My body is my prison and I would be so obedient to the Lord as not to break prison. I will not hasten my death starving or macerating this body.
—John Donne, quoted by Wilfred Antsey
As a mystery, The Black Tower is full of plot holes, a disappointment after the first book dramatized in Acorn TV’s Dalgliesh series, Shroud for a Nightingale, which was tightly and deftly plotted. The Black Tower, however, is troubling. The big reveal is a surprise — the genre demands it, after all — but it seems outlandish and hurried. However, The Black Tower compensates with star turns by Stephen Mackintosh and Mirren Mack (who was so outstanding in Acorn TV's The Nest), a fearless dive deep into Adam Dalgliesh’s soul, and an examination of how people with disabilities, advanced age, or illness can be marginalized and underestimated.
The series begins with a panoramic shot that swoops over a rural landscape speckled with gorse, above an imposing Georgian house and an ancient stone structure (this is the black tower of the title) and to the cliffs and sea beyond. As in Shroud, there’s more than a hint of the gothic. The idyllic landscape is broken by a man in a wheelchair being pushed by a figure in a monk’s habit and they are quarreling violently. At the cliff’s edge, Victor (Darren Swift), alone in his wheelchair, gazes at the sky, the birds, and the sea, before the wheels rapidly turn, and he falls to his death.
Dalgliesh has come to visit an old family friend, Father Michael, who is a spiritual advisor to the inhabitants of Toynton Grange, a small nursing home. Michael had written to Dalgliesh asking for advice, so, yes, like Shroud, it’s another enclosed medical community with suspicious goings-on. Looking around the interior of Michael’s cottage, Dalgliesh finds a funeral notice: Michael died two weeks ago. This is another loss in Dalgliesh’s life, following on from that of his wife, and, as we learn in this episode, a child.
An attractive, lively young woman, Maggie (Mirren Mack, The Nest), arrives at the cottage, curious to know who the visitor with the fancy car is. She’s married to the doctor on staff, and fills Dalgliesh in — and us — on the members of this isolated community. There are only four residents; ever since Victor’s death, they’ve had trouble filling beds. Michael died at home of a heart attack, after hearing a confession from one of the patients, and was found in his armchair still wearing his clerical robe and stole.
Dalgliesh can’t resist poking around in Michael’s desk, where he finds some rather nasty poison-pen letters. Was this what was troubling his old friend, or is there more? He visits the Grange, and meets creepy Wilfred Austey (Steven Mackintosh, Wanderlust), owner of the house and director of the nursing facility. Given to grand gestures, manipulation, and a love of ritual, Wilfred, like all his staff (women included) wears a habit. He rules the facility as though it is his kingdom, turning on considerable charm when required, but his hostility to an outsider shows. When Dalgliesh announces he intends to stay in Michael’s cottage for the weekend as planned, Wilfred is barely civil.
Dalgliesh is visited later that evening by Helen (Sally Scott), the facility’s nurse, who comes bearing clean linens, and tells him that the last person to see Michael was their patient Grace whose confession he took. She also informs Dalgliesh that Michael had not been well, and had been in hospital for a few days, so his death came as no surprise. The night of his death someone was supposed to visit him to make sure all was well, but because of a scheduling mishap, Michael died alone.
Dalgliesh visits Grace (Jenny Howe), a lovely elderly woman, one of whose tasks is to gather eggs from the hens. Wilfred likes to keep everyone busy, apparently. She’s lived there for four years and likes being close to the sea, although she poignantly mentions that she’s never seen it. Dalgliesh returns a book of poetry by Thomas Hardy which Michael had borrowed, and they chat about Hardy and Dalgliesh’s own writing, and also about his bereavement. He can't write; we've seen him stare at an empty page in his notebook. But she tells him one significant fact: Michael, following her confession, removed his stole and left it here in the house. He did not take it back to the cottage.
