The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – The Mystery of the Amber Beads


Sara Kestelman as Hagar in The Mystery of the Amber Beads by Fergus Hume
Adapted by Owen Holder. Directed by Don Leaver

A rich widow called Mrs Arryford (Doris Rogers) is brutally murdered and shortly afterwards her precious string of amber beads turns up at a pawnshop run by a young gypsy called Hagar (Sara Kestelman).  All the evidence suggests that Mrs Arryford’s maid Rose (Sarah Craze) killed her mistress, but Hager isn’t so certain ….

The Mystery of the Amber Beads was written by Fegus Hume and was one of a collection of short stories published in 1898 under the title of Hagar of the Pawn Shop, which can be read here.  Two years earlier he self-published a novel called The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.  It very quickly became a publishing sensation but Hume was to receive little financial benefit, since he sold the British and American rights for just fifty pounds.

Female detectives were rare in the Victorian/Edwardian era and an ethnic detective, such as Hagar, was rarer still.  Most of the other sleuths featured in these adaptations either have official standing or are gentleman amateurs who are indulged by the authorities.  Hagar clearly doesn’t fall within either of these categories.

The forces of law and order are represented by Grubber (Joss Ackland) and his relationship with Hagar is one of the key dynamics of the episode.  He’s maybe more accepting and trusting of her than you would expect, but although it’s probable that more drama could have been mined from an antagonistic relationship, their interaction is still intriguing.

Hagar proves early on that she’s no fool as she tells him the serial number of the five pound note that was handed over to the mysterious woman who pawned the beads.  Later, Hagar is able to prove that the woman wasn’t Rose – although to be fair this is done in a way that would be hard to prove in a court of law.

Joss Ackland gives a broad performance as Gruber.  He makes the policeman a very bluff, cockney figure who tends to teeter on the edge of caricature.  But Ackland is a good enough actor to be able to occasionally pull back and show that there’s more to the man that meets the eye.  Gruber is somewhat of a hypocrite though.  To begin with he’s convinced that Rose is guilty and tells a disbelieving Hagar so.  Then after Hagar has proved otherwise, he blithely tells her that he knew all along that Rose didn’t do it!

Sara Kestelman is impressive as Hagar.  She’s a dual outsider – not only a woman in a man’s world but a gypsy to boot and therefore certain to be regarded with suspicion by the majority of her fellow citizens.  Hagar does have a code of honour though and whilst she probably would have been aware the beads were stolen when she accepted them, she didn’t attempt to hide the fact that she had them when Gruber came enquiring.  And her sense of justice is clear after she champions the cause of Rose.

If it wasn’t Rose, then who might it be?  Mrs Arryford’s household is fairly small and apart from the servants there’s only her companion Miss Lyle (Kathleen Byron) and Miss Lyle’s nephew Freddy (Stephen Chase).  Freddy seems an obvious suspect – he’s very smooth and makes an instant byline for Hagar.  Kathleen Byron had a lengthy and impressive career (she had a memorable role in the classic film Black Narcissus for example) and doesn’t disappoint as Miss Lyle.  It’s a little while before she has her moment to shine, but it’s worth waiting for.

Rounding off the main cast is Philip Locke as Vark.  Vark is adamant that the pawnshop should be his and as a solicitor he’s willing to use every trick at his disposal to ensure he makes it so.  Locke is perfect as the thoroughly oily and untrustworthy Vark and it’s no surprise that Hagar despises him.  Vark either doesn’t realise this or doesn’t care as at one point he suggests marriage – which doesn’t go down very well with Hagar!

This is yet another studio-bound show, but the production design does its best to hide these limitations.  We see several horses as well as numerous extras who are all employed to create bustling street scenes whilst sound effects are also used to create the impression of busy city activity.

A strong episode, thanks to the quality cast, headed by Sara Kestelman.

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