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A Female Detective in Victorian England: 'Miss Scarlet and the Duke'
January 19, 2021  | By David Hinckley
 


Eliza Scarlet is arrogant in the best sense of the word.

Miss Scarlet, played by Kate Phillips (top), lends her name to Miss Scarlet and the Duke, an imported six-episode drama that launched Sunday at 8 p.m. ET in the PBS Masterpiece Theater series (check local listings).

She also lends her name to her father's detective agency after he is found to have suddenly died of a heart attack.

Eliza has always been fascinated by detective work, for which she has a good eye. She also had good training from her father, whom she loved dearly but whose death, alas, left her penniless.

Her best shot, she decides upon learning this depressing news, is to take over the agency herself.

Only one or two small problems.

One, this is Victorian England, where women simply do not do this sort of thing. Sleuthing is man's work. In fact, almost everything except housekeeping and child-rearing, and maybe nursing, is man's work.

Eliza has little patience for these strictures, which makes her no less subject to the limitations they impose upon her life.

Two, Eliza has no desire to take the one route that is not only open to her but toward which the world is pushing her: Get married to someone who has the money she doesn't.

Finding a fella shouldn't be a problem for a fetching gal like Eliza. She just has other ambitions, and she will pursue them the hard way.

This is not to say Miss Scarlet lives in a world of Amazons, surrounding herself with compatible free-thinking women.

Nope, to scrounge up even a tiny bit of business, she must form an à la carte professional alliance with an old friend of her father's, William Wellington (Stuart Martin).

Also known as The Duke.

The Duke is a Detective Inspector, exceptionally good at his job and consistently underappreciated by his ambitious, annoying boss. It probably doesn't help the Duke that while he looks kindly on numerous female companions, his manner toward the rest of the world runs toward impatience.

He likes Eliza at the same time that he finds her exasperating. He doubts this little entrepreneurial experiment of hers can succeed, but her agrees to help her because of his loyalty to her father.

Before long, he finds this alliance useful to him, as well, and employs Eliza to do some undercover work he could not. Once she gets there, unfortunately, she discovers the work puts her at odds with some of her principles.

Friction, it's fair to say, defines much of the relationship between our title characters. It's equally fair to say that any viewer who has watched more than 10 minutes of television will quickly recognize this is part of the dance.

It is not a spoiler to say there's a "will they/won't they" element to Miss Scarlet and the Duke. Or that we'd like things to work out because we like them both despite their periodic exasperating spells.

Their dance is fun to watch, and naturally, it evolves as the ongoing subplots of the show become more complex and raise the potential level of danger.

Like many of the best British crime dramas before it, Miss Scarlet and the Duke artfully combines one-off cases with, in this case, several ongoing wider arcs.

Phillips plays Eliza well, never defining her as a victim despite her acute awareness of the cold, harsh society in which she must carve a place. Martin shows us Wellington's heart without letting it get in the way of his outward style.

Rachael New created Miss Scarlet and the Duke, a British-Irish production that, with any luck, will continue into more seasons.

 
 
 
 
 
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