It’s my favourite time of the year. Not only is it Christmas but it’s a chance to look back through the year and sort out the wheat from the chaff. But it’s not just us. Oh no. Every year we ask a bunch of actual, bona fide, best-selling, award-winning crime authors what they’ve been watching during the past 12 months and tell us what their favourites are. And it makes sense, too, right? Books are turned into TV series; and TV series influence book writers. So, once again, we’ve asked writers whose work we admire to tell us what the year’s best has been. Strap in!
Netflix has given us some fantastic TV crime. Making A Murderer and Narcos have both been brilliant television, but the show that stood out for me this year is Mindhunter. This is a dramatisation of the true story behind the birth of the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit. Unlike most US crime dramas there are no car chases, there are no real action scenes and in almost every conceivable way this show avoids the patterns and norms of what we’ve come to expect from crime television. The series follows two agents, Holden Ford and Bill Tench, as they study serial killers and develop the world’s first criminal profiling programme. This is cerebral drama told through great characters and stunning visuals. A must for fans of Silence Of The Lambs.
Steve Cavanagh’s fourth legal drama featuring Eddie Flynn, The Liar, is out now in paperback. Ian Rankin remarked that this book had, “plotting to die for”. Steve’s next Eddie Flynn adventure is the highly-anticipated Thirteen, out in 2018. Award-winning crime writer, Mark Billingham, said: “Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh quite simply deserves to be huge. If you read a thriller as good as this all year, it’s because you’ve read this one twice.” Go here for Steve’s website.
When Paul breezily asked if I’d write about my favourite crime drama of 2017, I’m certain he didn’t know what he was doing. He doesn’t look like a cruel man. He couldn’t have known how deeply ashamed I am of the answer; how I have to mutter it at parties when the topic inevitably arises. Favourite crime drama? It should be something Scandi or prestige, shouldn’t it? Subtitles or swearing, that’s what we’re looking for. It’s not, though. It’s Riverdale… bloody Riverdale. If you’re not familiar with the series, then let me offer a quick primer. Riverdale takes its setting and characters from the colourful, kid-friendly, women-are-basically-unicorns, Archie comic and twists them into something darker and weirder, with the unsolved murder of high-schooler Jason Bloom rotting at their core. It may sound like the blurted-out pitch of a telly exec trying to save their job, but somehow the noir paint job works. Trust me, I’m as surprised by this as you are, because, objectively, in that bit of my brain that would never let me write Riverdale, I know how much of it is trash. The first episode, especially, is just a checklist of teen-drama tropes.
Love triangle? Tick.
Half-naked beautiful people? Tick.
Overwrought dialogue? Tick.
And then it abandons most of it. Quite obviously too, like a cliché throwing their cliché’s clothes out of the window after a breakup. That love triangle becomes a friendship the rest of the series leans on. The half-naked beautiful people put their crime-solving sweaters on and get to work. They ask deft questions and prod the edges of this seedy world created for them, and the overwrought dialogue… well, the actors somehow learn to get their mouths around it. Don’t get me wrong, this is a series that gets interesting rather than good. Does that make sense? Most television shows give their characters arcs. Riverdale shoots its characters out of a cannon. The plot slithers along, discarding its skin at least three times as it goes, so it’s barely the same thing at the end as it was at the beginning. Case in point, the character of Cheryl Bloom. High-school heiress, queen bee and sister to the murdered Jason Bloom. She’s exactly what you’re expecting, and then she isn’t. Much the way a firework is a cardboard tube, until it isn’t. And that, in a nutshell, is why Riverdale is my favourite crime drama of 2017. Unless you corner me at a party… and then it’s The Bridge.
Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The Seven Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle, is one of the most anticipated crime novels of 2018, and is described as, “Gosford Park meets Groundhog Day, by way of Agatha Christie, but even that fails to capture its originality”. Award-winning novelist Sophie Hannah said: “It is utterly original and unique. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days afterwards.”
The Deuce, Sky Atlantic
I’m fussy when it comes to television, a couple of weak episodes and I tend to lose faith (I’m just about hanging in there with The Walking Dead). And I keep The Sopranos on such a towering pedestal that all else is deemed to be a little lost in its shadow. I’m usually late to a series: I’ve recently binged on GOT and The Wire, but when I heard David Simon and George Pelecanos would be taking us on a journey to 1970s New York, by way of the rise of the porn industry, I was all in from the off. It certainly didn’t disappoint. The setting is pitch-perfect – that kind of grimy, smoky New York that existed before the moneyed polish came out – and each episode is spellbindingly immersive. James Franco is phenomenal as both understated barman Vincent, and his wayward twin Frankie, while Maggie Gyllenhall’s pimp-less prostitute Candy is so achingly detached I wanted to jump into my TV and give her a hug. From the cops to the gangsters, the union workers to the fascinating relationship between pimps and their women, The Deuce feels like the beginning of something very special. Stylish, nuanced and perfectly cast, I loved every second.