Grace has yet another job, running the mailing list of Graystone’s supporters (it's the 1970s when you had to type up mailing labels. On a typewriter). She has the list memorized, likes to imagine people’s appearances from their names, and takes pride and pleasure in her work. But she confesses to Dalgliesh that she, too, received a poison-pen letter, and recognizes the individual marks that identify it as a product of her typewriter.
Julius (Jonjo O’Neill), an old schoolfriend of Wilfred’s, has a cottage nearby, and although he isn’t on staff, lends a hand as accountant. A former diplomat, he also has a London home and is independently wealthy. More significantly, he has villain written all over him, despite, or probably because of his oily charm. He shows Dalgliesh around Toynton’s cottage industry, creams and bath products, and introduces him to patient Henry (George Robinson, Sex Education), who has made a very lifelike clay model of Wilfred’s head, and shy, awkward handyman Dennis. “Not great with strangers,” Julius adds. Julius also tells Dalgliesh the story of how Wilfred, sick and apparently incurable by modern medicine, went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, and returned fit and healthy. It was then he decided to convert his family home to a nursing facility, and twice every year a group pilgrimage is made to Lourdes. In fact, one is coming up very soon, using the new minibus Julius bought. Wilfred is very enthusiastic about visits to Lourdes.
Dalgliesh is invited to lunch, which is not a cheery affair (no talking!). He meets Maggie’s husband, medical officer Eric Newson (John Hollingworth) and the two other patients, argumentative Jennie (Storme Toolis) who attacks his profession and the issue of capital punishment; and Ursula (Shannon Murray), on a short-term stay while her husband finds an alternative to their fourth-floor apartment. Meeting Dalgliesh alone later, she perceptively tells him:
“You don’t look like you’re ever off-duty.”
Dalgliesh explores the grounds which include the Black Tower of the title, built by Wilfred’s ancestors and where Wilfred now lurks. Wilfred charmingly explains that the door is always kept open, since his great-grandfather restored the tower and, awaiting the Revelation, walled himself up alive. His fingers, Wilfred adds with enthusiasm, were shredded to the bone. Wilfred now uses the tower for meditation. Not particularly concerned by the two recent unexpected deaths, he tells Dalgliesh he enjoyed “crossing swords” with Michael, since the two didn’t always agree. The general consensus, and also the official view, is that Victor’s death was suicide. But we’re not convinced that Simon, to whom Victor was particularly unpleasant, is innocent; his story is that Victor told him to leave him alone, and he retreated too far away to save him.
As Dalgliesh leaves the house, Maggie flings herself into the car and demands a lift into town. Her dour, inhibited husband watches from upstairs as they drive off. It’s one of those marriages where you cannot possibly imagine how two such unlikely people should be together, and both are clearly unhappy. Maggie, who hangs out of the car window like an eager Labrador, tells Dalgliesh that she liked Victor, and enjoyed his savage wit. She even accompanied him to an appointment at a London hospital.
Dalgliesh pays a visit to the local police, specifically about Victor’s death. DI Daniel (Barry Aird) assures him that it was suicide, and instructs his sergeant, Kate Miskin (Carlyss Peer, The Feed) to show the posh London detective out. Adam is delighted — Kate’s body language revealed that she disagreed with her boss. (And finally, a female, Black officer!) She agrees to do some digging around for him.
Dalgliesh finds Dennis alone on the beach, searching for fossils. Dennis feels guilty because of Victor’s death, but vehemently denies that he is a murderer. But why did he and Michael have a violent quarrel on this very same beach? They’re interrupted by a plume of smoke on the horizon — the Black Tower is on fire. They run to the building and find the door locked, break it down, and discover Wilfred inside.
