There’s no denying we’ve had a great year when it comes to television crime drama, but we’ve also had a great year in the world of crime fiction, too. The two worlds cannot exist without each other – writers are inspired by visual ideas, while the TV series themselves are often adaptations of crime novels. So with that in mind, I asked some of my favourite crime writers to choose their favourite TV crime dramas of the year. Their choices make for interesting reading, and it seems a certain post-WWI, Birmingham-set gangster drama was a particular favourite.
Peaky Blinders, BBC2
I thoroughly enjoyed the return of Peaky Blinders, which seemed to get more exciting each episode – it’s a shame it’s not twice as long, really. I loved the scene where Pol went to a séance to find out about her estranged daughter, as some of my maternal ancestors would have been involved in this kind of thing at that time and place. It was like being able to time-travel to Great Grandma’s house. But the outstanding character of the new series had to be Tom Hardy as the magnificently sweary Alfie Solomons, coming across as the Yiddisher Peter Cook and looking particularly fetching with a goat. Hardy stole the show from Cillian Murphy this time, I thought, and I really cannot wait to see him morph into both Reg and Ron Kray when the film Legend comes out next year. Peaky Blinders also chimed with a lot of research I have been doing for my next novel, Without The Moon, which has connections to the racetrack gangs, although set 20 years later, so I found Noah Taylor’s weasily portrayal of Darby Sabini quite fascinating too. The final episode, with its continual twists and reveal of what the refrain of Red Right Hand really alluded to, was totally and utterly superb.
Cathi Unsworth is the acclaimed author of Bad Penny Blues, The Not Knowing, The Singer and Weirdo.
See her website, here.
The Missing, BBC1
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this as a crime writer, but I don’t actually watch many British crime shows. The tendency towards cosiness and the over reliance on pretty period settings sends me straight to the US for some proper grit, but BBC1’s complex and harrowing eight-parter, The Missing, had me hooked. Centred around the disappearance of Tony and Emily Hughes’ young son, Oliver, during a holiday to France it inevitably recalls the McCann case – foreign setting, ‘perfect’ middle class family, horrendous press intrusion – but that is more in the mind of the viewer than the intent of the writers, I think. Using a tricky dual timeline, which flips between the immediate aftermath of Oliver’s disappearance and the present day, six years later, as Tony doggedly refuses to accept the lack of resolution in the case and continues his own search, aided and occasionally reined in by the now-retired detective who led the original search. Add in a suspiciously helpful local businessman, corrupt mayor, Romanian gangsters and hints towards a dangerous paedophile ring and you have all the elements of a compulsive thriller. The Missing is much more than that though. It’s a study in grief, focusing on the after effects on the Hughes’ lives once the cameras fall away and the police begin to give up hope of finding Oliver. Emily moves on, a decision we come to see as almost the more challenging of the two options, while Tony remains driven to the point of obsession. Both actors give riveting performances, supported by an excellent cast who are well served by a flawless script, which – rare for crime drama – never lapses into lazy cliché. I really don’t want to give too much away for any viewer who hasn’t seen it – if that’s you, then seek it out on DVD. It will be uncomfortable viewing for parents but what is crime drama for if it doesn’t challenge us?
Eva Dolan’s debut novel, Long Way Home was released to acclaim this year, voted in many end-of-year book of the year lists.
See her website here.
Peaky Blinders, BBC2
I was hooked from the first series’ opening where Cillian Murphy (Tommy Shelby) rides a horse into town to the ominous strains of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Red Right Hand. Peaky Blinders gives more than a nod to the Western genre, from the font of the titles and set piece fights to the depiction of a community close to lawlessness. Set in the turbulent aftermath of the Great War, revolution is in the air, with riots and strikes and the Irish War of Independence. Birmingham is a hell-hole of heavy industry, riven by poverty. Tommy and those like him who survived the trenches are home, armed and dangerous. His gang are intent on controlling the territory and the illegal trades in betting and bootlegging. The show is bold and stylish, cinematic, swaggering. Visceral violence contrasts with moments of heart-breaking poignancy. The script is excellent, the soundtrack punchy and raw, the performances, especially those of Helen McCrory and Cillian Murphy, mesmerising. Peaky Blinders explores timeless themes of family and tribal loyalty, of betrayal and corruption and pacts with the devil. A British TV drama about organised crime which can easily hold its own against US shows like Boardwalk Empire.
Cath’s latest book – Letters To My Killer’s Daughter – was selected for ITV3’s The Crime Thriller Book Club.
