The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley Circle debuts tonight at 10 p.m. on PBS.

There’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned British mystery. We do mysteries here in the States, but they’re not quite the same—our tendency is push mysteries into crime, or national security, or to pull the punches back a little, and make them quirky comedies. British restraint turns its mystery stories into surprisingly interior mazes that use the substantial British bureaucracy to build mysteries out of railways, enmeshed streets, and minor government ministers. Almost all of our best mystery stories come from across the pond—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and its brilliant adaptation, Sherlock; Agatha Christie’s many, many novels, including the detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot; more recently, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes spun a gorgeous mystery in the film Gosford Park. There’s something in the water over there, and when you’re in the mood for a country murder, nothing else will quite do.

The Bletchley Circle, airing over the next three weeks on PBS, offers a variation on a theme—a pleasant one, and gripping if the British mystery works for you. The ITV series is not nearly as sexy as BBC’s Sherlock—it hearkens to an earlier era, as it’s set in 1952—but it has its own gripping, quiet drama. It’s also surprisingly feminine in subject matter—bringing the perspective of four women to a case where young women are the primary targets, brutally murdered and then raped all over London.

Above all, Bletchley Circle manages to grasp that most important caveat of the mystery story—that the puzzle-solver be a character with their own mystery; a character who solves the mystery by examining their own reflection. In this case, the puzzle-solver is Susan Gray, former codebreaker for British intelligence, now an unassuming housewife in a suburb of London. Almost despite herself she starts noticing a pattern in the girls’ murders; she starts reminiscing of a time when she used to be useful to the country. And it’s not just that she’s bored—she was also very good at what she did. She and her codebreaking team were a formidable force during the war—her mathematics, combined with Lucy’s photographic memory, Jean’s government connections, and Millie’s general chutzpah and verve.

What sparks Susan—and then, slowly, the rest of the women, whom she awakes from hibernation—is that a great injustice is being done. These women are “just like them,” and they’re dying without a voice, without a champion. The lens of the mystery requires the characters to confront the status of their own femininity, even as they try to unravel the pattern of a murderer who targets women, and only women.

But despite their engagement with the story—which is believable, thanks largely to Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays Susan—the characters’ arcs are quite predictable. As soon as we glimpse each woman toiling at her thankless, mind-numbing post-war job, it’s clearly just a matter of time before Susan reunites the band and uses the impetus of an unsolved string of murders to get each of the women’s lives a bit more on-track. It’s kind of like the Babysitters’ Club meets Miss Marple. There are the lovely English housewife details, where Susan manages her family’s finances and cooks dinner during the day, then stakes out a railway line and breaks code after the others have gone to bed. But there’s also the satisfying camaraderie of an ensemble cast—the four women, each with their own strengths, who can only create Captain Planet when their powers combine. Add to that espirit du corps a satisfying good-vs.-evil dynamic and everything about Bletchley Circle feels good. The sense of justice spreads beyond the murders; it empowers the women to make necessary changes in their lives—this being 1952, Susan is stuck being a bored housewife, Lucy feels trapped in an abusive marriage, and Millie has a lecherous boss. Each woman comes to her own separate peace. It’s probably a little too saccharine. The resolution to the mystery feels a tad too pat; the concluding tone is a skosh too lighthearted for women struggling with the reality of gender roles in the 1950s.

Bletchley Circle’s strengths don’t lie with the mystery, either. The murderer himself is absurdly clever, luring an ever-wider net of victims into his web. The crime keeps morphing and expanding in scope as the hours wear on, and towards the end it’s easier not to fixate too much on the details of the case—which are definitely intercut into the narrative with montages of Susan doing obscure mathematics on notebook paper—and instead watch the characters spin their superhero magic. Unlike its more exalted fellow British mysteries, Bletchley Circle is not one of those sharp, tidy stories where an astute reader could solve the mystery right from the start. The twists keep getting a bit more coincidental; especially in the last hour.

Which is to say that Bletchley Circle is a certain kind of story—it’s a mystery story made for a certain audience that’s interested in a domestic women’s drama—and it is not interested in breaking out of that mold. The nuts and bolts of the mystery are par for the course; the production values and acting are stellar, but of the level that we’ve come to expect from British imports piped into PBS. The mold is somewhat formulaic, so at times that does detract from the overall emotional impact of the story. But within the constraints of the three-part mystery miniseries, Bletchley Circle is extraordinary. The depth it brings to its characters is remarkable; the struggle between the four codebreakers and the shadowy serial killer is a struggle between present lives and past lives, between having a secret past and living entirely in the past. It scans like a very well-written genre novel. Fans of the genre should find it immensely satisfying, but it’s not different enough to really break out of its mold.

What moves Bletchley Circle from good to remarkable is how the struggle between the women and the serial killer are a sort of stand-in for Britain’s struggle in moving from a deadly past to an uncertain future in the decade following World War II. London is limping its way back to something resembling normal, but everyone lost something in the war. Goods are still rationed, and there are many wounds as yet unaccounted for. The women who are our protagonists are all struggling with the present, and facing a limited future—one where their considerable skills are entirely overlooked due to their gender and economic reality. As they uncover their murderer, they discover a man who is lost in a twisted vision of the past, and kills to bring it back. Without revealing too much, the essential question of the murders comes down to the characters trying to break free of the world that the war created, and honestly, there are a few moments towards the end when you begin to realize why someone would be afraid of moving on. Some horror cannot quite be forgotten. The mystery folds in upon itself, trapping Susan and the nameless murderer into a pattern that only she can read, that only he can write. It’s too fatalistic, too perfect to be a realistic mystery, but there’s still something deeply satisfying about the thematic resonance.

It’s a delicious sort of domestic mystery that we don’t see enough of anymore, now that Jessica Fletcher put aside her typewriter, and if this genre is your cup of tea, then Bletchley Circle will work for you. If the miniseries has flaws, it is that the story touches on too much without resolving enough. But Susan, Millie, Lucy, and Jean could very well take on another case now that they’ve found one another again—which would be a wonderful way of continuing to take on these rather fascinating issues of identity and gender.

Stray observations:

  • I’ve liked Anna Maxwell Smith in her bit appearances for years now—especially in BBC’s North And South. Happy to see her carrying the first bill for once.
  • Okay, seriously, is Lucy’s insane photographic memory really possible?! She can read an entire railway timetable and can just straight-up memorize it in the story. This is a real thing people can do?
  • Also, the actress who plays Lucy, Sophie Rundle, looks an awful lot like a British version of Kristen Stewart.

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