Julius holds a dinner party at his house, a rather inhibited, polite affair until Maggie puts music on to liven things up. She invites Dalgliesh to dance, breaks a glass, and then her glum husband decides she’s made enough of a spectacle of herself and takes her home. The party effectively breaks up and Adam finds himself responsible for getting Henry home and into bed. Henry is drunk and confesses to Dalgliesh that he had a love affair with another patient, Peter. They tried to be discreet but Wilfred sent Peter to another facility where he died. Victor was the one who found out about his death and broke the news to Henry. Henry directs Dalgliesh to a box that holds another poison-pen letter.
Other interesting facts have arisen, too. Nurse Helen left a care home, for unknown reasons, owned by a private company, the Ridgewell Trust, with which Julius is negotiating a buy-out, although he doesn’t know if Wilfred is ready to agree. Dennis’s mother is in an expensive care home, which suggests he has some sort of alternative source of money, but he also turned down a job there. Medical officer Eric received a poison-pen letter, from which we learn that his affair with a young, female patient — Maggie — was covered up by Wilfred, and that’s why they married. Inexplicably Maggie still loves Eric, whereas he regards her as an embarrassing liability.
To top off the first episode, someone comes into Grace’s room and smothers her. Why?
It’s two days until the Lourdes trip and Dalgliesh is convinced it should be postponed. He insists that Eric order a post-mortem on Grace. She apparently was reading in bed, and earlier that day she’d shown Dalgliesh a dried flower that lay between the pages of her book. The fact that the book was on the bedside table and that the flower was under the bed suggests that she was killed.
Wilfred gathers the community together to announce Grace’s death but he chooses that moment to tell them also that he has decided to hand over the facility to the Ridgewell Trust. However, he wants the decision to be made as a family. But the vote that will take place that evening isn't about the transition; it's about whether they will decide if Wilfred should continue as their spiritual advisor. Everyone looks uneasy. But Maggie doesn’t have a vote and she’s furious with Wilfred. She isn’t staff, or a patient, but as she points out, she lives there. Eric refuses to stand up for her; and when she bursts in on Eric and Helen displaying a very unprofessional level of intimacy, she's had enough. She starts packing, planning an escape, but drops by the cottage to write a good-bye note for Dalgliesh, using his treasured pen (a gift from his late wife).
It’s only after Ursula mentions that Michael and Grace died in the same way that Dalgliesh uses his seniority to insist on getting the results of Grace’s post-mortem early, but the sulky local pathologist claims Grace had so many serious conditions the question really should be why she was still alive. As far as the local police are concerned, there is no case.
Later, the reluctant family gathers to vote on Wilfred's future. Dennis gives an emphatic yes; Jenny and Ursula agree with little enthusiasm; Henry is the only one to vote against it, and Eric, since he’s under Wilfred’s thumb, has to agree. Oddly, Helen doesn’t get a vote; unlike Maggie, she doesn’t complain. Possibly, Eric as her supervisor, votes for them both.
Adam meanwhile wanders around the grounds. Inside the tower, he finds Maggie dead. She has hanged herself. Kate joins him at Julius’s house, where Maggie had gone to seek refuge. Julius is shocked and upset; she’d arrived distraught, but he’d calmed her down and he felt safe leaving her there to attend Wilfred's meeting. Kate unpacks Maggie’s suitcase and she and Dalgliesh are surprised to find Maggie’s best clothes inside along with his pen. It’s not the act of a woman planning suicide. But Dalgliesh, so intent on justice originally, mentions that he’s tired of the case. The seascape has raised memories of his dead wife; he dreams she beckons him to join her.
Dalgliesh interviews everyone to work out a timeline for the afternoon. Wilfred — he’s all heart — says that Maggie was volatile. She chose not to be part of the community, so she didn’t get a vote. Done and dusted, all aboard for Lourdes! Dennis, asked about his mother’s expensive care and why he stays at Toynton, sticks to his story (they have savings) and gives away nothing. Eric and Helen had been for a walk (possibly a euphemism).