See her website here
Paul D Brazill
Fargo, Channel 4
Apparently there was an earlier attempt at a television spin-off of the Coen brothers’ blackly comic film classic – this time starring Kathy Bates – but I never saw that and approached this television series with a degree of trepidation. Well, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Black comedy is a delicate balancing act and Fargo cleverly slides that razor’s edge between noir and comedy, violence and slapstick, and the cruelty inherent in both. And Fargo is true noir. Crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order. In crime fiction the ordinary man in tested by circumstances and becomes some sort of a hero. In noir he becomes a villain. Hence Lester Nygaard – played by Martin Freeman – is a great creation. Great performances and characters abound and Bill Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo is a particularly marvellous bad guy. The writing is as tight as a snare drum and it’s a beautiful looking show, too.
Paul D Brazill is the author of A Case Of Noir, Guns Of Brixton and The Neon Boneyard. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime.
See his website here.
Happy Valley, BBC1
I’ve enjoyed many crime dramas on TV this year – The Line Of Duty, The Driver, Peaky Blinders, Prey, State of Play (you see the John Simms connection…) – but for me the one that topped them all was Happy Valley. I thought Sarah Lancashire played a blinder as DS Catherine Cawood – she was emotional, passionate and kick-ass at her job. Tommy Lee Royce was an exceptional baddie, played extremely well by James Norton. The violence was chilling but enough for the story, and shows what professionals potentially face on a daily basis. The plot around the kidnapping was just brilliant – very twisty-turny. I love writing, and reading, books about ordinary people who are drawn into crime by one mistake, which then leads them deeper and deeper into trouble. But what I really liked about Happy Valley was the emotional connection to the characters – whether it was the police officers, the mother of the murderer or the kidnapper’s young acquaintances in too deep. It was very powerful, very violent in places, very emotional in places but above all very, very real. My cup of tea entirely – and why I write about a female detective sergeant myself.
Mel’s Estate Series of novels were Amazon hits, while her 2014 novel, Taunting The Dead, was shortlisted for the CWA (Crime Writer’s Association) Dagger in Library Award 2014.
See her website here.
I don’t have cable and never bothered to hook up an antenna for network television, so I piped in all my shows over Hulu (US streaming service) and Netflix this year. But it’s almost embarrassing how many great shows you can find with just those two options. I kept trying to narrow it down, but I really had two favourites, and I can’t even try to pretend to pick which was better. The first is the French cop drama, Braquo, now streaming on Hulu (and Fox in the UK). It’s a brilliant, scathing portrait of corrupt cops in Paris, following the kind of heavily-flawed, violence-prone characters that make the genre. The second, Rectify, comes from the Sundance channel, and is now playing on Netflix. It tracks a character recently released from prison for a crime he (probably) did not commit as he tries to readjust to everyday life. It’s a beautifully paced and acted piece of work, focusing on the damage done to one man by imprisonment, as well as the horrors of small town living – two of my favourite subjects.
Benjamin’s second novel, Cry Father, has been compared in style to Cormac McCarthy.
See his website here.
Peaky Blinders, BBC2
I like my crime dark, human and stylish. I want humour to leaven the dark, honesty to signal the human, and history to inform the stylish. Peaky Blinders delivers on all fronts. Underpinning the entire epic enterprise is a very simple story of soldiers returning from war, struggling to find their place back home. Failing, and trying again, falling and getting back up. Our hero, Tommy Shelby, is dogged by failure but buoyed by the extraordinary fact of his survival. Tommy was a tunneller, and he still is. Digging his way into trouble, never retreating, laying explosives and blowing bridges, forging ahead. His aunt, Polly, is a fearsome matriarch who has held the fort and now must make room for the returning men. His brother, Arthur, is shellshocked to the point of no return, but we catch glimpses of his regret even as he resorts to fists and feet. Our hero’s nemesis is the blunt caricature of a thuggish policeman or so we think, but even he is shot through with pathos, and an odd priggishness that provides the show’s humour. And always this dark heart beating through the blackened streets. A world clawing its way out of the pit of war (not knowing that another pit awaits) with the swagger of bravado and hard-won bravery, its heart on its sleeve and its teeth at your throat.
Sarah’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, was voted as one of the top thrillers of the year in The Observer.
See her website here
Thanks to all the writers who contributed to this post. Please support them and other new and upcoming crime writers by looking out for their books online, high street and independent bookshops.