Reviewed by Michael Shonk

QUEENS OF MYSTERY. Acorn original TV series, available on Acorn streaming, April 2019. Sly Fox Production for Acorn Media Enterprises, produced in association with Ferncroft Media Limited. Cast: Olivia Vinall as Detective Sergeant Matilda Stone, Julie Graham as Cat Stone, Sarah Woodward as Beth Stone, Siobhan Redmond as Jane Stone, Martin Trenaman as Inspector Derek Thorne, Michael Elcock as P.C. Terry Foster, Andrew Leung as Daniel Lynch, and with the Voice of Juliet Stevenson. Created and Executive Produced by Julian Unthank. Produced by Linda James and Tim Vaughan.

   It is difficult to watch the opening of new British TV mystery series Queens of Mystery without thinking of one word – whimsical. With visions of Pushing Daisies dancing like sugar plums in my head I settled back and enjoyed this light contemporary murder mystery.

   Matilda Stone returns to Wildemarsh, the countryside village she grew up in and a place of many mysteries. Newly promoted to Detective Sergeant, Mattie is eager to reunite with her three mystery writing Aunts who raised her and to finally solve the mystery of her mother Eleanor Stone’s disappearance.

   As required in all typical British traditional TV mysteries Wildemarsh is a small village with beautiful scenery, odd characters and more than its share of murders. For whatever reason the citizens of Wildemarsh has a strong interest in Edgar Allan Poe. Perhaps that is why there is a raven that often appears during important moments in the stories. It is certain the raven is not telling all it knows.

   What makes Queens of Mystery so much fun is how it uses the tropes of the British TV traditional murder mystery and gives them a dry humorous twist.

   The use of the narrator is clever, adding a fairy tale feel to the stories. The series uses the narrator to go beyond just wittily adding exposition but to expose the secrets of the characters and town.

   Mattie’s boss is Inspector Thorne, a stereotype boss – rude, impossible to please, cold middle aged man. But whenever he is gruffly assigning Mattie the case, the narrator stops action and has the Inspector express his real sensitive and hidden feelings. In episode “Murder in the Dark” we learn the Inspector has been secretly in love with Aunt Jane and lives in fear he will say the wrong thing and ruin it all, but then we return to the scene where we hear what the Inspector decides to say instead – Mattie is to keep her meddling Aunts away.

   The fanciful style of the series works well with the traditional mystery genre that can normally push the limits of believability. Queens of Mystery playfully embraces the cliches of the form of mystery that has entertained readers and viewers for decades.

   In Murder in the Dark,” Beth is in jail on suspicion of murder. Her sisters Cat and Jane want to see her. P.C. Foster refuses to let them in. Jane hands him her phone. It is the Aunt’s friend and the Constable’s mother demanding her son let Cat and Jane in to see Beth,

   The plots are ancient and tired, something Queens of Mystery uses to its advantage. Scripts by creator and executive producer Julian Unthank as well as Matthew Stone offer a different spin on the expected tropes. While the writers have their fun with in-jokes and literary puns hiding in the background, the writing treats the genre with respect and never falls to parody. The mysteries are as full of clues and challenging mysteries as any episode of Midsomer Murders.

   Casting is hit and miss, but most of the regulars do well as their characters. Each of the three middle-aged Aunts is unique. Having spent their lives in the quaint village they know everyone, who to ask when they need help, and all the secrets of the village – including what happened to Mattie’s mother (and before that what happened to her father).

   Oddly the three women spend a great amount of effort and will do anything to prevent Mattie from discovering the answers to the mystery that still haunts her. They especially try to hide any mention of a long gone serial cat burglar named The Raven.

   Aunt Beth is the best cook, former midwife and most popular author of the three. Beth’s detective is intercity Reverend Iris Freeman. Tough, Aunt (“don’t call me Aunt”) Cat lives above an auto repair shop and ride a motorcycle. A former rock musician she does graphic novels featuring a kickass music industry femme fatale named Roxanne Parker. Smart, Aunt Jane owns a bookstore named Murder Ink and writes police novels featuring Henry Lambert iDI, an android police detective.

   Mattie is a shy single woman of 28, obsessed with mysteries, especially the one of her Mother’s disappearance. She is a good cop, from spotting clues to possessing the plodding determination of every good TV procedural cop.

   Another running theme of the series is “Love Hurts.” P.C. Foster has had a crush on Mattie since their school days. Mattie is oblivious to this. The Inspector has loved Aunt Jane secretly for 25 years. Aunt Jane was once left at the altar. Cat has a estrange daughter from a one night drunken fling that cost Cat her true love. Beth’s husband Doctor Robert Doyle died three years ago. Mattie has lost her parents.

   Mattie has fallen in love with the local Coroner Dr. Daniel Lynch who has a girlfriend. The Aunts keep setting Mattie up with bachelors while Mattie pines for the unavailable Daniel. This takes a predictable romantically tragic twist at the end of the final first season episode.

   This is just the damage love does to the regular cast. Love is just as cruel to the suspects and victims of the mysteries. It is the motive for murder in two cases and a weapon used in a third.

   The series featured three episodes each broken up in two parts of 45 minute each.

“Murder in the Dark” – Written by Julian Unthank – Directed by Ian Emes. – Guest Cast: David Bamber, Selina Cadell, Nancy Carroll and Chloe King. *** Murder at a book awards with many of the usual suspects but with a nice twist for the killer’s motive.

   Here is a video of director Ian Emes explaining how he used storyboarding to help him direct episode “Mirder in the Dark.”

“Death by Vinyl” – Written by Matthew Thomas – Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone – Guest Cast: Josette Simon, Michelle Collins, Con O’Neill and Bob Goody/ *** Cat’s old rock band Volcanic Youth from the 1980s decide to get back together, but a secret from the past leads to murder.

“Smoke & Mirrors” – Written by Justin Unthank – Directed by Ian Emes – Guest Cast: Ken Bones, Rebecca Scroggs, Carmen Du Sautoy and George Irving. *** One of Jane’s novels has been adapted for the stage and scheduled to debut at the local theatre, but the rehearsals are plagued with problems. However great thespian of the past and in his own mind Sir Lawrence Shaw believes the play “Macbeth Duality” will return him to fame.

   Modern British TV drama is getting darker and darker with series such as Luther, London Kills, Blood, Elizabeth Is Missing, and on and on. Reacting to the trend Julian Unthank decided to create a light mystery series. Queens of Mystery was originally to be about the three middle-aged sisters solving crimes but when Mattie was added the series came together.

   Some will compare Queens of Mystery to Agatha Raisin as they both belong to a very small group of new TV that is light-hearted mysteries. I found Queens of Mystery one of the best of this genre. Its is more witty and clever than Agatha Raisin. Agatha is more a comedy aiming for laughs (and not always succeeding).

   Queens of Mystery is an Acorn original and available only on Acorn’s streaming service. The DVD will be released in September 2019.

   There has been no official announcement about a possible second season, but hopefully there will be one.