.

"Dance with the Dead" investigates the murder of a local boy, and the disappearance of his girlfriend. As the story progresses, we realize how enchanted the village is with the missing girl, and how entangled she is in the lives of the various townspeople. This includes the pervy retired photographer, the local dance instructor, the lecherous alcoholic, his wife, her friend/lover, the crazy aunt, the lonely single mother, and the local dog kennel owner. As with the best British mysteries, "Dance with the Dead" concentrates on the relationships between the characters and their central role in the murders, and the actors do an excellent job of making each role seem like a believable person.

"The Animal Within" is about the death of an old man just as his long-lost niece arrives. There's no shortage of suspects, since the deceased had a tendency to make people sole beneficiaries of his will rather than pay them outright for services. Barnaby investigates as the sins of the past catch up with people in the present, and dead bodies start to pile up.

"King's Crystal" uses the death of a co-owner of a local glassworks factory to examine freemasons, the implications of moving manufacturing overseas, and unrequited love, all juxtaposed with local theater production of Hamlet.

The final episode, "The Axeman Cometh," is about a series of murders hampering the comeback attempt of a has-been rock band that is equal parts Cream and Spinal Tap. Seventies glam rocker Suzi Quatro guests as the drunken lead singer, and the band members are clearly riffs on famous British rockers. The episode could also be titled "Barnaby Rocks Out," since he picks up an axe and jams with the lead guitarist/suspect.

The plot unfolds in a similar way with each episode: a victim is found, more bodies pile up during the investigation, suspects are uncovered and then dismissed, and finally the killer is unmasked by Barnaby, whereupon they immediately confess. It's enough to make you wonder how there is anyone left alive in the county, and if all of the judges and lawyers are out of business. All four episodes do an excellent job of keeping you guessing without throwing in any cheap red herrings, and even a mystery buff like myself couldn't guess who the real killer was until the end.

While there isn't much action in these shows (no shootouts, no car chases, and even the murders are done civilly), they are never boring. A recurring theme is the evil that lurks beneath the pleasant facade of provincial life. The aristocrats are rotten at the core, the happy families are rife with dysfunction, and the respectable businessman is cheating on his wife, who in turn has a very intimate relationship with the postman. It's all done in the spirit of exposing hypocrisy and lies; there's no maliciousness or tawdriness, and the viewer is often asked to have sympathy for even the most immoral characters. There is a pleasantness and goodnaturedness to this series, a sort of anti-noir. This is what draws viewers back, and what makes the Midsomer Murders such an engaging and successful series.

John Nettles portrays Barnaby as a kind and unfailingly polite man. He never swears, rarely loses his temper, and when he does get angry he sounds more like a father lecturing a daughter who broke curfew than a copper. Jason Hughes plays his partner, Detective Sargeant Ben Jones, who puts up with Barnaby's quirks and tries to learn all he can from the older detective. A recurring theme throughout the series is Jones's unrequited love for Barnaby's daughter Cully, a free spirit who even takes to dating a suspect in "The Axeman Cometh." Finally, there is Barnaby's wife Joyce, played by Jane Wymark, who puts up with Barnaby's love of his job, even when it encroaches on their relationship. Fans of British television will recognize the guest actors, most of whom do an excellent job.

There aren't many extras to speak of, but then there rarely are with British television DVD sets. Cast filmographies and a bio of Caroline Graham is all you'll get. Given that there is one 100-minute episode per disc, there certainly was room for some extras. At least the 16:9 widescreen looked good, the subtitles were appreciated, and the chapters are well-spaced. My biggest complaint with set 13 of Midsomer Murders is that it was over too soon. At least I have 12 other volumes to catch up on before 14 comes out.

(Photo Credit: Acorn Media)

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About Patrick Taylor

  • I have not heard of this series before, but it sounds really good! I am going to have to check it out! Great review!

  • Suanne Kelman

    I live in Toronto, where the provincial public TV network has shown just about all of the Midsomer series. This article captures its falsely pastoral appeal perfectly: it manages to present a vision of a world that is simultaneously deeply evil and yet reassuringly cosy. There’s also, as the articles points out, the joy of spotting familiar British actors. That usually takes care of plot, as well; if you recognize some ancient war horse from I, Claudius or another Masterpiece Theatre series, you’ve found the killer. The only missing element here is what I call architectual pornography: the thatched cottages and aristocratic country houses that almost become characters in their own right.