Grantchester, premiering Sunday on PBS, seems on the surface to be rather typical Masterpiece Mystery fare: Set in 1953, in a quaint village near Cambridge University, a young vicar solves murders that seem to pile up, Midsomer-style," every week.
In fact, the first of the series' six episodes fits that description almost too well, but pay attention to the details and you'll find more than enough reason to keep watching.
Sidney Chambers (James Norton), the vicar of the church at Grantchester, in Cambridgeshire, officiates at the funeral of a lawyer named Stephen Staunton. There's no question, it seems, about the manner of his death: A note stained with his own blood was found with the body. But Pamela Morton (Rachel Shelley) is certain it wasn't suicide. And she ought to know her husband's business partner's state of mind: They were having an affair.
As far as the local constabulary is concerned, the case is closed, but Chambers convinces Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green) that there's more to Staunton's death than meets the eye.
The two men quickly bond over love of good whiskey, despite Keating's initial presumption that Chambers is a teetotaling "dog collar" who knows little of life. In fact, Chambers fought in the war, is haunted by that experience, prefers whiskey, neat and in quantity, over a delicate glass of sherry any day, loves jazz, is pained by his ongoing feelings for his first love, Amanda Kendall (Morven Christie), and is not a virgin.
In the second episode, Chambers is goaded by his sister Jennifer (Fiona Button) into attending Amanda's engagement party to handsome Guy Hopkins (Tom Austen). As any fan of British mysteries must know by now, a house party inevitably leads to a murder, and this one is no exception. The victim is the nasty Lillian Calthorpe (Carolina Main) and the chief suspect is a black musician named Johnny Johnson (Ukweli Roach) who is also suspected of stealing Amanda's engagement ring and is dating Jennifer Chambers.
Episode 3 brings a guest appearance by Jean Marsh of Upstairs/Downstairs as an elderly woman opposed to her middle-aged daughter's plan to marry a man deemed a "rotten apple" by Chambers' opinionated housekeeper Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones). Daisy Livingstone (Marsh) is in a losing battle with cancer, so no one is terribly surprised when she's found dead. However, the death of Daisy's sister a few days later is another story altogether, prompting Chambers and Keating to reconsider Daisy's demise.
The plots of the three episodes sent to critics are agreeably complex and credible, and there's great fun in the interplay between Keating and Chambers.
But the real substance of the series is found in the observational details about public prejudices in the years after World War II. In the first episode, for example, Staunton's widow, Hildegard (Pheline Roggan), is suspected of her husband's murder in part because she's a "kraut," or, to some, a Nazi. When Amanda's engagement ring goes missing at the dinner party, Johnny Johnson is immediately suspected. When Leonard Finch (Al Weaver) arrives at Grantchester to become the assistant curate of the parish, Geordie immediately types him as "a pansy." "Discretion is a highly underrated virtue," Chambers responds, although he can't help smiling when Mrs. Maguire warns Finch that he will not be allowed to bring female visitors to his room.
The series is based on the novel Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, by James Runcie, who based the character, in part, on his late father, Lord Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury in the 1980s.
It's close to the eighth wonder of the world that the British can retread TV mysteries so often and still find ways to make them fresh, at least from time to time. Grantchester is a period piece, but it's fascinating to view it through a contemporary lens. Daisy Coulam's adaptation is superb: She fleshes out the main characters with a deft hand, to be sure, but takes her time, enabling us to get to know Chambers as a new acquaintance. We find him an amiable fellow at first and soon enough, we find ourselves fascinated with his complexities.