“The Nursing Home Murder” is the second episode of the first season of the BBC’s “Inspector Alleyn Mysteries” (1993), starring Patrick Malahide as Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn and based on the novels by Ngaio Marsh. You can read my synopsis of the first episode, “A Man Lay Dead”, in an earlier blog post.
A Residential Raid on a Sunny Day
The action opens with some unusual activity on a residential street; children playing are mysteriously whisked out of sight and a bug-eyed, bespectacled man, detecting signs of something amiss as he peers outside, climbs out the back window of a house and runs away. The other occupants of the house, who had been busily engaged with activities involving papers and listening to a radio broadcast in German, hastily attempt to conceal evidence of what they were doing. Papers are thrown into the fireplace and the men also attempt to escape, but are trapped by the timely entry of the police, including a familiar face, Inspector Fox (William Simons). There’s a scuffle as the men are arrested and a gun is fired, but no one’s injured. Fox is also quick-witted enough to douse the burning papers with coffee before they’re entirely consumed, thus preserving a small scrap of evidence which he immediately turns over to Alleyn. The scrap has a single legible name on it, that of Sir Derek O’Callaghan.
We next see a white-haired gentleman, who turns out to be British Home Secretary Sir Derek O’Callaghan (John Stride), on his way into a meeting in the House of Commons. It’s very evident that Sir Derek isn’t feeling at all well, to the point of great physical pain, and he tucks an envelope of herbal medicine (fulvitavolts, whatever that is) into his pocket before the meeting. Even so, he experiences severe stomach pains before the meeting has even begun and doses himself with the powder to relieve his agony. We learn that Sir Derek’s life has been threatened as a result of his stance on Palestine, and that the Prime Minister (Geoffrey Wilkinson) has asked Alleyn to look into the matter.
Meanwhile, Back at the Yard…
Back at Scotland Yard, Alleyn is extremely disappointed to have recovered only one measly Walther PPK from the raid – he was expecting a weapons cache – thus giving him a rather flimsy pretext to hold the three men who were arrested. Alleyn interrogates the ringleader, Aaron Blautwicz (John Bennett), about the gun, but isn’t too successful. He’s sneered at for using “half the police force in London…to find one little gun” but he does learn that Blautwicz obtained the gun in the course of being liberated from Auschwitz. However, Blautwicz denies any connection to Sir Derek and further stymies Alleyn by demanding to see a solicitor.
We next see Sir Derek breaking up with his young, pretty mistress in a restaurant (very classy) while being watched through the window by a mysterious, armed man. The break-up is decidedly not amicable and Sir Derek’s now-ex-mistress, Jane Harben (Georgia Slowe), tearfully vows revenge. Back at home (still tailed by the mysterious armed man) Sir Derek tells his wife, Lady Cecily (Judy Parfitt) that he’ll see a doctor about his pains once “the Palestine business” is over. He also receives a visit from his dotty sister Ruth (Anna Massey), who has a horror of modern medicine and surgery; she fervently declares that herbs and “natural medicines” are the only way to health. She’s the one who’s been supplying Sir Derek with fulvitavolts as a remedy for his stomach pains. Later, Sir Derek is visited by Sir John Phillips (David Rintoul), a surgeon, who is extremely angry at Sir Derek for hurting Jane Harben (whom he loves) and also vows to kill Sir Derek if he hurts Jane again… so the stage is nicely set with a number of people who could potentially be seeking Sir Derek’s death. Nonetheless, Sir Derek himself feels quite safe; he points out the mysterious armed man to Lady Cecily and explains that he’s actually a policeman who’s been assigned by Alleyn to protect him.
A Partially Burnt Clue
In the meantime, Alleyn has managed to discern a caduceus on the scrap of burned paper retrieved from the raid, and suggests to Fox that perhaps a member of the medical profession has some connection with the Stern Gang, the group suspected of hiding arms at Blautwicz’s house. We also discover that the source for Ruth O’Callaghan’s herbal medicines is none other than the bug-eyed man who fled the police raid, herbalist Harold Sage (David Sibley).
And Another Clue?
As Sir Derek departs to give an important speech in the House of Commons, Alleyn is forced to release Blautwicz on bail. He’s not very happy about it and is forced to endure some snarking from Blautwicz on wanting to save Alleyn from a “mistake” if there’s a next time, but Blautwicz does carelessly leave behind what could be yet another clue; a newspaper with a torn section that he borrowed from a guard.
A Medical Emergency
Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Sir Derek is in visible agony during his speech and collapses in serious pain before finishing – just as he’s declaring the government will never give in to terrorists. He’s taken to a nursing home (what would be a private hospital in modern parlance) for an emergency operation, which Lady Cecily insists must be done by Sir John. Sir John reluctantly agrees and arranges for anaesthetist Dr. Theodore Roberts (Robert Swann) and Dr. Thoms (Adam Bareham) to assist him. Coincidentally, Jane Harben is one of the assisting nurses, supervised by Sister Graham (Glynis Brooks). Sir Derek is just barely conscious enough to try to protest Sir John’s conducting the operation, but he’s unable to make himself fully understood. The operation goes ahead, though a number of people seem to be behaving a bit suspiciously: Sir John insists on mixing and administering his own anaesthetic injection as Dr. Roberts has a phobia about needles; he’s watched intently during this process by a slightly suspicious Dr. Thoms; Nurse Harben is jumpy and distracted during the entire procedure; and many significant glances are exchanged back and forth. The operation is not entirely a success; Sir John describes it as “a mess” and closes up Sir Derek to send him back to his room. At this point it’s discovered that Sir Derek hasn’t awakened from the anaesthetic and has died, whereupon Nurse Harben immediately faints onto the floor.