Chris Whitaker’s debut novel, Tall Oaks, won this year’s CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger and his second novel, All The Wicked Girls, was published in August 2017. Friend of this site, Sarah Hilary, said of Chris after reading All The Wicked Girls, “A very real, very rare talent.”
Dirty Little Lies, Sky Atlantic
I don’t know if Big Little Lies is technically a crime drama, but it has a crime in it (several, in fact) and so I’m going to say that it is! I just can’t remember the last time a television programme had me hooked quite like it. I watched the first episode squinting at the tiny screen in an aeroplane on a transatlantic flight, and then binge-watched the whole series in a couple of days as soon as I was home. At the start of the show, you know something bad has happened – police have been called to the scene of an aborted charity fundraiser, someone is dead and it doesn’t look like an accident. The story then goes back in time to the weeks leading up to the murder, with the identity of the person killed not revealed until the final episode. This makes it a who’s the victim, who killed them, and why did they kill them, kind of a show. And I found it utterly addictive.
Told through the multiple viewpoints of the five leads – Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Renata (Laura) and Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) – you soon realise that the seemingly perfect lives of these five women hide dark secrets and bitter feuds.
I think the beauty of the show is the multi-dimensional characters – these women are complex in their emotions and complicated in their actions – and they seem very real, very human. They are strong yet doubting, successful yet feel inadequate, beautiful yet jealous, with good intentions yet capable of damaging actions and hurtful words; they are shades of light and dark all at once.
This is visual storytelling at its finest. Are challenging topics explored unflinchingly? Yes, absolutely – the aftermath of rape, physical and mental abuse within marriage, school bullying, co-parenting challenges, and the social pressure to ‘do it all’ for both women and men are covered through the eyes of the characters. And it makes uncomfortable viewing at times. But this is a show that both entertains and makes you think. It wows you with the talent of the actors and the quality of the writing and, as a writer, left me feeling totally in awe.
Steph Broadribb’s debut novel, Deep Down Dead, was shortlisted for the Dead Good Reader Awards, and her follow-up, Deep Down Trouble, is released in January. Ian Rankin says of Deep Down Trouble: “Like Midnight Run, but much darker. Really, really good.” Steph also writes as Stephanie Marland, and her new novel, My Little Eye is released in April 2018. For information on all of Steph’s books, visit her hugely successful crime blog, Crime Thriller Girl, here.
Line Of Duty, BBC One
This is a golden age for television drama and in particular crime drama, which has been attracting the best writing, acting and producing talent. In a year that has given us a number of outstanding British and foreign productions – both new and returning – what’s remarkable is just how broad the spectrum of stories is: from old-fashioned private investigators like Strike to psychological thrillers like Apple Tree Yard and Missing to procedurals like Broadchurch (season three was a treat after a creaky season two) to Peaky Blinders – which is what The Godfather would look like if it was set in Birmingham after WW1. Taking all this on board, my favourite crime drama of the year is without a doubt Line Of Duty (series four) with Adrian Dunbar and Thandie Newton among others – two brilliant actors in a wonderful cast.
Jed Mercurio has created a universe where anything – and I mean anything – can happen. The story though is anchored in a reality which is both comfortingly familiar and yet imbued with menace and suspicion. The familiar part is the world of British coppers that we know and love except that, instead of following the maverick detectives who hunt down the murderers, this time we see life from the corner of the anti-corruption unit investigators who have to pick up the pieces after the mavericks have done their best, and their worst.
I am a card-carrying film nerd and I watch a lot of television but it is quite rare that I find myself on the edge of my seat – I know, such a cliché, still it does happen – and muttering to myself she is not going to do that, is she? The audience of crime dramas is pretty sophisticated; the twists and turns of a story need to be unpredictable and yet believable – not at all easy to produce over six episodes or more. Line Of Duty has been consistently twisty and unexpected in the most delicious Oh God, Oh no! kind of way. Characters you expect to last the season are killed off in the most astonishing circumstances creating dire consequences for all; relationships fall apart with medical consequences I can’t begin to explain; a slow festering situation explodes with a finality that takes your breath away. In short, it was a joy to watch.
One last point, DCI Roz Huntley is an extraordinary character: cool and on edge, resourceful and a complete nightmare for her enemies. You root for her though you are horrified by her actions. That’s it really – a perfectly formed, unpredictable, nuanced and compelling piece of television. I can’t wait for season five.
Valentina writes the Alice Madison series, and book five – Sweet After Death – is out now, with an exclusive ebook (First Watch) also available, which tells more of Alice’s backstory. William Shaw said of Sweet After Death: “This is crime fiction for connoisseurs. With precision and poetry, Giambanco unfolds a delicious tale of a dark sequence of crimes that rips apart a small, apparently perfect rural town . . . First Class stuff.” The Guardian said: “Strongly written, compelling characters and the primary plot is high-octane stuff.” Go here to Valentina’s website.
