Baptiste series two review – a heartstopping whodunnit with The Missing sleuth

I am no Hungarian kidnapper, but if I were, I wouldn’t be caught wandering around Budapest with a distinctive neck tattoo poking out of my shirt. And yet, in Baptiste (BBC One), our titular French sleuth notices just that at the railway station where a member of the British ambassador’s family – kidnapped 14 months ago – was last located.

He spots a stubbled-headed ball of testosterone with four parallel tattooed lines on his neck, which means he is either a) trying and failing to become a human barcode or b) a member of some criminal fraternity with politics that make Viktor Orbán’s sound sensible. I am guessing b).

It is the second series of Baptiste, the thriller that started as a spin-off of The Missing, with James Nesbitt. As in the previous instalment, in which Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) was tasked with busting a human trafficking cabal called the Brigada Sibernia, we are on the trail of villains who roam the eurozone, disappearing the innocent for initially inscrutable purposes.

The international media are over this story like paprika in goulash, but they don’t know the half of it. What they don’t know is that the British ambassador is played by Fiona Shaw. I am not certain Shaw intends to reprise her chilly but imperious British agent from Killing Eve, but her character, Emma Chambers – clad in sensible woollens, eyebrows arched into supercilious circumflexes – is a pretty similar one. Not that I am complaining: we should all recycle more.

The difference between the two roles is that, in Killing Eve, Shaw’s character spoke Russian. Here, she is fluent in Hungarian. “Nőgyűlölet és madármegfigyelés,” Chambers says to her husband early on, critiquing what he brings to their marriage. The phrase, as you probably know, means “misogyny and birdwatching”. No woman wants those from her husband.

Chambers has a superb monologue in which she bemoans being our woman in Budapest. “I’m a nobody. I make speeches in half-empty rooms. I rant for days about trade and how bloody good at it we are.” She is essentially Liz Truss with more self-awareness.

But why would anyone want to kidnap this nobody’s husband and two sons? The local plods haven’t a clue. Happily, our hero, played by Karyo as a lugubrious 21st-century Poirot, with the Belgian’s charming accent but negligible grooming, arrives uninvited to offer his services. While Poirot had a suitcase full of moustache nets and more pomade than George Clooney got through in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Baptiste travels burdened with emotional baggage. His daughter died four months ago, his son is in jail and his British wife has just demanded a divorce, citing as cause apparent emotional repression in the face of family tragedy. “This is what killed us, this stubborn Gallic bullshit,” snarls his wife, Celia.

But behind the bullshit (no match, you would think, for its Anglo-Saxon variant) Baptiste grieves. The directors visualise his pain through a toy elephant that used to belong to his daughter. His daughter’s death gives his professional life personal resonance. In The Missing and in this spin-off, he is a man doomed to wander a spectral Europe where human life is a commodity first and murder casually committed. Here, Baptiste is kin to two other TV detectives: Kari Sorjonen of the superb Finland-set Bordertown and Bosch’s Harry Bosch are fathers to adored and impressive daughters, and often tasked with solving crimes involving the terrible things men do to young women. Baptiste is the third of this trio, a middle-aged Hamlet cursed with the job of setting right a time out of joint.

What really makes this episode compelling is neither the whodunnit nor the fetchingly bleak central-European locale (essentially, we are in The Grand Budapest Hotel without Wes Anderson’s kookiness), but something more unusual. The mystery of what happened between the Chambers family kidnapping more than a year ago and the present day slowly builds, with the show’s writers, brothers Harry and Jack Williams, cleverly skipping between past and present. Why is Emma now using a wheelchair? And what happened in the intervening period to turn Baptiste into a crazily bearded King Lear, raging madly in the street? Clearly, whatever happened was enough to make him lose his sleuthing mojo.

Only in the final reveal does he get it back. Chambers arrives at Baptiste’s apartment and insists he comes outside to look in her car boot. Inside is the kidnapper, caged like a seething gorilla. How did he get there? What happens next? I don’t know, but I am in.