Baghdad Central, Dead To Me: The Crime Writers’ Favourite Crime Dramas Of The Year

The best crime shows this year, chosen by some of the world’s best crime novelists.

We’ve done this every year The Killing Times has existed: asked some of the best crime writers in the world to tell us their favourite crime dramas of the year.

And, even though 2020 has been a year like no other, we’re doing it again.

Because 2020 has been full of anxiety, strangeness and uncertainty, this year’s picks are unusually diverse and unexpected in their selection. Some authors wanted comfort, some wanted to switch genres, and some went back to old favourites.

Whatever their selections, it’s always fun to see what the crime writers choose because the worlds of crime fiction and television drama often intersect. Plus, we like to introduce you to new authors and give you some book recommendations.

Stand by for our own countdown of the best crime dramas of 2020 at the end of this month.

Ragnar Jónasson
The Nest

There were many excellent series this year. I was impressed with The Deceived, excellent writing by Lisa McGee and Tobias Beer, it had the wonderful atmosphere of a classic Rebecca-style mystery. The Undoing was also fantastic, based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. That series – nostalgically released the old fashioned way of one episode per week – really kept me waiting all week for the next one, fabulous twists and turns, and first class acting, and, most importantly, the ending came as a surprise to me. I was also very pleased to see Earl Stanley Gardner’s legendary Perry Mason returning to the small screen. But for my series of the year I am going to select Scotland set series The Nest. This was edge-of-your seat material, written by Nicole Taylor, with outstanding acting and plotting, as well as social commentary, addressing various social and moral problems. Very memorable and well done.

Ragnar Jónasson is the award-winning Icelandic author of 12 novels, including the acclaimed Dark Iceland series. The final, sixth book in that series, Winterkill – released this year – begins when the body of a 19-year-old girl is found on the main street of Siglufjoerdur. Police Inspector Ari Thor battles a violent Icelandic storm in an increasingly dangerous hunt for her killer. Ragnar’s Dark Iceland series has been optioned for television.

CL Taylor
Dead To Me (Series 2)

Other than watching documentaries about morally corrupt self-help gurus as research for my next psychological thriller – Her Last Holiday – I’ve kept my viewing pretty light this year when it comes to crime dramas so my nod is to Dead to Me season 2. Billed as ‘a dark comedy’ it might not be everyone’s idea of a crime drama but, in 2020, it was the escapist entertainment I needed. The premise of season 1 was that two women – Jen and Judy – bond during a group bereavement therapy session but it turns out that Judy knows more about Jen’s husband’s death in a hit and run than she initially lets on. The two women become friends but things become complicated when Judy starts dating Nick, a police detective and Jen ask him if he’s ever solved a hit and run… I won’t give any more away save to say that another death occurs at the end of the season and, in season two, the two women deal with the fallout. The storylines become almost absurdly far-fetched but what keeps you gripped it is the relationship between the two women – their onscreen chemistry is fantastic – and the fact that weighty themes like grief and loss are dealt with in such a darkly comic way. Like Season one, season two ends on a cliff-hanger. I’ll definitely be watching season three. 

Cally Taylor is a six-time Sunday Times Bestseller and the author of seven psychological thrillers. Her eighth novel, Her Last Holiday is released in April 2021, and tells the story of Fran, whose sister disappeared on wellness retreat on Gozo. Fran books herself onto his upcoming retreat – the first since his release – and finds herself face to face with the man who might hold the key to her sister’s disappearance.

Laura Lippman
Peacock (US)

Just in time for the pandemic, Peacock made ALL the Columbo episodes available. I own several early seasons on DVD, but this was my first chance in a while to watch the ‘lesser’ Columbo that aired in the 1990s and into the 21st century. I ended up write a novella about a couple who watches Columbo during the pandemic. Comfort watching at its best.

Laura Lippman is one of the most respected and award-laden crime novelists of this generation. A former journalist at the Baltimore Sun, Laura is the author of over 25 crime novels. She has won the Edgar, Anthony and Agatha Awards. Sunburn (2018), her second consecutive novel to win the eDunnit Award at Crimefest, was also nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and was a Waterstones Book of the Month. Her new book, Dream Girl, is released in 2021.

James Oswald
The Expanse

Confession time: I don’t actually watch a lot of TV at all, let alone crime series. Running a farm and writing two novels a year leaves very little time for anything else. Thus my recommendation might seem a little left-field but bear with me. The Expanse may be set in the future, and largely in space, but the themes it deals with are universal (with a small U). It has politics played out on an epic scale and petty crime whose consequences grow to threaten the fragile stability of the entire solar system. The best science fiction acts as a commentary on our current situation in much the same way as the best crime fiction shines a light on the human condition. The world of The Expanse might have exploding spaceships, but it also has the inequality of wealth and the exploitation of the masses by the powerful few that will feel very contemporary. Each season is structured much like a crime series, focused on a core group of people as they struggle first to understand, then deal with petty criminals, corporate evil-doing and governments sacrificing the lives of the people in pursuit of ideology. And on top of all that it is brilliantly written, with a top-notch cast and incredible production. And did I mention it had exploding spaceships?

James Oswald is the Scottish author of 10 Detective Inspector McLean novels. The 11th – What Will Burn – is available in February 2021 and sees McLean investigating the charred remains of an elderly woman discovered in a burned-out gamekeepers cottage. James is also the creator of Constance Fairchild, whose first adventure is told in 2018’s No Time To Cry, published by Wildfire in 2018.

