An hour or so into The Ice House (Thursdays, February 26 and March 5; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13), one of the servants tells one of the coppers: “The difference between a prison and a fortress is that in a fortress, the doors are locked from the inside.” Against the suspicious police, the vampire media, the local crazies, and the violent past, Streech Grange has locked its doors and barred its gates for the decade since a “selfish, vicious, charming” David Maybury disappeared without a trace. Inside various wings of the manor house, three remarkable women sit on their secrets like majestic birds on Fabergé eggs. Or maybe the Brontë sisters. When a mutilated body – “putrid, black, disgusting,” and, for most of the mini-series, unidentifiable – is discovered by the gardener in a long-abandoned ice house, these women will once again be besieged.
They are Phoebe Maybury (Penny Downie), who may or may not have been abused by her missing husband; Anne Cattrell (Kitty Aldridge), a radical journalist who walked away from her noisy career to move in with Phoebe after David vanished; and Diana Goode (Frances Barber), a designer who joined them in silence (except for the classical music), exile (gloomy and gothic), and cunning (not that it helps). While Phoebe got through one investigation without the tiniest apparent crack in her composure, she seems on the point of shattering as the second commences. Anne, a chain-smoking blonde tease, has hidden not only a bloody knife in her wall safe but also an envelope of compromising documents behind that wall safe. Diana may look like Cesare Borgia’s sister, the Duchess of Ferrara, but she’s short 20,000 pounds and frantic about it.
Naturally, the villagers suspect these women of worse than murder – of witchcraft and lesbianism. Naturally, the handsome alcoholic police sergeant Andy McLoughlin (Daniel Craig) will fall in love, anyway, with Anne – who mocks him until she’s almost murdered herself. Unnaturally, the morose Chief Inspector George Walsh (Corin Redgrave) insists on Phoebe’s guilt in spite of every bit of forensic evidence that the mutilated body isn’t even David’s; Walsh, too, has a secret. The children who rush to Phoebe’s side – febrile Jonathan (James D’Arcy) from medical school, anorectic Jane (Alexandra Milman) from Oxford – are too nervous to be trusted. And not even the servants can be relied upon to tell the truth.
Have I mentioned the shotgun shells, the “see-through radiators,” the size 8 shoes, the mysterious condoms, the feral cats, the publican who seems to suggest he has slept with all three women at Streech Grange, the garage mechanic who blames Phoebe for the car-crash death of her parents, the vagrant in the checkered pants, the sobbing at night, or the rampage of vandalism? I haven’t even mentioned the brick wall in the basement. Sink a shovel or stick a spade anywhere in Hampshire, and you encounter another body, another ambiguity, another justification for personal vengeance. And I omit the principal secret of this BBC/ WGBH co-production of the Minette Walters novel. After a number of hospital romances, The Ice House was Walters’s first murder mystery – although not, alas, the first to show up here on PBS – and also her best. Don’t let your disappointment with The Sculptress deter you from a dark delight.