- (C) Kudos – Photographer: Nick Briggs
Last year I asked crime writers (novelists, that is) I liked and admired to share with us their favourite crime dramas of the year (see that post here). Even though television and the novel are different mediums, there’s obviously lots of common ground between the two and it was fascinating to read what these wordsmiths thought of their near neighbours in TV Land. I decided to do the same this year, and I’m chuffed to say that another terrific bunch of talented writers have taken the time to write something for the site. Have a read of the crime writers’ favourite crime drama over the jump…
The Jinx: The Life And Times Of Robert Durst, Sky Atlantic
As a writer who finds more inspiration in TV and film than actual reading (I know, it’s blasphemous), and still lamenting over Breaking Bad’s glorious finale, 2015 didn’t disappoint in the way of crime television, despite the underwhelming season two of True Detective we all held our breath for. Perhaps I’m a bit partial because I’m a Yankee, but it’s to American television that I typically flock to, and this year two really stood out for me: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, the HBO documentary mini-series that could have truly coined the phrase ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’. It’s the captivating true story of a narcissistic billionaire who keeps getting away with murder, with an ending sure to leave you with a fair mix of shock and shiver. Not just in regards to the genre of crime, but it’s probably one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. Next, Bloodline, Netflix’s neo southern gothic delivered in a most superb setting (the Florida Keys) about the sinister secrets behind one seemingly normal family. Brilliant acting, complex story, rich narrative, it checks all the marks of being a successful crime series, with its second season right around the corner. (Warning: may cause cravings for margaritas and key lime pie.)
Jax Miller’s Freedom’s Child was called “one of the stand-out debuts of the year”. See her website here . Buy Freedom’s Child here
I really enjoyed Unforgotten, a compelling cold case drama with a brilliant cast headed by Nicola Walker. Unpicking the decades-old mystery of a young man’s death, Unforgotten is twisting police procedural with heart and a social conscience, featuring an outstanding turn by Tom Courtenay.
The New York Times said: “The Girl on the Train has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl.” The best-selling hit is currently being adapted into a film, starring Emily Blunt and Justin Theroux. You can buy it here.
River was the standout crime drama of the year for me. From the very first scene when we meet River (Stellan Skarsgård) and his sassy partner Stevie (Nicola Walker) we know we’re in for a seriously classy drama – neon-lit London has never looked so noirishly glamorous – and that’s before we’re sideswiped with a killer twist a couple of minutes in. When River’s partner doesn’t accompany him on a chase of a suspect it seems odd – until the conclusion of the scene. They’re walking away, joshing each other, and we see that Stevie has a catastrophic exit wound in the back of her head. River is a man wrestling with mental illness and his world is populated by the dead. They aren’t ghosts, they’re manifests, he tells his police shrink, and although the hauntings are suitably chilling, they (thankfully) don’t pop up to help him solve crimes. Casting Swedish actor Skarsgård in the role was a masterstroke. His otherness somehow intensifies his alienation from police politicking and his grief-stricken isolation over the loss of disco loving Stevie, whose murder he is trying to solve. He also has one of those battered faces you never tire of looking at – able to morph from gloomy and cynical into hopeful and joyous in a heartbeat. The solution to the murder plot perhaps didn’t entirely convince, but it didn’t much matter. The true dénouement was the scene in which River and his dead partner dance to 70s disco classic I Love To Love. Genuinely moving.
Anya Lipska is author of the Kiszka and Kershaw series (currently in development at the BBC as a possible drama series). Her latest A Devil Under The Skin novel was called, “brutal, brilliant and believable”. Her website is here. Buy A Devil Under The Skin here.
Witnesses, Channel 4
Weirdly, as a crime writer I don’t watch much crime drama on TV. I much prefer crime documentaries and I’ve watched many fantastic ones this year. I watched my favourite crime drama ever made again – The Sopranos – which I do every couple of years. There’s not many series I do that with, but Breaking Bad was added to that list recently. Regarding new crime drama, if you had asked me on 1st January which show would probably end up as my favourite of the year, I would have said Broadchurch without thinking. Sadly, the second series didn’t do it for me at all. Very disappointing, given how excellent the first series was. An honourable mention for the serial Suspects, which is on Channel 5 and is a brilliantly made show. Innovative and impressive, with Damien Molony and Clare-Hope Ashitey who are two amazing actors. My favourite crime drama of the year however, was the French made Witnesses (Les Témoins). An original premise, in that it’s not so much murder that kicks off the police investigation, but what someone is doing with dead bodies stolen from their graves (posing them in show homes – re-enacting a family somewhat). There’s wonderful acting from Marie Dompnier and Thierry Lhermitte, who both bring so much to each scene they’re in. The show itself is a lesson in building suspense slowly, keeping a viewer gripped without realising, and bringing horror to normality. It’s an excellent noir tale, with splashes of dark humour and French wit. It was the humanity that shone through for me, with a superb supporting cast lending a credibility to the whole series. Extraordinarily creepy from the first episode until the last.
Luca Veste’s Blood Stream was released in October, the fourth DI Murphy and DS Rossi mystery. Clare Mackintosh said, “This is a twisty, psychological crime debut in a gritty setting: a new favourite for police procedural lovers.” His website is here. Buy Blood Stream here.