Barbara Nadel
Baghdad Central
Channel 4

Those who have come across my Cetin Ikmen crime series will know that it is set in modern Turkey. To my delight, the series has recently been optioned for TV by Viacom/Miramax so hopefully a team of Turkish detectives will soon be on our screens. However, back in February 2020, an equally unaccustomed crime story hit Channel 4 in the shape of the excellent Baghdad Central

Set in Iraq in 2003, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is based around the character of Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji. A widower with two grown up daughters, Muhsin was a detective based at Baghdad Central police station when Saddam was in power. Now, with little authority left, he must plead, bribe and threaten his way through the maze of competing militias that are attempting to take over the country as well as pandering to the often blatant vanity of the US and UK occupiers based in the Green Zone. When Muhsin’s eldest daughter Sawsan goes missing, this juggling act only intensifies.

Faced with a wall of silence amongst the local dissidents, violence and threats from the local militias, plus the clashing egos of two allied officials – one American and one British, his search for Sawsan is anything but easy and there are several times when Muhsan almost loses his life. Violent and visceral, Baghdad Central pulls no punches when it comes to the portrayal of Iraq after the fall of Saddam. People are shot without thought, torture is routine and corruption as common-place as dust.

A great script by Stephen Butchard is beautifully interpreted by a largely Arab cast led by the excellent Waleed Zuaiter as Muhsin and Leem Lubany as Sawsan. Between each other and, on occasion, with foreigners, the Iraqi characters engage in gallows humour typical of those exposed to the day in, day out grind of conflict. Brilliant dialogue reveals how war can make monsters of  anyone attempting to stay alive in what is an almost unbearable situation.

No punches were pulled with regard to the invading allies either. Frequently gung ho and muddle-headed the worst of them being Bertie Carvel’s ex-Scotland Yard man, Frank Temple. Charged with re-organising the Iraqi Police Force, post Saddam, he is also hell-bent on feathering his own nest at the same time. His American counterpart, Captain Parodi (Corey Stoll) is little better.

One of the main points about my Turkish series is that people have to work within the system they find themselves inside. The Iraqi example is extreme, but nothing is perfect. The only consolation being that good people like Inspector al-Khafaji, like Inspector Cetin Ikmen will always be there to do the right thing, even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice. Baghdad Central had me in tears, many times, because the fact that such people do such things, is beyond courageous.

London-based crime author, Barbara Nadel, has written 22 books in the Cetin Ikmen series, set in Turkey. Her latest, released this year, is Blood Business, which tells the story of brothers Ugur and Lokman Bulut who are locked in a bitter inheritance battle and need a sample of their mother’s DNA to contest her Will. But when her body is exhumed, her corpse is found to be missing and a fresh body, with its heart removed, has been put in her grave. Retired inspector Cetin Ikmen must investigate. The Ikmen series has been optioned for television.

Doug Johnstone
Dead To Me

I was a little annoyed when I started watching the first season of Dead To Me because the central premise – someone committing a hit and run then guiltily seeking out the bereaved family of their victim – was exactly the same as one of my novels. But that annoyance quickly turned to admiration then awe, because the darkly comic series was so cleverly plotted and beautifully acted by leads Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini. That first season was precisely balanced between drama and comedy and I worried they wouldn’t be able to match it, but the second season took things to a whole new level, brilliantly dealing with the cliffhanger from the first season and taking the show in a whole new direction. The key to the show’s appeal is definitely in the central performances of Applegate as Jen and Cardellini as Judy. Their gradual bonding despite everything that’s thrown at them is the anchor for the show, developing into a real tribute to the power of female friendship and support. And just as things looked to be getting resolved into a happy ending, they threw another jaw-dropping curveball at the viewer, and I can’t wait to see what they do with season three.

Doug Johnstone is the author of 12 novels, most recently The Big Chill (2020). Several of his books have been bestsellers and three, A Dark Matter (2020), Breakers (2019) and The Jump (2015), were shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. The Big Chill, the second in a series featuring the Edinburgh-based Skelf family – who run a private investigator and funeral home businesses – has been optioned for television.

Sólveig Pálsdóttir
Line Of Duty
BBC/iPlayer (Netflix non UK)

I normally spend more time reading books than watching TV but the year 2020 is different from all other years. So during this Covid year I‘ve watched a lot of series and almost all have been good. Right now I‘m watching the third season of Line of Duty (2016) and I think this season is just superb. The first season came out in 2012 but it‘s still relevant, and to date five seasons have been produced, the latest one came out in 2019, with a sixth in production. The series is very well written by screenwriter Jed Mercurio, who also wrote Bodyguard, which I also really loved. Not only does Jed Mercurio write a thrilling plot, but he also knows how to create believable characters who are never simple or black and white. The actors are fantastic but my favourite is Adrian Dunbar as Superintendent Hastings. Line of Duty combines most of what I want to see in a good crime series.

Sólveig Pálsdóttir is an Icelandic writer who has written five crime novels that have all reached the best-sellers chart. Shackles (2019) won Best Icelandic Crime Novel in 2019 and will be Iceland‘s contender for the nordic crime novel awards, Glass Key Award 2020. One of her most popular novels, The Fox was recently published in English by new independent publishing house Corylus Books and Shackles will also be published in English in 2021.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Karen Mulhern says:

    Excellent way of doing a “best of” list. Now I’m intrigued enough to watch The Nest.


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