A pattern is emerging; just as episode 1 of Houdini and Doyle drew together a circa 1900 social issue (the treatment of inmates in a Magdalene laundry) and a seemingly supernatural mystery (a ghostly murderer), A Dish of Adharma weaves the radical women’s suffrage movement together with a case of attempted assassination via (apparent) reincarnation.
During the dramatic opening sequence, a young boy holding a bouquet of flowers approaches Lydia Bellworth, a suffragette who has chained herself to a set of railings as a political protest. Lowering the bouquet to reveal a pistol, he then shoots her in the arm, saying “You murdered me!”
Houdini, Doyle and Stratton are quickly on the case. It transpires that the boy – a runaway adoptee – has been plagued by dreams and visions of a life that he has not lived and believes himself to be the reincarnation of a bohemian artist named Martin Upton, who died some twelve years earlier. Upton is revealed to have been the secret lover of Lydia Bellworth.
The investigators discover that the boy – whose real name is Peter – has actually become fixated upon the life and death of Martin Upton via obsessively studying Upton’s secret journal, to the point that Peter’s own identity has become submerged. Eventually the truth comes out – Lydia Bellworth really did kill Marton Upton, because he refused responsibility when she became pregnant with his child, who was then adopted out immediately after birth. In a truly Dickensian turn of events, that child turns out to be none other than young Peter.
The boy is reunited with his loving adoptive parents and (one hopes) recovers his own identity, independent of that of his murdered father.
A Dish of Adharma offers us a suitably twisty gothic mystery and some further insights into the lives and psyches of our protagonists. Doyle struggles to be a good father to his young daughter Mary, who is beginning to question her own role and future in a society that systematically devalues girls and women. Meanwhile, Houdini’s fascination with the still-enigmatic Adelaide Stratton leads them into a “truth-trade” game that may betoken a deeper future relationship between them.
- Although the mystery is again revealed to have a strictly non-supernatural (if only just plausible) solution, the question remains as to how Peter was able to lead Houdini, Doyle and Stratton to the exact site of his father’s secret, unmarked grave. Obviously, that information could not possibly have been contained in Martin Upton’s journal. Doyle suggests that it might be evidence of “spirit guides” and Houdini doesn’t have a ready retort. Logically, the implication is that Peter had, in fact, learned or deduced where Martin was buried, though how he might have done that is never addressed.
- One of Houdini and Stratton’s “truth trades” involves each of them writing their greatest fear upon a scrap of paper, swapping papers and then reading each other’s answers (as it turns out, both of them fear “being unloved”). It’s later implied that this coincidence of written answers was a sleight-of-hand illusion on Houdini’s behalf; when Adelaide asks him whether it was a trick, he shows her a number of identical scraps of paper bearing different answers such as “losing family” and “spiders”. The suggestion is that he somehow matched his own answer to hers, out of a collection of likely responses (a cold reading-style application of the Barnum/Forer effect).
The “trick” as actually shown, however, would have relied entirely on luck or very shrewd guesswork; there was no possibility of a sleight-of-hand substitution of one scrap of paper for another. Perhaps the implication is that Houdini did not want to reveal the depth of his interest in Adelaide, and so sought to camouflage it (and give himself an “out”) by pretending that it actually was just a trick.
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Seven out of ten ibangs for Episode 2 of this intriguing series.