If the Morse-Lewis-Endeavour universe has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a never-ending supply of Oxford-related philosophers and scholars whose work can inspire murder mysteries. For “Magnum Opus,” inspiration comes from Charles Williams, a cohort of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and, with them, a member of the Inklings literary group at Oxford in the 1930s. The prolific Williams wrote poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. “Theology, supernatural novels, and he was a bit of a mystic,” D.I. Hathaway (Laurence Fox) helpfully explains to D.I. Lewis (Kevin Whately) and to us.
Williams espoused a concept he called Co-inherence, which holds, to quote one character, “that we are all spiritually connected and can, through ritual, share suffering; ease one another’s burdens.” As in Galatians 6:2 “Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” That symbolic transfer of pain or regret (or guilt) is an awfully appealing philosophy for someone carrying the weight of past suffering or mistakes (or crimes). It’s also a tantalizing main ingredient for an episode of Inspector Lewis.
Add a heaping dollop of alchemy and pinches of Edgar Allan Poe and Carl Jung. Sprinkle with some A.E. Waite, noted mystic and co-creator of the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. Fold in the requisite amount of intellectual snobbery, student high jinks, and a choice guest star or two, and you have the perfect Morse-Lewis-Endeavour concoction.
We begin with Phil Beskin (Martin Wenner) delivering a talk about Charles Williams. The audience appears uniformly receptive, save for one woman. She is, we find out soon enough, Phil’s sister Carina (Honeysuckle Weeks, better known to us as Samantha Stewart Wainwright from Foyle’s War), and she’s clearly not buying any of this Charles Williams Co-inherence jazz. Phil won’t have time to debate the subject, however. He receives an urgent text luring him to a place called Boar’s Hill, where he’s promptly clonked on the head. “Skull crushed. One fell swoop by the look,” says Dr. Hobson (Clare Holman), blunt as the murder weapon.
Now who would want to kill a seemingly innocuous devotee of a minor theologian of the early 20th century?
Short-listed as suspects for the crime are an academic rival named Wouter Eisler (Stephen Boxer) and a promising student named Nate Hedesan (Jaygann Ayeh). There are other suspicious characters as well: a tattoo artist, a local girl with wild-child tendencies, even the victim’s sister. In fact, everyone in Beskin’s world is pointedly resistant to providing the police with any useful information. We can only conclude that they all have something to hide. Collectively or separately? That’s what Lewis, Hathaway, and the intriguing but underutilized D.S. Lizzie Maddox (Angela Griffin) must determine.
“This might have something to do with alchemy,” Hathaway posits. And he’s right, natch. Beskin’s killer has left some unusual clues: maggots and a cryptic quotation torn from an old text. “And know this, that the summit of art is the raven, who flies without wings in the blackness of night and the holiness of the day” is a reference to first stage of what’s known in alchemy circles as the magnum opus, or great work. (When this episode was shown in the U.K. last year, Oxford Dictionaries online saw a sudden spike in searches for “alchemy” and “Magnum Opus.” So, we are totally on trend here.)
If the quote does relate to the nigredo, or “blackening,” stage of the alchemical process, it could indicate that there are more murders to come. Lewis, Hathaway, and Maddox do their best to limit the carnage, following trails that lead them to stately homes, libraries, boathouses, tattoo parlors, and the world’s friendliest S&M bar.
It’s always fun to see Honeysuckle Weeks, particularly in a departure from her chirpy Sam Stewart persona. Also, we seem to be easing toward the possibility of a Hathaway series (yes please!). With each episode, Hathaway and Maddox are fleshed out a bit more and Lewis takes a less active role in the day-to-day policing. (Will Dr. Hobson really take him away to Asia?!)
Writer Chris Murray, who’s also written for DCI Banks, New Tricks, EastEnders, and Agatha Raisin, gives us lots of the scholarly allusions we crave from Morse-Lewis-Endeavour. Never mind about plausibility. Departure from reality has always been part of the plot.
“You’re telling me Phil Beskin’s murder might be the first stage in some warped spiritual process that might play out in four stages,” says the boss, Chief Superintendent Joe Moody (Steve Toussaint). “It sounds vague and nebulous to me.”
“Well, this is Oxford, Sir,” Hathaway reminds him.
As if we’d ever forget.
Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.