I walked the dog over the South Downs for fourteen years and in all that time I never spotted a corpse. Not a single dismembered limb, or suspicious package. Not even at dawn, along the river bank, where Sky’s Alibi channel, or ITV Mystery Dramas — brought to me by Viking River Cruises — led me to believe they lay in wait, signalling the start of the latest crime thriller.
By “crime”, I mean of course “murder”. Not misappropriation of charitable funds, or impersonating a police officer, or driving without due care and attention, but murder. Sometimes quite clean murder – the sort which you might expect to recover from after a refreshing pina colada or rum punch, like Death in Paradise – and sometimes (increasingly, and ingeniously) gruesome, but almost always murder.
The TV networks compete to bring us their latest detectives with “issues” and, other than poor DCI Jack Frost, who seems to occupy a depressing semi somewhere in Tameside, spectacularly impressive houses. What are police men and women doing in houses like those? Are they all on the take? Do they get paid more in Denmark and Sweden? If you’re in that line of work, is it wise to be living in something made entirely of glass, lit up like Blackpool prom?
Say what you like about George “Dock Green” Dixon but I don’t recall him ever having “issues”. Unless the capacity to continue working as a copper well into his eighties counts as an issue. Z Cars. I think that’s when they began having issues.
From my sofa I’ve met far too many “perps”, as I understand we must now call them, and, honestly, what are they like? Are there no normal people committing crimes nowadays? And, if the criminals are getting weirder, at least they’re being pursued by an array of the strangest set of sleuths ever let loose on a muddy footprint and an unexplained entry in a bank statement. Never mind the opera loving crossword solver, or the pantomime moustache, what about the manic depressive Swede, the “traditionally built” lady detective or the borderline Aspergers blonde in the tight leather trousers?
Detectives with “issues”. Some with hats. Some with both.
I can see why they have to have a sidekick to chat things over with or we’d be faced with a series of Hamlet style soliloquies, but why does the main character’s immediate line manager frequently give the impression that he or she is (a) on the take or in cahoots with the bad guys, (b) obsessed with the overtime budget or, unlike the hero, the prospect of promotion, (c) more or less insane, or (d) all of these?
I think it’s been largely since Prime Suspect that we’ve all become experts on police procedures and come to realise that bringing the guilty, or occasionally the innocent, to book may be as much a matter of spending days poring over CCTV footage and mobile phone records as having eureka moments over a swift pint of real ale. One of the key elements of course in Life on Mars was the evolution in police practice from the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s to the modern day, it no longer being compulsory these days, apparently, to “fit suspects up” with evidence or falsify witness statements in the way that South Yorkshire Police seemed to make a habit of back then – oh, sorry, that wasn’t fiction, was it?
I now wince if I’m watching an old repeat or a detective programme set a few decades ago. “No! She’s just walked straight across the crime scene, contaminating the evidence! What was she thinking of? Where’s the SOCO and the Scene of Crime Tape?!”
The scene of a famous crime: murder of a cross country skier on the South Downs
And, while we’re at it, when did Scene of Crime Officer materialise as a job opportunity? I tell you this: our school careers adviser never once mentioned the possibility of a career path as a blood splatter expert. I know for a fact there were at least half a dozen in my class who would have put their hands up for that one. (Incidentally, what do they talk about at home?)
I’m not saying that all UK crime thrillers are better than US ones, and I think Agatha Christie was rubbish, but I do like to be able to hear the dialogue and have been known to overwork the pause and rewind buttons to avoid missing some vital clue. And I certainly don’t remember Miss Marple ever overusing the m*th*rf*ck*r word, unless it was an episode that I missed.
Britain’s most popular and enduring television cop, and Sergeant Dixon
A casual hour or so is no longer enough these days for a fully fledged TV crime thriller. They can run for months and contain sufficient red herrings to restock the North Sea. Mrs. Blog and I sat through the whole of the first run of (Danish-with-subtitles-and-nice-jumpers) The Killing, which, if memory serves me right, lasted twenty hours. Around ten minutes before the end of the final episode, as the posse closed in on the remaining suspect (I think all the others were probably dead by this stage) the screen went blank and the DVD popped out of the thingy. What? What??? Truthfully, we sat in silence for quite some time, unable to grasp what had just happened. Had some amazing device been incorporated into the disc to cause this extraordinary turn of events? Eventually, having tried several times, without success, to clean and reload the disc, I phoned friends we were due to visit, and whom we knew to be “Killing” fans, and was much relieved to find they still had the whole series recorded. Wasn’t the same though.
Some may be put off by the thought of subtitles but they do at least ensure that you concentrate. One glance down at the sudoku or a text message and you’re lost. But at least we have a pause button, a near essential tool for crime viewing. Mrs. Blog, armed with the transferable skills she deploys so effectively on veterinary diagnosis or online price comparisons, is hot at pointing an accusing finger at quite an early stage in proceedings in the general direction of the guilty.
Me, in control of the pause button: “So, is that woman – the one who was in Scott and Bailey – is she the mother of the first girl that was murdered? Or is she just some woman?” Ok, thanks. Press pause. “So, tell me again, is that old guy – the one we said looks a bit like the boss in Endeavour – is he the same bloke we saw being beaten up in episode one. Or is he just some other bloke?” Ok, thanks. Press pause. “So, might they all just have committed suicide?” Mrs. Blog is clearly a loss to the Met.
Sofie Grabol, Sarah Lund in The Killing, follows good advice from Mrs. Blog and takes a job at M&S while resting between roles
Finishing off one of these dramas isn’t straightforward. You may think you’re just about done when the guilty verdict is returned, or when the last minute rescue dash ends with the surprise villain being handcuffed and stuffed into the back of a police car while the damsel so recently in distress is transferred to an ambulance but you just know she’s going to be ok. But they’ve still got to tell you how it all got sorted and how they knew where to come, and what’s now going to happen to all the parties involved. You can opt for the five minute Perry Mason/Paul Drake/Della Street type chat which will set it all out for you, or there’s the Agatha Christie “suddenly introduce a whole new suite of evidence known only to the author and really irritate the reader” approach, so lovingly copied – even if self-mockingly — by Death in Paradise.
Perry and Della: the perennial question: were they or weren’t they?
I’m quite fond of those end-of-film written updates that you sometimes see on the screen. “Bad Guy X was sentenced to 400 years in Alcatraz where he took a university degree in colloquial Sanskrit. He was released in 1970 and is now a Republican Senator in Illinois.” “Police Chief ‘Mad Dog’ O’Kelly took early retirement from the NYPD in 1986 and now lives quietly as Tallulah Langtree in Palm Springs. She never did get to see Bournemouth.”
After a misspent middle age watching so many of these things I feel I ought to be able to put a decent crime thriller of my own together. I have in mind as central character a slightly down at heel detective with a disabled Labrador, a fondness for tribute bands and a weakness for egg custards. His early career took him from Glasgow, to Oxford, Jersey and Midsomer, with brief spells in Botswana and the Caribbean, and to Shetland, Denton and the Midland hotel in Morecambe, but he has not yet seen a murder case, always taking up a post just after a sudden spate of gruesome killings has passed across the town, leaving it with a criminal class comprising only serial parking offenders, library fine dodgers and people who persistently put their recycling in the wrong box. Or has it??
“This blog is now helping police with their enquiries and is not expected to be released before 2100.”