PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery” seems intent to corner the market on tormented detectives in European locales, following “Wallander” and “Zen” with “Case Histories,” a three-movie adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s Edinburgh-set crime novels. Here, Jason Isaacs is the striking leading man — a private detective divorced from his wife, afraid to lose his young daughter and prone to either being hired to solve unorthodox cases or simply stumbling across them. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the style — with its gauzy flashbacks and occasional tawdry moments — but watching Isaacs sleuthing through Scotland isn’t a bad way to spend consecutive Sundays.
In what amounts to a tune-up for his latest Yank role in NBC’s “Awake,” Isaacs’ Jackson Brodie is an ex-cop with a nose for trouble. As a consequence his path keeps crossing with his former colleague, Det. Inspector Munroe (Amanda Abbington), with whom he engages in the kind of quick, whip-smart banter associated with old screwball comedies.
Like most of these BBC movie adaptations (the first-rate “Sherlock” being another), the three movies feature self-contained elements as well as serialized threads. In the opener, Brodie tackles a decades-old cold case, tries to locate a teenager whose mother was convicted of murder, and investigates the outwardly arbitrary killing of a young girl on behalf of her grief-stricken father (Philip Davis).
There are also tidbits sprinkled throughout about Brodie’s own tragic youth — which add precious little to the proceedings — and the ongoing matter of his messed-up personal life. For starters, he’s distraught over his ex-wife (Kirsty Mitchell) dragging their kid with her to New Zealand, but lacks the good sense not to engage in “Take your daughter to work day” as he probes into cases.
As with many of these European crime yarns, the real fun resides less in the who- or how-dunnit than simply getting there. In that regard, Isaacs (much more vulnerable than in his “Brotherhood” role, though probably best known to a younger demo as Lucius Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” pics) delivers a nicely understated performance, managing to present Brodie as a “Rockford Files”-type figure — a reference that will mean more, frankly, to the older audience that tends to be drawn to such PBS fare.
The “Mystery” shingle is hardly the most satisfying of the “Masterpiece” offshoots, but that’s not to say the Brits’ quirky take on crime doesn’t have its own appeal. By that measure, “Case Histories” ought to qualify as another lucky charm.