I was initially wary of Mindhunter. Despite its Fincher pedigree, the serial killer genre seems increasingly over-cooked and the lack of A-list cast seemed to hint that maybe this Netflix series was small and forgettable. A minor work. Or at best a curate’s egg. And even on watching, I realised early on that there’s no real character arcs or overarching narrative to speak of. It hints at a series antagonist but there’s no mystery or investigation to keep you coming back week after week. And yet Mindhunter is as gripping as anything Fincher has ever been involved in, driven by two exciting leads, Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, as two special agents setting up a new Serial Crime Unit at the FBI academy. Their chemistry makes the series tick but we glean relatively little from our characters or their personal lives. In fact, the spine of the series rests primarily on our two FBI agents interviewing a series of ‘sequence killers’ to understand how they think in the hope that they can apply this knowledge to solving on-going cases. With subjects as depraved as they are fascinating, these are long drawn out scenes, two or three people speaking in rooms for 10, 20 minutes at a time. On paper, it shouldn’t work. And yet these scenes are about as chilling and thrilling as anything you will ever watch. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Mindhunter is my favourite series of the year thus far. I guess sometimes the devil is in the detail.
Guy’s debut novel, The Pictures, is a noir thriller set in Hollywood in 1939 – the year that Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz were made. Nominated for this year’s CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger award, The Times said of The Pictures: “A splendid read…handled with great skill…[Bolton] paints a portrait of the period with a confidence usually reserved for old survivors.” The Telegraph said: “The Pictures follows a morally dubious studio fixer in a superbly realised Thirties Hollywood.”
Where would crime drama and fiction be – not to mention actual policing – if the term ‘serial killer’ had never been conceived? This is why my standout TV crime drama of 2017 is Mindhunter, a dramatisation of that pivotal moment in forensic history.
Created by Joe Penhall, Mindhunter is set in the late 1970s and follows two fictional agents in the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit, Bill Tench and Holden Ford, both based on actual agents. The series draws on books written by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, which I read about 20 years ago and found eye-opening, not to mention jaw-dropping. I fail to see how anyone who reads them could afterwards ever seriously consider glamourising the psychology of a serial killer.
The on-screen portrayal of the FBI agents’ ground-breaking work does not pull its punches in communicating the fear and disgust involved in their lengthy interviews with incarcerated serial killers, and also its creeping contamination of their domestic and romantic lives. This aspect reminded me of Masters of Sex, a series that, at its best, created some of the finest television drama ever.
Pace and jeopardy come from the agents’ assistance with live investigations and also the tricky internal politics of the FBI. That apparently exclusively white male world is challenged in interesting ways by the character of the academic psychologist Dr Wendy Carr, also based on a real person. At the heart of the first series, however, is the reluctant, grudging, spiky and sometimes tender partnership of Tench and Ford as, crisscrossing America to visit prisons and crime scenes, they begin to comprehend the scale of their insights
Isabelle’s third novel in the DI Grace Fisher series, The Special Girls, was a Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month. CrimeSquad described it as “the sort of book Rendell could have produced”. Isabelle has also written numerous episodes of long-running TV crime series, including Jimmy McGovern’s BAFTA-winning BBC series Accused. To buy The Special Girls, go here, or to visit Isabelle’s blog, go here.
Apple Tree Yard, BBC One
Between kids and writing, I don’t get as much time to watch TV as I’d like, which is a shame because there really has never been a greater choice in terms of depth and quality. In recent years I’ve loved True Detective, Top Of The Lake, Bloodline, Making A Murderer and a fair few others. This year hasn’t quite hit those heights for me, with both Top Of The Lake 2 and Mindhunter disappointing. But I did hugely enjoy Apple Tree Yard on BBC One – an original story that kept me unbalanced the whole way by cleverly playing with expectations as it shifted through different sub-genres. A great piece of telly that was well written and acted – and hence my pick of the year.
Rod was born in London and, after a successful career in advertising working as a media buyer, he decided to get serious about writing. He completed City University’s Crime Writing Masters degree and the rights to his debut novel, The Dark Inside, was acquired by Faber even before he graduated. The sequel, Black Night Falling, is out now, and the third book in the Charlie Yates series, Cold Desert Sky, will follow in 2018.
Alias Grace, Netflix
My year has been very busy with lots of travelling with the success of Snare and the Reykjavík Noir Trilogy so I haven’t been able to watch as much TV as I’d have liked. I am choosing Alias Grace as it’s the last show I watched/binged on. It is a murder mystery although the format is somewhat different as it’s a psychologist who is in fact doing the detective work as he tries to form an opinion on convicted murderess Grace, in order to get her pardoned. Margaret Atwood bases the story on true historical events and the story is especially poignant now in the light of the
#metoo movement. This brilliantly produced, slowly-paced and poetic period drama – which also dabbles with the supernatural – was an absolute pleasure to watch.
Award-winning Icelandic playwright Lilja released her first English-language book, Snare (translated by Quentin Bates) this year to rave reviews. Sonia, an attractive single mother in her thirties is an imaginative, albeit unwilling cocaine-smuggler. Her main adversary, Bragi, an almost-retired customs officer, knows all the tricks in the book after decades of experience. Not only must Sonja think of new and increasingly daring ways to outwit her nemesis, she must also find a way to get out of the snare. The Express called it “a breathtaking ride”.
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.