As the name implies, Acorn TV's The Chelsea Detective is set in the Borough of Chelsea, a Thames-side area in west London that is now associated with elite billionaires, who are the only ones who can afford the area’s historic houses. But although the setting and some of the residents may be beautiful, Detective Inspector Max Arnold (Adrian Scarborough) knows otherwise.
Aboard his houseboat on the Thames––Max likes it, but others refer to it as dark and smelly––the day starts badly when he burns his coffee using a stovetop espresso maker, and then his bike almost gets stolen as he stops off in front of the bookstore his late father owned. The would-be thief gets alarmed when he realizes he’s stealing a copper’s bike, and Max orders him to buy a new bike chain––new, he emphasizes, not stolen, and with a receipt––and deliver it to the police station (he does). Despite his gentleness and mild manner, Max, we realize, can be forceful. It becomes clear that he’s suffering losses. In addition to his father’s death, he’s struggling to make sense of the end of his marriage, featuring an epic fight over ownership of a fancy coffee maker.
To his surprise, his partner DS Priya Shamsie (Sonita Henry), returns to work after only three months of maternity leave. The rest of the team–– DC Jess Lombard (Lucy Phelps) and DC Connor Pollock (Peter Bankolé)––are curious, but back off when Priya won’t or can’t talk about the baby. Max asks after the baby, whose name he’s forgotten, she offers sympathy for the recent loss of his father. And they get to work. At the local tube station, a man fell or jumped under a train.
We’ve already met the victim, elderly stonemason Andrew Knightley (Richard Hope), a man who lives in fear inside his own home. Someone––or something––writes mysterious bible verses on his mirror. On his way to the tube station, he bumps into a busker outside, and as they exchange words, Andrew repeats his latest mirror message: “The wages of sin is death.”
Max and Priya fend off the press, in particular Darren Goldfinch (Rob Ostiere). Inside they confer with Chief Forensics Officer Ashley Wilton (Sophie Stone). She’s on the tracks, picking up bits and pieces that may or may not have anything to do with the death––an unusual button, trash, but no sign of the victim’s phone. Max delegates note-taking to Priya, but he takes a lot of photos, which he’ll use to make a collage of visual clues inside his houseboat. Although the station is closed, they notice the busker, Nicholas Hewitt (James Boyland) has somehow found his way inside and is filming them with his phone. Max is furious and deletes the video, but he can’t get a straight answer from Nicholas on how he found his way there.
The only witness, in shock, can’t tell whether Andrew was pushed or fell. Max and the team review the CCTV footage of the encounter between the victim and the busker, and it’s clear Nicholas did not follow him inside, but it also shows Andrew was unsteady on his feet. Similarly, the CCTV footage of the platform reveals nothing, but when they receive film from the train cab it clearly reveals that Andrew was pushed, although only the perpetrator’s arm is visible.
When Max and Priya search Andrew’s apartment they find a spycam in the trash and learn from a neighbor that his wife died six months ago. The neighbor had also heard him sobbing and moaning which Andrew explained as fervent prayer. Paperwork shows evidence of a doctor’s visit for dizziness, but there are no alcohol or drugs around. There are unrelated oddities, such as Knightley’s recent expensive jewelry, and a large bank withdrawal made that morning. Recent computer search terms seem to suggest that he believed he was being haunted. Max’s team also discovers synthetic opioids in his bloodstream and in samples of milk and sugar taken from the apartment. An X-ray reveals a previously broken and now healed bone that did not correspond with hospital records, and recent burns, possibly oil-based, on his shoulders and back.
Max and Priya go next to historic Brompton Cemetery where Andrew worked. They meet with the director of the chapel, the fragile and troubled Erin Murphy (Bryony Hannah), who tells them Andrew prayed there every day and helps them identify which version of the Bible the quote came from. Andrew sent his very last text to her, telling her he had an evil presence in his home.
Andrew's former apprentice Hayley Donaghue (Sarah Middleton), now his colleague, is shocked by the news of his death. She’s been working on a large statue of an angel, supposedly a joint project with Andrew although she did most of the work. She knew him fairly well and suggests the jewelry was for his daughter (who is out of the country). She also knows about the messages on the mirror and thought the spy cam was to capture supernatural evidence. Max is intrigued to find pictures at the workshop of staff at a recent fundraising barbecue, and a copy of one of the photographs from Andrew’s mantelpiece. They ask for a handwriting sample.
Meanwhile, Priya has noticed a suspicious-looking tour guide who is very interested in the police visit and she also recognizes an ex-con, Davinson Clark (Peter Landi), who runs away when they challenge him. The tour guide, an actor named Simon Turnbull (Al Weaver), is much easier to find since he’s associated with a local historical society run by Max’s aunt Olivia Arnold (Frances Barber). Simon is staying at her house while his apartment is redecorated. Max immediately takes a dislike to him, suspicious of his easy charm, and requests a handwriting sample. Simon volunteers that he saw Andrew give money to Davinson, but he didn’t think it was a drug deal.
Max is alarmed that Livvy, who is in charge of the bookshop inventory, is giving valuable books away. Priya teases him as they leave that Livvy is having an “intergenerational relationship.” He’s not amused. And when he returns home he finds Astrid has left the disputed coffee maker at the houseboat, but it’s broken An urgent call from his team starts a new line of inquiry. Journalist Darren Goldfinch has published a newspaper story with Andrew’s pictures of the messages on the mirror, and they bring him in for questioning. But since the material was sent from an encrypted email it doesn’t get them much further.
