This review contains spoilers.
His colleagues might be glued to their television screens as England advance to the World Cup final, but Morse, typically, has weightier matters on his mind. An elderly expert in heraldry, Adrian Weiss, is found brutally murdered in an Oxford museum; the murder weapon appears to be the Indian ceremonial dagger left lying by his side. Morse is despatched to interview the summer boarders at Blythe Mount School, who, along with their teacher, Victoria Danby (Susy Kane), were on a school trip to the museum at the time of Weiss’s death. Morse’s teenage interviewees are rather taken with the appealingly awkward young detective, though he is unsettled by the visit; not only does he find a note with the words ‘Save me’ scrawled on it in his jacket pocket, but he also catches sight of a strange figure in the gardens as he and Thursday drive away.
Morse’s investigation into the school turns up evidence of its macabre past. Intriguingly, the dagger left by Weiss’s body – not, it transpires, the murder weapon after all – was bequeathed to the museum by the great house’s former owners, the Blaise-Hamiltons, whose money was made from tea plantations in India. On one summer’s day almost exactly a hundred years earlier, almost all the children in the family and their nursemaids were beaten to death with a croquet mallet in the gardens. An Irish labourer was accused of the crime, but died, apparently by his own hand, before he could be tried. Local legend claimed instead that ‘Bloody Charlotte’, the only child to survive the massacre, was in fact responsible; Morse learns that she was quietly committed to an asylum by her father and died relatively young, without heirs.
The girls at the school are well versed in a garbled version of the crime, and, along with Miss Danby, claim to have witnessed Charlotte’s ghost stalking the corridors of Blythe Mount. When shy pupil Bunty Glossop (Nell Tiger Free) vanishes one night, it seems that their fears may just be legitimate. Stephen Fitzowen, writer of a book on the Victorian crimes, agrees to help Morse mount a ghost hunt in the school, but the dreadful events they witness that night will instead reveal a real, and very dangerous, threat to the safety of its pupils. The last direct descendant of the Blaise-Hamiltons is still at large, and his bid to assert his claim to the family estate is the thread that links the bloodbath of 1866 with Weiss’s demise in the present day.
Nocturne marks a tonal shift from previous episodes of Endeavour, with its supernatural theme and gruesome child murders, but its tense, chilling atmosphere, culminating in the frantic pursuit of the killer, is reminiscent of Fugue, one of the first series’ very best stories. Morse, ever sensitive to the emotional undercurrents of a situation, is plagued by an unshakeable feeling of dread when he visits the school, so much so that he almost gives credence to the idea of a spectral presence lurking in the dilapidated building. The integration of the nineteenth-century murder case adds multiple layers to the story, raising complex questions about legitimacy, race and the legacy of British colonialism. Elements of the contemporary investigation mirror the past; bullied Anglo-Indian pupil Shelly Thengardi (Emily Warren) tells Morse that her father describes the Raj as an injustice, yet acknowledges the paradox that, without it, she would not exist. The story’s central theme is the corrosive power of such iniquities, and their repercussions in the modern world. A disinherited, half-Indian illegitimate son, burning with indignation at the hypocrisy of his father’s domestic arrangements, commits a hideous crime, while a working-class Irishman is picked as a convenient scapegoat for the murders in the face of public impatience at the ponderous pace of the official investigation. In a final, poignant revelation, Morse discovers a photograph of the maligned Charlotte, whose face had been scratched out in all other surviving family portraits. Her removal from history had nothing to do with the dark local legends telling of her supposed guilt, but was due to the fact that she had Down Syndrome. In one telling moment, the cruelty of another time is exposed. Morse, a man always on the periphery of his own world, is the only one capable of seeing the connections between past wrongs and current horrors.
As usual with Endeavour, fine character work adds to the impact of the mystery. Morse’s tentative romance with nurse Monica (Shvorne Marks) is put in jeopardy by an ill-advised decision to go on a double date with Strange, but a touching scene between him and his unexpected companion for the evening, his boss’s daughter Joan (Sara Vickers) helps resolve his doubts. Pathologist Max DeBryn (James Bradshaw) can usually be relied upon to bring a touch of wit to proceedings, but even his composure fails when schoolgirl Maud is killed. Bradshaw, Evans and Anton Lesser as the usually composed Chief Superintendent Bright skilfully convey the horror of the young girl’s death with few words. Director Giuseppe Capotondi evokes an unforgettably bleak atmosphere in this place of buried secrets, wringing every ounce of tension from what is undoubtedly one of the darkest episodes of Endeavour to date.
Read Gem’s review of the previous episode, Trove, here.
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