- Marnie Riches
Fargo, Channel 4
The first season of Fargo, the TV series, was always going to be a tough act to follow. Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton delivered bravura performances in what was a darkly comic slice of North American small town life, with a real Nordic Noir tang. When the second season aired, I was sceptical. A retrospective story, set in 1979? A whole new cast of characters? The Gerhardts, an extended crime family that seemed to bake and eat a LOT of bread, rather than a serial-killing psychopath with a bad fringe? Hmm. I wasn’t sure. But I was quickly sucked into this twisted, tightly-plotted story of brutal gang warfare where it snows a lot, tempered by the petty concerns of ditsy hairdresser, Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), who is really determined to, “self-actualize and be the best me I can be”. Her husband, Ed, aka The Butcher of Laverne, puts a Gerhardt brother through his industrial mincer in only the second episode! Disturbed by Minnesota State Trooper, Lou Solverson, during this grim, tainted meat production, it is perhaps the most gripping piece of television I’ve ever watched. As you would hope from Fargo, the violent clashes are plentiful but balanced by frequent humour and poignant domestic scenes, provided in the main by the home life of Solverson and his ailing wife, Betsy. They say so little to one another with great tenderness. It’s a wonderful portrayal of Nordic stoicism. Older characters are glorious too: specifically Betsy’s father, Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), the town lawyer, Karl Weathers – both acerbically witty men who display enormous courage in the face of danger – and their ageing nemesis, Floyd Gerhardt, a tough matriarch, if ever there was one. I could eulogise further about the subtleties of the series, with its references to the Vietnam war and its depiction of appalling racism that was so typical of the era. But I must stop and insist that you watch it too. Besides, there is still one more episode to go before the finale is reached, or should I say, “actualized”? I can’t wait!
Marnie’s debut The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die won a Dead Good Reader Award and both books have made it into bloggers’ end of year Top 10s. Her third The Girl Who… novel, The Girl Who Broke The Rules, was published this year. Go here to see her website. Buy The Girl Who Broke The Rules here.
I think I’d put forward the BBC’s River as a contender for one of the most original TV crime dramas of 2015. Although following a familiar narrative trail of murder and intrigue, it was clear from the outset that this six-part series wasn’t the usual run-of-the-mill police procedural; what we were actually being treated to here was a beautifully crafted study of loneliness, loss and grief. For me drama is all about the characterisation, and thanks to some bravura performances, inventive direction, and innovative writing, this particular drama had it in spades. River was written by Abi Morgan (also responsible for the excellent period drama The Hour) and she has revealed that the inspiration for the ‘manifests’ was Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply, in which Juliet Stevenson is visited by the ghost of her dead cellist boyfriend. Personally, River’s spectral visits also give a little nostalgic nod towards Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), a TV series first broadcast in the late 60s about a pair of private investigators, one of whom is a ghost (this programme has one of my favourite theme tunes, written by the talented Edwin Astley – a superb example of the genre, suitably spooky with its harpsichord and brass band). As well as illustrating River’s feelings of alienation and self-doubt, Morgan uses the device of the revenants to push the plot forward, with the ‘manifests’ (his sub-conscious) nudging the detective to explore other lines of enquiry – a technique that I’ve used myself with George Harley’s drug-induced hallucinations. All in all this was a mature and complex crime drama, exactly the kind of thing that the BBC excels in, and something that we should be proud that our public service broadcaster has the gumption and foresight to commission.
Phil Lecomber’s debut in his 1930s-set George Harley mysteries – The Mask Of Verdoy – was published this year. Crime Thriller Review gave it a five-star review, saying: “The smoky and smoggy atmosphere of 1930s London is captured beautifully… The dramatic finale is magnificently melodramatic, and ends the book – an excellent debut – in fine style.” Go here to see his website. You can buy The Mask Of Verdoy here.
Better Call Saul, Netflix
I lost a week of my life when AMC’s Breaking Bad hit Netflix. It wasn’t just the brilliant hook: dedicated dad and boring chemistry teacher gets terminal cancer and becomes a crystal meth kingpin to secure his family’s future. It wasn’t just the multi-faceted character dimensions: kind Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) versus cruel Walt; reckless Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) versus his crippled with conscience alter ego. It wasn’t even being able to binge on long form drama without having to wait a week, a day, or an ad break. It was a reverential fascination with the detail Vince Gilligan had given the characters who were technically only in orbit of Walt and Jesse, characters like Hank Schrader – Walt’s brother in law (played by Dean Norris), or ex-cop turned enforcer, Mike Ehrmantraut (Johnathan Banks). So when the spin-off, Better Came Saul, aired on Netflix this year, I was sold from the start. A prequel, it’s the story of legal shyster (Saul in Breaking Bad played by Bob Odenkirk), before he became such a crucial cog in the meth machine. It’s Saul (called Jimmy McGill) right before his moral slide into the underbelly of Albuquerque, New Mexico as he struggles to make ends meet. In other words it’s good Saul before success gave him his swagger. If Walt’s choices were to a large extent taken from him, Jimmy’s journey is that story turned inside out. I’m not going to say Better Call Saul was perfect – the stakes were lower without the drugs and guns – but there was enough material in the Breaking Bad backstories revisited to allow devotees like me better able to cope with the loss.
A crime reporter for Irish newspaper, the Sunday World, Niamh has written five true crime books. She’s also responsible for the DI Jo Birmingham series and has been described as ‘the queen of Dublin crime writing’. Buy her latest novel, Blink, here.
I’m not sure if there have been any real ground-breaking new TV series in 2015, but the one that stood out a bit for me was River, by Abi Morgan and with Stellan Skarsgård. It was great to see this old idol from my youth really blossom as the grotesquely Swedish police officer with all the inhibitions you can imagine – and still be uniquely loveable. The concept of River shouldn’t really work – these constant conversations with the dead – but Morgan’s writing is so subtle, and Stellan is king.
Celebrated author, critic and editor Arne Dahl is the man behind the bestselling Intercrime (A-team) series, the inspiration behind the BBC4 series Arne Dahl. The highly praised series has sold nearly three million copies and has won its creator such distinguished awards as the premier crime writing awards in Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Go here to see his website.
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, and in high street and independent bookshops.