As Priya settles in with some long-neglected paperwork, Max talks about his disability and how he copes. He’s dyslexic, hence his emphasis on visual clues, memory and instincts. Possibly he’s prompted to do so by Simon’s poor attempt at faking dyslexia for the handwriting sample. It suggests that he and Priya haven’t worked together long, although they are very much attuned to each other. Max describes his struggles at school and his father reading textbooks aloud: “Words didn’t matter; what mattered was his voice in my ear, knowing that he hadn’t given up on me.”
Returning to the CCTV footage outside the tube station, Max notices Nicholas take an item from Andrew’s pocket and a search team finds Andrew’s phone. Nicholas is interviewed, but the only information he can offer is that from living on the streets he knew of a broken fire door into the tube station. But he’d gone for a coffee refill at the time of the murder, as they knew.
Andrew’s daughter Rebecca (Amy Griffiths) returns from her vacation and meets Max in her father’s apartment. She and her father don’t speak, they certainly don’t exchange birthday presents. Her father broke his arm in an accident several years ago, and after that his personality changed. He became obsessed by a sin he’d committed. Max absorbs this. Wasn’t Andrew due a life insurance payout about now, six months after his wife’s death? And, his late wife was a nurse who could have treated his injury without awkward questions being asked in a hospital.
Hayley is questioned again. She didn’t know about the £500 Knightley was carrying the morning of his death. All she can tell them is that the photograph of the woman in blue on Knightley’s mantelpiece was the model for the angel in the sculpture. But obviously, there’s more to it, so let’s get onto the really important subplot––the coffee maker. Max finds a new one left on his houseboat after work. He takes it back to Astrid’s apartment and they bicker about it, falling into what seems suspiciously familiar patterns. She’s jealous because he likes his (smelly, dark) houseboat. She doesn’t even like coffee but she needed a coffee maker for her guests, but she was lying because she doesn’t have guests. He won’t let her manipulate him, and so on. He leaves the coffeemaker at her apartment, claiming he’s going to fix the old broken one.
Elsewhere, Max’s suspicions are confirmed about Simon. Livvy discovers he’s been selling the books she was planning to give away. Despite the fact that he’s only wearing a small towel at the time (he’s had a shower, minds out of the gutter) he tries to gaslight her, claiming she’d asked him to sell the books for her the other night when they’d been drunk and stoned. She doesn’t believe him for one moment and tells him to move himself and his small towel out. She visits Max at the station and tells him what Simon has done. He’s disgusted that Simon has been “preying on old people.” When she gives him a dirty look, he amends that to “people preying on ... people.”
Since Simon is still packing, Max goes back to his aunt’s house and finds ex-con Davinson Clark inside, standing over Simon who’s unconscious on the floor. Max calls for support and an ambulance. Davinson had come to offer to “help” Simon about a video, planning a spot of blackmail, although he didn’t know Knightley was dead. When Davinson is searched, they find Simon’s phone, which he’d stolen during the attack, and what’s left of the £500 Davinson had extorted from Andrew.
Max scrolls through Simon’s laptop and finds a picture of him with Hayley as well as a picture of Simon in front of one of the messages on the mirror. Andrew had told her a ghost was punishing him for his sins, although later she thought he might have been writing them himself. But by the time Simon boasted to her that it was a prank, Andrew had decided he must punish himself and asked Hayley to help. In the video Hayley drops candlewax onto Andrew’s shoulders, producing the sounds that alarmed his neighbor. Andrew had bought her the jewelry as a thank you gift. She didn’t know that Simon was planning to film the encounter. (You have to wonder if any of this is true.)
Max takes Priya to his houseboat, brews coffee, and shows her his collage. She’s flabbergasted. But they both agree that since neither Simon, Hayley, or Davinson can be placed at the tube station when Andrew died, they must separate the “hauntings” from the murder. Thankfully, Max’s phenomenal memory brings up more words from Andrew’s computer search––Gabriella and Tottenham. A search brings up a story of a hit-and-run accident in 2012. A young woman named Gabriella Hadlow was killed, and her friend Jane Erin Reese was slightly injured. The pictures he’d seen in the stonemason’s workshop of a recent barbecue was organized to benefit the Hadlow House Foundation, and his team is able to identify Andrew’s car in 2012, which shortly after disappears from records. Could he possibly have been the hit-and-run driver?
The detectives return to Brompton Cemetery, where Max has also remembered the Foundation’s logo from the busker’s coffee cup. Erin mentioned that she’d volunteered for the charity and possibly she’d know about the broken fire door at the tube station. They show her the unusual button that had been found on the train track and match it to those on her coat. Sure enough, she’d recognized Andrew as the hit and run driver when she started working at the Cemetery three years ago. She tried to forgive him, but that final text––“an evil in my home”––sent her over the edge. That was Gabriella, her beloved friend.
Max returns with his aunt to the cemetery on a rainy day to visit his father’s grave and place the sign from his father’s bookshop on it. At home, he relaxes with good coffee and Bach. His ex-wife Astrid, carrying a bottle of wine, hesitates outside the houseboat and turns away.
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