Investigating Sir Derek’s Death
Despite the fact the death appears to be due to natural causes and both Sir John and Dr. Thoms have signed the death certificate, Lady Cecily is adamant about demanding a post mortem, informing Alleyn that Sir Derek’s ex-mistress worked at the nursing home and is therefore a potential suspect. She also rejects Ruth’s vehement objections to an autopsy on the grounds that “the knife” is “unnatural”. We do get a hilarious moment where Ruth gushingly recognizes Alleyn as Sir George Alleyn’s brother and goes fangirl on him to his acute embarrassment, only to follow it up by attempting to enlist his support to save her brother’s remains from “the knife”. However, the Prime Minister himself gives Alleyn the go-ahead to investigate, overriding Sir John’s protests. “There was nothing unnatural about his death,” says Sir John. “Then you’ve nothing to fear,” replies Alleyn, with a reassuring(?) smirk.
Anarchists and Herbalists
Alleyn has also managed to track down a potential clue from the torn-out scrap of newspaper; it bears an advertisement for an anarchists’ meeting, which Br’er Fox is assigned to attend (none too enthusiastically). The meeting itself seems to be a red herring, though Fox does unknowingly meet one of the other surgical nurses, Helen Banks (Penny Bunton), there. Alleyn takes another look at the scrap’s other side, which has an advertisement for “Sage’s Herbal Remedies”; he connects the herbalist with the caduceus found on doctors’ and druggists’ pads and realizes he should be looking for “pill pushers, not Bolshies” in trying to find the fourth member of Blautwicz’s gang. He’s also given new evidence towards Sir Derek’s death by Lady Cecily in the form of a torn-up threatening letter from Sir John to Sir Derek. Combined with news from the post mortem that Sir Derek died of hyoscine poisoning (an anaesthetic), Jane Harben and Sir John appear to be very guilty indeed.
Alleyn then embarks on a series of interrogations of all the personnel involved in Sir Derek’s operation. Sir John denies any responsibility for the murder despite the threatening letter, and all the other staff say it would be impossible as everyone can see what everyone else is doing in the operating theatre. Both Roberts and Thoms give Alleyn run-downs on anaesthetic procedures during the operation. Alleyn does discover that Dr. Roberts and Nurse Banks are both interested in disorders of the mind and have somewhat anarchistic-leaning views, though Nurse Banks states that she’s ultimately interested in the cause of justice.
Justice is served by a visit to Sage’s Herbal Remedies, when it’s discovered the herbalist’s fingerprints on a packet of fulvitavolts (purchased by Alleyn when he beats Br’er to the store, with an air of insufferable smugness) match fingerprints for the gang’s unknown fourth member. Alleyn stages a nighttime raid on Sage’s warehouse and finds Blautwicz there. Blautwicz professes innocence, saying that the only thing Alleyn will find is medical supplies, intended to be part of a mission of mercy to other parts of Europe. Crates are pried open and supplies dismantled, only to find grenades hidden in the shipment. Alleyn has at last found his sought-after arms cache, and Blautwicz and Sage are arrested as part of the Stern gang. One down, one to go!
Re-Enacting a Murder
While he’s occupied with the raid, Nurse Banks has left a message for Alleyn saying that she “knows how someone could do something”. Unfortunately, by the time Alleyn arrives at her apartment, it’s too late and she’s also dead from what appears to be hyoscine poisoning. However, Alleyn has already started to put the pieces together and stages a complete re-enactment of Sir Derek’s operation at the nursing home. He shifts the various players back and forth, asking questions to their increasing levels of frustration and nervousness, until he hustles them all out into the scrub room in order to give Fox and himself a chance to make a detailed search of Dr. Roberts’ personal anaesthetic apparatus. Fox locates two empty syringes which contained the overdose of hyoscine hidden in the machine, and Alleyn demonstrates that a surgical screen which shielded the patient’s view of the operation also effectively shielded what Dr. Roberts was doing from everyone else in the room when he administered the deadly overdose, using his much-publicized phobia for giving injections as an alibi.
Roberts attempts to escape but is quickly subdued by Alleyn’s men. Frantic and half-deranged, he declares that his reason for murder was to prevent Sir Derek from instituting policies that would lead to more death in Palestine; in fact, he did it to preserve mankind. Furthermore, he was preventing Sir Derek’s inherited madness (as evinced by Ruth) from having political repercussions – never mind that Sir Derek never demonstrated any symptoms. He’s unable to answer, though, when Alleyn asks him if Nurse Banks, his final victim, was also “a destroyer”. Alleyn’s final thought on the matter is to muse: “D’y’know, Br’er… I sometimes think madness is an extreme form of sanity.”
This was an interesting episode, intricately constructed if perhaps a little less warm or humourous than the first one. However, there were lots of small moments of interplay I particularly liked: Alleyn’s frustration but still controlled and polite response to Blautwicz’s sneering; his reactions to D.S. Perkins’ irreverent jokes; his embarrassment at Ruth’s fangirling and Fox’s pointing out his aristocratic connections; and of course, his smugness on beating Br’er to the pharmacist’s: “What’s the matter, gyppy tummy?” 😉 And as always, we have Alleyn’s gorgeous 1940s wardrobe to enjoy (“Pinstriped perfection!” as our fearless Admin says 😉 ), plus the authentic sets, props, cars, and settings, and wonderful use of light and shadow in the cinematography.
You can view “The Nursing Home Murder” in its entirety on Youtube (a fairly recent addition there), or scroll down for a gallery.