Vera, TV’s tattiest detective (post-Columbo) returned for a sixth outing last night, her grimy old raincoat bustling like sails in the brisk, forlorn Northumbrian winds, and still chiding her young colleagues with that unsettling voice that sounds by turns like black treacle slipping off a spoon to the shrillness of iron nails scraping down a windowpane. One thing at least looks slightly different; our dowdy DCI has obviously found a decent hairdresser – the style is shorter, chic-er and a fetching darker shade to cover the grey. This may or may not have been influenced by the delicately coiffed hair of her elegant DC Bethany Whelan (Cush Jumbo). Give it up, V, Beth’s gorgeous.
The body of middle-aged Anne-Marie Richards is found on the desolate Northumberland moors after having seemingly been suddenly whisked from her home – and an uneaten Chinese takeaway for two – in a nearby village.
By the time Vera and her team get to the dump site it has been compromised by many others having trampled over it, chief among them a gutsy teenage girl Ciara (Eloise Knowles) who had tried to move the body closer to the road in the belief she might still be alive.
The woman, dressed more for a night out than on the moors, is shoeless, but still has her knickers on. “Well, that’s something, I suppose,” sighs Vera.
Despite Vera’s badgering, cute young pathologist Dr Marcus Summer (Kingsley Ben-Adir) won’t be pushed into snap judgements about place and cause of death. “You’re doing it again,” he says, stubbornly. “She could have been here a week, say, last weekend – I dunno – when I know, you’ll know.” Start as you mean to go on, Marcus.
Bethany too, is a bit arse-y when Vera makes her family liaison officer; she interprets it as a slight because she’d applied for a promotion to the major crimes unit and that her boss has put the boot in with the selection board.
Not at all, insists Vera – she just doesn’t think Bethany is ready to step up. This is a good call, as it turns out, tragically. Vera doesn’t get much else right in this opener.
Vera also annoys DS Aiden Healy (an underused Kenny Doughty) by making an off-colour joke about his rather swift engagement.
The squad tracks down one of Richards’ daughters – well-off vet’s wife Nicole (Kelly Gough) – competing in a bike race, and the other, ex-addict Christine (Fay Marsay) living in a tower block – they seem to be in a strained relationship, with little love lost for their mother, and neither offspring will identify the body, leaving it up to the fairly clueless family GP.
It transpires that Richards was strangled, leading to a heart attack, although no one can say for sure whether there had been a man her life – although Marcus says she’d recently had sex. Vera suspects a history of partner abuse, but when her fancy man is identified as a married local restaurateur, he tells the police that the romance was over and he was just buying her house for cash to help her out – although he was paying her well under the odds. Why did she need the quick cash and why did she order a taxi to take her to a tatty guesthouse on the coast? Was she doing a runner with another man? Or was someone making it look that way? She wasn’t killed at home – she broke away from whoever had driven her to the moors and got a beating post mortem.
A picture begins to build up of Richards as a local pariah, against whom several villagers had grudges. She is seen by the women as the local bike. Much of the online tittle-tattle is traced back to district nurse Pam (Linda Hargreaves) who takes care of Richards’ disabled elderly neighbour Kipford (Ronald Pickup). This had less to do with the dead woman’s general morals than the fact that she’s been involved with Pam’s taxi driver son Dash (Leemore Marratt Jr).
Local farmer Bob Tate (Robert Blythe), Ciara’s grandad, had also had it in for her for dobbing him in to the authorities for cruelty to his horses.
But when the seemingly in-control daughter Nicole is taken to hospital, having taken an overdose of her mother’s stash of extra-strong painkillers (prescribed for non-existent injuries by her unbelievably credulous GP), Vera, breaking the Data Protection Act by reading Nicole’s medical notes while the nurse is away from her station, realises that Simon (Daniel Ings), Nicole’s nice vet husband, is the vicious wife-beater and that the mother had been caught by him while trying to hide her heavily abused daughter and grand-daughter in a place of safety.
But Vera has already sent Bethany on a fatal duty, driving controlling nut-job Simon and his daughter home.
When driving past the yellow crime tape on the moors, Simon asks Bethany if this is where they found his mother-in-law’s shoes; poor doomed Beth immediately twigs and suffers the last white-knuckle ride of her short life.
The solution to this particularly cruel crime is, as so often in police procedurals, to keep your options open for any suspect who comes under scrutiny early on then is just summarily dismissed. Simon comes under suspicion early, but not enough note is taken of his wife’s clear nervousness in his presence.
To climax the opening episode with the shocking death of a principal character that will shake Vera’s whole team was an audacious move by the writers and producers. And one that has us asking – is the old girl losing her grip?
That ululating voice, one of the most effective weapons in Brenda Blethyn’s acting arsenal, has rarely been pressed more earnestly into service, adding to the feeling that Vera should think about hanging up that mac.
One mystery of this series is that although the character has become an almost annual presence – she has solved 24 so far cases on screen – we know little more about Vera the woman what we learnt in the initial series. Unlike, say, Robbie Lewis, who was pretty much an open book right from his first appearance in Morse, Vera (as played by Blethyn, at least) remains a bit of an iceberg (nine-tenths of her is hidden depths). We know about her drink problem and the problematic relationship with her late father. Last series we met one of her old flames, a colleague who turned out to be a bit of a rogue cop, but maybe after this massive miscalculation on her part we will get to see more of her hinterland in the next few weeks.
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