There are plenty of reasons to praise PBS’ long-standing “Mystery!” series, and now lovers of whodunits can be thankful for “Heat of the Sun,” a five-part, six-hour mini debuting tonight. Like so many of “Mystery!’s” best efforts, “Heat” revolves around a rumpled detective — in this case, Superintendent Albert Tyburn (Trevor Eve). But though “Heat’s” action occurs in the 1930s — a familiar period for this genre — the series’ setting is something altogether new. Instead of foggy London, Tyburn solves cases in Kenya.
That twist — think “The Maltese Falcon” meets “Out of Africa” — gives “Heat” an allure that puts it alongside the best “Mystery!” has to offer. Moreover, though plenty of conventions are adhered to, a rich supply of red herrings ought to keep even the most seasoned fans of such fare on their toes. The murders (and there are plenty) are often grisly, and the moral character of the suspects is, well, suspect, so viewers expecting reticence are in for a surprise. The cricket matches and lavish teas notwithstanding, civilization is little more than a veneer in this colonial locale.
When Tyburn is first introduced (in the two-hour “Private Lives”), he comes to Kenya as an exile, dismissed from Scotland Yard for taking the law into his own hands. Under the command of commissioner Ronald Burkitt (Michael Byrne), a martinet of a civil servant, Tyburn is put in charge of the Nairobi constabulary. Before long, Lady Daphne Ellesmere is found dead, the victim of an apparent lion attack. But there’s enough amiss to make Tyburn suspicious that her death was no accident, and not for one moment is he fooled by the good breeding of Nairobi’s haute monde.
As Tyburn brushes up against establishment codes, he finds two sources of comfort: Emma Fitzgerald (Susannah Harker), the victim’s attractive sister, and a small group of loyal and capable associates. Miss Fitzger-ald possesses dual appeal, for her spunk and beauty are augmented by a yellow airplane, which more than once in this series proves a valuable asset.
The motley crew that Tyburn depends on includes a stoic native policeman, corporal Jonah Karinde (Freddie Annobil-Dodoo); a red-headed, sharpshooting assistant superintendent, James Valentine (Julian Rhind-Tutt); and a German-Jewish physician, Dr. Emil Mueller (David Horovitch), all of whom deploy their skills to great and sometimes amazing effect on Tyburn’s behalf.
In “Hide in Plain Sight” (episodes two and three in the series), Tyburn must do battle with a witch doctor and solve the murder of a tribal girl who has taken refuge at a local Christian mission.
But the best is clearly saved for last, and in “The Sport of Kings” (episodes 4 and 5), Tyburn finds himself going head to head with an evil press lord, Max Van der Vuurst (Joss Ackland).
Though these mysteries can be viewed as three separate adventures, they are far more rewarding taken in sum. The characters, even the less-appealing ones, grow on viewers as their histories unfold and their quirks become endearing. And though in some ways Eve’s Tyburn is the least interesting of the bunch, the actor’s even-keeled portrayal gives this series a dependable center, around which a host of more colorful sorts can shine.
Shot on location in Zimbabwe, mini also scores on a visual level, as superior camera work takes full advantage of the area’s unparalleled natural beauty. Interiors get high marks, too, for Graeme Orwin’s production design is faithful to the period and stylish by any account.
As of now, WGBH claims no plans for future installments, but viewer support should run high, so we may see Tyburn’s African adventures continue. Let’s hope so.