Watching both True Detective and Jordskott has really brought it home to me – or at least reminded me – how much importance and influence a location or setting can have on a drama. I thought it might be fun to do a list-tastic feature to try and doff my cap to some of the most influential locations ever seen in crime dramas. I’m interested in those places that almost inform the drama and become a character themselves, not so much act as window dressing. So let’s get on with it…
I put this question out over on facebook and the response from friends was enormous: Belfast for The Fall; Los Angeles, New York and Miami for CSI franchise; Copenhagen for The Killing; San Francisco for, well, The Streets Of San Francisco; Midsomer for Midsomer Murders; Jersey for Bergerac; Shetland; Hinterland; Broadchurch; Rizzoli & Isle’s Boston; the Sweden in Wallander; the Miami in Miami Vice; Rome in Zen; Sicily in Montalbano; Rebus’s Edinburgh… the list goes on and on and on.
But the criteria I set for this post is this: this is not a list of the best crime dramas ever; this is a list of the locations and settings that have played, in my eyes, the biggest role in the actual drama. Those places – urban or rural – that have informed and influenced the drama so much that they almost become a character all of themselves.
This list is entirely subjective and I’ve probably forgotten loads (Sherlock, Longmire, Justified, the first series of True Detective and The Shield came very close to making the cut, for instance) so please do leave a comment to tell me your favourites.
1. Inspector Morse
Think of Inspector Endeavour Morse and you automatically think of the historic city of Oxford in the same thought. One half of the fabled Oxbridge academic seat of English learning, its picturesque streets are bathed in centuries of history and the gentile, fuzzy river-side images are the epitome of Englishness. It may not have the grime or cut and thrust of a big metropolitan city, but Oxford, with its back streets and architecture that includes everything from the 15th century Divinity School to the Roman-influenced Sheldonian Theatre, is perhaps the perfect location to set a police procedural in. As Morse and Lewis investigate their crimes, you can almost feel the ghosts of the past come alive. Oxford is as much a character in Colin Dexter’s beloved drama as Morse is.
2. The Wire
What can you say about The Wire? Surely the best drama of all time (which automatically makes it the best crime drama of all time), it’s the story of a small, underfunded squad of police men and women who try to infiltrate a notorious drugs gang. But it was so much more than that – it introduced us to the city of Baltimore and let us luxuriate in all its nooks, crannies, districts and neighbourhoods. Over five series The Wire provided a complete examination of a city, from the street corners and projects ruled by the gangs to the corrupt docklands, and from the failing schools to the all the city’s burning, barren and forgotten neighbourhoods. The Wire managed that rare thing: to present a story where the characters were a product of their environment, and the environment was shaped by the characters. (You could also mention Homcide: Life On The Streets in the same paragraph.)
3. Twin Peaks
One of the cultiest crime dramas ever not only benefitted from David Lynch’s supreme direction but also the pacific northwest’s lush, forest landscapes. With endless cut-aways to the pine, firs and Sycamore forests surrounding the town of Twin Peaks, its trees swaying in the winds of the night, you always got the impression that out there in the shadows evil lurked. What form this evil took or on what plane it existed was hard to pin down. From buried lockets to abandoned train cars daubed with bloody messages, those forests housed much more than trees, which themselves became so embedded on the mind’s eye you could almost smell the Douglas Firs in your living room.
I’ve lumped these two together not only because they’re both supernatural crime dramas, but also because they deal with more or less the same thing – human plundering of sacred, beautiful land and the ensuing consequences. In the case of Jordskott, which has three episodes left to go at the time of writing, it features a forest, while for Fortitude the snow-capped glaciers of Iceland formed the backdrop. When these two contrasting environments were tampered with you could almost hear them both moan and wail, and of course, in their own ways they fought back. In Fortitude’s case nature fought back so hard to it more or less turned the whole turned mad or infected, or both.
5. Life On Mars
One of my favourite ever crime dramas had a distinctly supernatural edge, and featured a young present-day detective – Sam Tyler (John Simm) – who had been sent spinning into a coma after being knocked down by a speeding car. He woke up in a 1973 version of Manchester, went to work in an old-style police station and dueled with his unreconstructed boss – the irrepressible Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) – on a daily basis. Aside from the crime solving and the puzzle solving, early 70s Manchester was lovingly recreated and acted as the amniotic sac that both protected and trapped Tyler in this dream world. As such, Manchester, with all its foundries, factories, backstreets, doorsteps and faded brutalism was living and breathing just as much as any human in Tyler’s elaborate construct. What’s more Tyler constructed this version of Manchester himself, like an author would dream up a character.
6. Top Of The Lake
Ever since Lord Of The Rings, New Zealand has become one of those mystical places that everyone oohs and aahs whenever they see it on-screen. Top Of The Lake was the story of a 12-year-old girl – a pregnant 12-year-old girl – who we saw walking into a pure, beautiful lake in order to take her own life. Investigating her disappearance was Robin Griffin, a detective shipped over from Australia, and her ensuing search in the claustrophobic forests, and wide open, epic spaces revealed a backdrop that was at once utterly stunning and sublimely scary. No one enjoys the silence of a place where hardly anyone lives, not least Robin, whose mental state was eroded not only because of the intensely emotional nature of the case and the resonance it chimed within her, but also the intensity of the landscape.
The snow-bound surrounds of Fargo and Bemidji in the state of Minnesota were a pristine white; a freezing blank canvas onto which this supreme morality tale was painted. They say that the cold can do funny things to a person, and Fargo proved that the drudgery of living in consistently freezing conditions can indeed make someone do not only funny things, but also murderous things.
Whether it was out in the Florida swamps or in the glamorous, Art Deco-influenced city of Miami, the much-missed Dexter made full use of its surroundings. The fact that Dexter took a boat out to dispose of his many bodies leant the location a ghoulish feel; a living, breathing, watery graveyard. But it was Dexter – arguably more so than Miami Vice – that subtly involved the city the most. Its sweltering heat, its glamour and its murderous danger were an ever-present.
9. Red Riding Trilogy
“To the north – where we do what we bloody want”. No, this British TV adaptation of David Peace’s stunning quartet of novels never quite lived up to the hype (even with a stellar cast), but it did have as strong a sense of place as any (certainly British) crime drama of recent years. It was all set during the panic of the Ripper years, with the overriding feeling of bleakness and vulnerability was rife. In the first instalment the character that seemed to have the most synergistic relationship with his city (Leeds) was local gangster John Dawson – all mouth, trousers and a grimness that matched the time and the city he tried to rule. Dawson set the tone for subsequent characters down the years, all of which the city spewed out corrupt.
10. Inspector George Gently
Newcastle in the 1960s showcased working class northern Britain on the turn, with stories played out within its burnt-out, decaying furnace. Modernisation is coming and the working people of the historic and proud city are being left behind. While the trendier places in Britain were enjoying flower power and free love Newcastle’s working class districts were crumbling, a home to families who were being left behind as sweeping cultural and social changes were beginning to take hold.