In the opening episode of Acorn TV’s The Chelsea Detective, we saw how DI Max Arnold’s persistence, powers of observation, and intuition serve him well on a murder case but don’t help at all when it comes to his relationship with his ex-partner Astrid. Following the grand epic of the hostage coffee machine, Episode 2 begins with Max making an early-morning call to Astrid’s apartment. He wants to ask her the name of a book expert she knows, to help with the inventory from his father’s bookstore. Rightly exasperated (couldn’t he have just texted her?), and on her way out, Astrid doesn’t let him in the door. But Max’s hackles are raised when he briefly meets Astrid’s next (handsome, male) visitor and through a license plate check identifies him as Patrick Thompson (Michael D. Xavier).
At a popular, well-established family restaurant, Mrs. and Mrs. Romano’s, everything seems to be going well. The customers are happy, the owners have recently published a bestseller glossy cookbook, and Julia Romano (Pooky Quesnel) is anticipating her 50th birthday party. Her wife Robyn (Stella Stocker), the business’s social media maven, takes a quick, happy video of Julia’s cousin, head chef Jonno Romano (Joseph Millson), and his staff. It’s all very amiable apart from the fact that they’re having trouble firing deliveryman Franco (Martin Marquez).
Robyn drives home that night and suspects something is wrong in the house. The patio door is unlocked. Later, her elderly neighbor hears a loud noise and a scream, followed by a car leaving at high speed, and calls the police. Max’s first impression is that it could be a missing person case, but there are bloodstains outside and on the ceiling by the patio door.
When they interview Julia, she had thought maybe a bird had flown into the patio door and that Robyn was still out. Julia’s troublesome son Luca (Cayvan Coates) is not home. Two weeks before, Robyn had reported a break-in at their house, but hadn’t followed up, and the consensus is that light-fingered Luca was responsible. Footprints from a fancy sneaker at the bottom of the yard may be connected with Luca’s footwear collection, and his shoes are taken as evidence. But Luca’s phone number is disconnected.
Julia becomes angry when Max’s team asks about Luca’s father; he disappeared fifteen years ago. But she never reported him missing, became divorced in absentia, and has been happily married to Robyn for three years. Something odd has been discovered on Robyn’s financial records––a deposit of £300,000. But Julia has no idea of the origins of the money unless it was a settlement from Robyn’s previous business.
Max and Priya visit the restaurant the next day and meet Beth the waiter (Liz White, Unforgotten) who is very happy to share kitchen gossip. She confirms that Luca is trouble and mentions that he has an on-off relationship with sous-chef Nix Greaves (Francesca Henry, A Discovery of Witches). Luca has rejected any idea of taking over the restaurant and turned down his mother’s offer of a managerial position.
Franco, the on-his-way-out employee, thinks Robyn’s disappearance is about getting attention, and that she’s a gold-digger.
The news comes in that the missing car has turned up in Battersea, but there’s no sign of Robin, and Julia knows of no reason why she’d go there. Although the car has been washed down inside, forensics find a hair, pulled out by the roots and possibly from the murder weapon, a pendant, and a parking receipt. Furthermore, the car seems to have driven haphazardly over the city, with a stop in a parking lot in Uxbridge.
When they meet Julia to report on the latest findings, she tells them an email from Robyn has arrived, asking to meet her at their favorite riverside spot the next day. Julia is allowing herself to hope, but she’s confused. Why would Robyn disappear? Meanwhile, Max has found the parking lot in Uxbridge that Robyn used and finds more blood. He calls for the search team, and sadly Robyn’s body is found in the nearby lake. They break the news to Julia, but the Press Office has been instructed not to break the news just yet. There’s still the possibility that new evidence will turn up at the meeting the next day.
Late that night, Jonno, closing down the restaurant, realizes someone is there who shouldn’t be. It’s Luca, who steals from the tip jar before accepting some cash from Jonno.
Max is gentle and calm with Julia as they walk around the riverside spot. He tells her how he found his copy of an earlier cookbook from the restaurant, a simple pamphlet produced years before. Julia sits on a bench while Max and his team wait, and is approached by a woman who says something about “David.” The woman is infuriated when the team descends. Thrilled to recognize Julia, she took the opportunity to ask for her autograph on the copy of the restaurant book she’d bought for her husband. His name is David.
Priya is the first to realize that they have fallen into a trap. The “meeting” was set up to keep Julia out of the house, and although the panel from the damaged patio door has been removed, nothing has been taken. Julia, who has been so stoic thus far, calls Robyn’s phone and cries.
