Cracking the case of Sherlock Holmes

Creepy as the title may sound, Murder Rooms: The Dark Origins of Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating fictionalized account of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first interest in criminal investigation. Despite a plot hole or two, it is well-made, eerie, and complicated - like so many of the Holmes cases.

Best of all, the two-part Victorian thriller (BBC America, March 5 and 12, 9-10:30 p.m.) provides some insight into Doyle's early life and helps explain where the real prototype for his famous detective came from - a genuine pleasure for Holmes fans.

While a young medical student at Edinburgh University in 1878, Doyle (Robin Laing) met and worked for Dr. Joseph Bell (Ian Richardson), one of the first forensic pathologists ever to aid police in solving bizarre crimes.

Employed secretly by the Crown, Dr. Bell brought his scientific methods to bear on the crude facts of troubling cases. His keen observations of minute details about a person's clothes, general appearance, accent, and manner seemed almost like parlor tricks to those around him - until he explained how he knew what he knew. He proved that the scientific method works for the law. Bell inspired Doyle's creation of Holmes.

In the film, Doyle's work for Bell is interrupted by disturbances on campus - females have joined the student body and are not welcomed by some of the male students and professors. Among these despised young ladies is the beauteous Elspeth (Dolly Wells) - love at first sight for Doyle.

Meanwhile, a street musician, several prostitutes, and a lady are mysteriously poisoned, with a pile of gold and silver coins left in their rooms. When Elspeth, too, finds a pile of coins on her windowsill, the signs seem to point to the school bully.

What is most involving here lies partly in trying to sort out what is fact and what is sheer fiction. In real life, Doyle knew Bell, but Elspeth is the fictional character meant to stand in for a mysterious sorrow in Doyle's young life. Little is actually known about his youth because his private papers have been kept from public view by his descendants. But the film does open one can of worms - his father was an alcoholic, a fact that shamed Doyle throughout his life.

Mr. Richardson gives Bell genuine complexity - every move he makes appears to have been calculated, every idea he has appears to germinate in the cool ground of science. It is a refined and involving performance. So, too, is young Laing's as Doyle. Fresh-faced and serious-minded, Laing's Doyle is at once a believable romantic hero and foil for the doctor.

The BBC production was shot in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the medieval ambience of the environment pulsates with mystery. It lends itself to the film's underlying purpose - to expose the dark underbelly of Victorian society with its rigid class system tainted by labyrinthine evil.

Stepping forward in time to 1953 and crossing the Atlantic, another detective tale will amuse mystery buffs when A&E presents The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (Sunday, March 5, 8-10 p.m.). Based on the novel by Rex Stout - who wrote 70 books about the same detective - the story is all tongue-in-cheek, smart-aleck Americana with nary a serious sentiment in sight.

When a 13-year-old street urchin arrives at Wolfe's house during the sacrosanct dinner hour, Wolfe's assistant, wise-cracking Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton), lets him in - principally to steam his boss.

Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) listens to the child, who tells an extraordinary story about washing a car window at a stoplight, when the beautiful driver mouths, "Help. Call a cop." What perhaps impresses the boy most - besides the guy with the gun in his hand seated next to her - is an extraordinarily icky pair of golden spider earrings dangling from her ears. They must mean something....

And, of course, they do. When the child is killed the next morning, run over by the very car he encountered the day before, Wolfe feels obligated to find his assassin.

Triple murder, blackmail, and unsavory gangsters spice the action. But Wolfe remains cool almost to the end, when a glint of emotion enlivens his features.

Chaykin and Hutton play off each other well, complementing one another's cartoonish characters with just a twist of personality here or a bit of intelligence there.

"Golden Spiders" may be all surface, but like a good comic book, it's amusing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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