For superb Scottish crime author Val McDermid, Dead Clever represents her second radio drama after last year’s Deadheading. Fitting snugly into Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama slot, McDermid showcased her deftness in the genre, as well as all the warmth and humour we’ve come to expect and admire about her. That first instalment in the Dead… series (made by the always excellent Savvy Productions, makers of Craven) introduced us to down to earth DCI Alma Blair (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and her partner DS Jason Trotter (John Hollingworth), and the likeable pairing has returned for a new five-episode story, which has played out across this week.
The story Blair and Trotter were involved with this time around concerned the murder of a professor – a Cecil Rhodes Professor Of Geography no less – at an unnamed university in the north of England.
Straight away the differences between the two coppers were made clear. Blair was never given the opportunity to go to university, while Trotter was revelling in the fact that he knew all about academia and the ins and outs of Titular Chairs and the like.
This was good news because the murder of professor Peter Piper had laid this cliquey system wide open. It turns out Piper was hugely disliked both by colleagues and students, which immediately gave Blair and Trotter a small cadre of suspects to work through.
There was his son, his secretary, two of his colleagues and two of his underlings who he had been supervising (and were annoyed that Piper had been adding constant revisions to their PhDs). As the amusingly sarcastic narrator commented: “The professor who holds onto his PhD students the longest is king.”
On top of manipulating the system to maintain his perks and status, he had also been accused of groping by one of his female colleagues.
So we had a classic whodunit, all zipping along until the final reveal. It astonished me that so much could be packed into five, 15-minute episodes – we had the set-up, the investigation, some red herrings, some drama when Jo Black’s assistant Mo was put into hospital and even a bit of personal stuff, too. It was perfectly crafted.
Dead Clever also showed a nice lightness of touch, which was mostly thanks to McDermid’s beautifully natural script. The dialogue between the working class Blair and the middle class Trotter really zinged, not with barbed banter but with natural and genuine-sounding friendship. Whenever Jane Hazlegrove’s CSM Jo Black entered the fray, the results were the same: great dialogue with a really natural feel.
As you would expect from a veteran like McDermid, the plotting was tight and engaging, but there was humour here and there were plenty of terrific lines (Voiceover man: “He was wrong, but interestingly so. Which, in his world [academia], is almost the same as being right) and some nice nods to the genre. One of the students Piper had been supervising (who became a suspect) had been writing a PhD about Scottish crime fiction. “The Geography Of Tartan Noir, about Scottish crime fiction in relation to the real world,” he excitedly blathered to his potential new supervisor. “The geography and the sociology. It’s a rich field… What I’ve found is that there was a handful of writers of significance, now it’s positively a torrent. Every time you turn around it’s Murder In Monifieth (not sure of the spelling of that one) or Homicide In Helensburgh.”
Alongside the humour Dead Clever also showcased McDermid’s liking for technical accuracy. Particularly with Crime Scene Manager Jo Black, there were mini treatises on the perception of forensic science (“don’t ever mention THOSE initials”, she spat, referring to CSI) and concepts only those in the crime world would know (like the Locard Principle).
Dead Clever was a hugely enjoyable little crime drama with plenty of likeable characters and great dialogue. But there were some serious subjects at the heart of it, too – like the class differences between Blair and Trotter and questions as to why some children get the chance to go to university and some don’t; as well as sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and why some women are not encouraged to do speak up and complain.
Both serious subjects were deftly woven into a naturalistic, whodunit drama with a perfect balance. It’s a combination that all crime drama should aspire to.