The patients present a bleak picture of their life at the Grange. They are isolated, not encouraged to confide in each other. Cynical Jennie comments that Eric should burn in hell, and Adam recognizes a favorite phrase of the poison-pen letters. He’s furious and demands she apologize to the surviving victims. Yet Ursula, Jennie, and Henry tentatively form an alliance. They consider themselves the originals, the survivors, who should stick together. Wilfred is no part of their family.
But with the trip to Lourdes imminent, the inconclusive post-mortem, and despite four suspicious deaths, Dalgliesh realizes he can do no more. He plans to return to London.
Before their departure, Wilfred and Helen flap around, distressed that the mailing list of supporters seems to have disappeared. Dalgliesh confronts Wilfred with the recent discovery that the story of his Lourdes cure was a lie, and that Victor knew. Wilfred laughs, accuses him of seeing evil where there is none, and offers to pray for him at Lourdes. He loads his charges into the van, and they drive off.
At the police station, Kate receives an important message from the Foreign Office about Julius’s background which has her very concerned. Although DI Daniel tells her to ignore it, she calls Toynton Grange and is suspicious when Julius answers and tells her Dalgliesh has left. Something is wrong, and she rushes out to drive over there.
Sure enough, Julius doesn’t tell Dalgliesh the call was for him, and Dalgliesh muses aloud why anyone would want to kill Grace and why the mailing list has disappeared. Dalgliesh has figured it out, from the evidence literally in front of his eyes: A map of France on the wall shows a route marked out going to Lourdes via Marseille (about a five hour detour), and a calendar shows that mail will go out to the supporters a week later. Toynton Grange is a front for a drug smuggling operation (because, you know, Marseille, all drugs, sailors, and low life), and it’s masterminded by Julius, who has time and money on his hands. But is Dalgliesh losing his touch, to work it out aloud with Julius as the only one present?
Using the convention of the mystery genre that the villain will gloatingly reveal the whole truth for the benefit of readers/viewers, Julius pulls a gun on Dalgliesh, and talks and talks. The drugs are hidden in the wheelchairs (which Dennis maintains so well), and who would ever suspect a minibus full of people with disabilities? It was Julius who persuaded Dennis that Victor knew what was going on and encouraged him to push the chair off the cliff. He murdered Michael and Grace with the sheet of plastic that covers Henry’s bust of Wilfred. And why Grace? Naturally Grace's death was Dalgliesh's fault because he wouldn't let things alone. And Julius had to kill Maggie because she’d figured it out too. It was terribly upsetting for him, because he adored her, although he found her devotion to Eric annoying.
He forces Dalgliesh at gunpoint to drive them to the cliffs. When Kate arrives at the house, she finds Dalgliesh’s pen which he’d deliberately dropped on the ground, and calls for reinforcements before following them (a lucky guess?). Julius, still talking, encourages Dalgliesh to jump, but Dalgliesh attacks him and is shot. Julius beats him savagely and we see Dalgliesh crawl painfully to the cliff edge. Has he given up? Is he overwhelmed by his losses?
Kate and her colleagues rush to Dalgliesh's side, and Julius knowing he’s going to be arrested, tips himself over the edge of the cliff. The camera performs the opening shot of the two-parter in reverse, away from the sea and over the tower and the house.
A nagging question remains — will Henry, Jennie, and Ursula survive? How much did Wilfred know, or did his implicit trust in Julius and his unworldly idiocy allow him to ignore the truth? Under the most favorable of circumstances I wouldn’t trust Wilfred behind the wheel, and anything could happen if he’s pursued by the police. At best, it looks like the newly militant trio of wheelchair warriors will be separated as they search for new homes.
And will we know how Dalgliesh gets his detective mojo back and deals with his grief?
After the tight plot and carefully paced build-up we saw in Shroud for a Nightingale, it’s disappointing to have the two episodes of The Black Tower ramble on and then have a messy, inconclusive wrap in the last few minutes, despite some great acting. Do you agree? Let’s discuss!