Max meets with our favorite Chief Forensics Officer, Ashley Wilton, a deaf woman played by deaf actor Sophie Stone (this series really scores for diversity). At one point she tells Max, “I heard. This is my concentration face.” We learn she’s the mother of four boys, but, indicating her hearing device, she has an on-off switch. Her examination revealed Robyn had been dead before she was submerged in the lake, the cause of death being a head injury that left a patterned bruise. Viewing Robin’s phone, Max finds a video shot in their kitchen and zooms in on the crock of cooking utensils in the background. The murder weapon has to be a meat tenderizer, maybe even that one.
The next day, however, there’s a breakthrough in some CCTV footage. On the night of the murder, first Luca, Robyn, and then Patrick Thompson, leave the restaurant after closing. With great glee, Max orders him in for questioning (we don’t know how they tracked him down, however). Patrick is reluctant to share information, claiming that negotiations are at a delicate point. To Max’s surprise (and embarrassment) Patrick admits he’s buying the restaurant from Julia and Robyn, with plans to franchise it and make a cool £3.5 million. It’s a hot property.
Julia admits she was selling the restaurant but the information was being kept secret for the moment. She agreed to it because Patrick promised he’d keep the staff on, and she and Robyn planned to travel. Technically her ex-husband still has a stake in the restaurant, and she’s tremendously angry that he abandoned their son. Every birthday and Christmas she would buy Luca a present purporting to be from his father. Max takes her to formally identify Robyn’s body and finds himself moved at her grief. He calls Astrid, but fumbles for words.
After that non-starter, it’s time to look at everyone involved again. First up is delivery man Franco, who in his own words, is in “a bit of a pickle” and lying low to avoid debt collectors. Yes, he’s using an assumed name, but it’s okay because he got permission and in writing. As Connor says, he's too stupid to have committed a serious crime. And that’s why Robyn fired him, telling him she wouldn’t reveal his secret if he went quietly.
Max and Priya haven’t forgotten about Luca either, whom they track down at Nix’s apartment. He’d been there all weekend, and is off the hook for the abduction and murder, except how does he afford such expensive footwear? Simple. Robyn was helping him track down his father, and every time he quarreled with his mother, Robyn would take him shopping.
Julia is shocked and hurt to find that Robyn had initiated a £300,000 second mortgage with her as co-signer. But the forged signature is Beth's own. According to her, Robyn asked to sign something "for work," and not to tell Julia. We learn that almost all of the loan was used to buy multiple copies of the Romanos’ cookbook to drive sales up and make it a best-seller after initial low sales. Beth takes Julia to the lockup where the boxes of books are stored until they’re taken to a recycling plant. But it was all for Julia’s benefit, she tells her.
Nix is interviewed, and she too sports some very fancy athletic shoes, way beyond a junior chef’s earnings, bought by Robyn after Nix walked in on her and Jonno arguing about royalties, in return for her silence.
Max compares the recipes between the two versions of the cookbook. They are the same––which means they predate Robyn’s involvement and are Jonno’s creations. Furthermore one of Robyn’s videos shows Jonno wearing the pendant.
Beth admits she gave Jonno the pendant the day Robin died. But Jonno has fled, heading toward Uxbridge. He’s visiting the scene of his crime, the lake, sitting quietly on a fallen tree. Max initiates a conversation and joins him. As Priya guessed, the fake riverside meeting had been set up to get Julia out of the house, because Jonno thought he’d dropped the pendant there. Robyn had told him there were no royalties and he’d get his £50,000 share when the business sold. Jonno feels betrayed. He'd hoped to use his royalty share to take over the restaurant with Beth. Marginalized and cheated by the two women, and humiliated by Robyn’s derision when he described his ambition to carry on the family tradition, he hit her with the nearest object at hand. On his way to the hospital, he realized it was too late, and brought her body to the lake.
But Jonno’s a chef, and a chef always has a knife, as Priya tells Max too late. It's not clear if Jonno is attempting suicide or to harm Max, but Max's hand is cut when he tackles him. Jonno apologizes profusely before running away, Connor intercepts and then arrests him. Max tells Priya he’s using his bandaged hand as an excuse not to attend her race, but in turn, she decides she owes her husband a date night and goes home early with Chinese food. Luca returns home to his grieving mother and very sweetly offers to cook for her.
Max receives a visit from Astrid who was “passing by,” and hands him the card for the book expert. They tease each other gently. She isn’t dating Patrick, who was interested only in her property, and yes, she could have texted.
“Take away his money, good looks, and charm, what are you left with?” Max asks. “You,” she replies and walks away.
It’s a fine ending to this complex episode. And even though the series does tend to rely on coincidences, throws around red herrings, and has quite a few plot holes, the interesting characters and great acting keep your attention. What did you think?