Death and the Pregnant Virgin, by ST Haymon
A couple of weekends ago, some Twitter posts from an arts and literature festival in Norfolk mentioning the 1980s crime novels of local author ST (Sylvia Theresa) Haymon were retweeted into my timeline and succeeded in piquing my interest. Upon further investigation I found that the first of the novels – Death and the Pregnant Virgin – was available in e-book format for just 59p, and for that sort of price it really did seem positively rude not to try it out.
In this story, a religious festival celebrating the recent discovery of the priceless Our Lady of Promise icon in the picturesque Norfolk country village of Mauthen Barbary is shockingly interrupted when one of the festival maidens is found bludgeoned to death in the shrine. She was also four months pregnant despite being a virgin, just the first of a series of revelations – and further deaths – to shake both the locals and Inspector Ben Jurnet.
The book feels distinctly old fashioned even allowing for the fact that it was written in 1980 – insert your own pun here about Norfolk being perennially 30 years behind the times at any given stage. Consequently it feels more like one of Agatha Christie’s vintage Miss Marple novels from the 1940s or 50s, with the suspects confined to an isolated rural community and the investigation very much revolving around means, motive and opportunities, which entails a lot of careful tracking of who was where and when with the more modern obsessions with forensics and DNA notably absent from consideration. Read the rest of this entry »
Murder on the Home Front (ITV)
Something of a peculiar beast this one, which is billed as a crime drama following the pioneering early forensic work of a pathologist working in London during the Blitz in 1940.
I say ‘billed as a crime drama’ because to be honest it feels more like a comedy pastiche at times, right from the opening titles which are impressively and stylishly done but which play exactly like a modern video game. Then there’s the fact that everyone’s so ruddy jolly and perky, busy having illicit sex in blacked-out rooms at the height of air raids, chuckling to their favourite radio show, heading off to dance houses and generally having a whale of a time of it.
The aim is presumably to make the programme full of dark, black humour but if so then it misses the mark because the first half is just too frilly: it ends up making the dark days of World War 2 look infinitely more cheery than living in today’s stressful austerity era, even when there’s a brutal murder or a bombed-out house to investigate. Read the rest of this entry »
Lewis S7 – Down Among the Fearful
There’s not much to say about the first story in the new series of Lewis – it’s very much the same old fare, with a languid mystery loosely weaving themes of religious faith involving suspects played by famous actors being played out against the beautiful backdrop of Oxford all set to the seductive lush score by composer Barrington Phelong.
Lewis (Kevin Whately) himself appears to have perked up somewhat since last we saw him, but Hathaway (Laurence Fox) is even more sour than usual, mainly because he’s lumbered with a neck brace from a car accident early on – which seems to have been done purely as a visual gag, and for a final scene pay-off where it comes in handy while making an arrest. Sadly there’s little time for the other two regulars, Dr Hobson (Clare Holman) and DCS Innocent (Rebecca Front) in this one.
All should be well in the premier-class of British TV detective mystery then, right? Well unfortunately, no. The programme itself might be business as usual, but someone at ITV central command has decided to shake things up scheduling wise: instead of showing the story in one two-hour block (as Lewis and its predecessor Inspector Morse have always been ever since 1987), with this series the airing is split into two hour-long chunks separate by a week.
Its possible that I’m just getting to be a grumpy old git who doesn’t like change, but for me at least this completely kills the show. The first part was fine and felt relatively normal, but by the time seven days had gone past I’d largely forgotten the events of the first hour and couldn’t remember who was who or what they were supposed to be up to. Within ten minutes I was so alienated from it that I pretty much stopped watching or caring, and just held on for the scenery and for the performances of Whately and Fox. As for the rest if it, it was a write-off.
The problem is that the pacing and writing of the show just isn’t meant to support a two one-hour episode format: the programme has always worked by a gentle build-up of atmosphere, an accretion of facts and information that slowly forms itself into a solution. It’s simply not a high-impact show with action scenes and tense moments of gripping suspense that you’ll remember in detail a week later. Characters that are introduced early in part one are then largely dropped until they’re required to pop up again for the denouement at the end of part two, which is frustrating rather than satisfying.
I tried to give this new two-part formatting a go, honestly I did; and all I can say is that the experiment was an abject failure as far as I was concerned. If I want to continue watching the show, then since the schedulers now seem to be actively working against me and the programme clearly I’ll have to record the two instalments and watch them later, back-to-back, as a two-hour special.
Or you know what, maybe I just won’t bother. If the channel doesn’t think much of its once-flagship show anymore, maybe I’m just better off following suit.
Lewis is on ITV on Mondays at 9pm. In lamentable one-hour instalments, in case I hadn’t made that entirely clear, so maybe you might prefer to wait for the DVD which is out on February 18, 2013.
Lewis – S6
And so another series of the Inspector Morse spin-off has come to an end, slipping so smoothly down our gullet that we barely even noticed that it was there.
The programme never had much bite, to be honest. That wasn’t the point of it. It’s a feel-good blanket to wrap ourselves in during uncertain times, where even cold-blooded murder is still firmly of the safe, cosy 1930s golden era vintage.
There’s only so far you can stretch these sort of syrupy confection, and I fear that Lewis is fast approaching the end of the road. There’s a lack of conviction or even interest in this series now by those making it, where before everyone was at least trying to do something interesting if and when they could. Now the writers just seem content to mix up the same old ingredients, and the actors just look increasingly tired of it all. “Didn’t we do this one last year, Hathaway?” you can imagine Kevin Whately’s eponymous detective inspector sighing at his sidekick.
Even Lawrence Fox’s impish, shamelessly scene-stealing performance has lost its sparkle this year, with Hathaway looking increasingly narked and sour. Lewis tells him that he needs to find someone to share his life with, which sounds like the promising start of a character arc but one that the writers promptly forget to do anything with other than by making him moon inappropriately over any pretty guest star of the right age that comes along in the course of the four episodes per year.
Lewis is meant to be the melancholic one, and it doesn’t work when both men look dejected and world-weary. Lewis’ touches of undeveloped romance with the pathologist (Clare Holman’s Dr Laura Hobson) are very sweet and brighten the screen, but all together they constitute little more than a couple of minutes of running time a year. Even Rebecca Front’s Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent has lost her sparkle and just looks fed up this year, although she did get the line of the final show when she snapped at her detectives, “Why are you all sitting there like dogs waiting for me to do a card trick?”
As for a quick potted review of the four stories of the 2012 season: “The Soul of Genius” was a bit of a pretentious study on Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” (the pursuit of the undiscoverable) and went out of its way to do the tourism promo for Oxford (with its botanical gardens, punts and open days at local country estates) and then grafted on a modern gothic ending that felt peculiarly disjointed from that which had gone before.
“Generation of Vipers” was Lewis’s attempt to go all modern by having online dating sites, internet entrepreneurs and cyberbullying behind it all. Obviously all the new-fangled stuff was bad, and done by bad people. On the plus side there was an interesting B-plot structure to the story in which Lewis and Hathaway experience both the highs and lows of media stardom along the way.
“Fearful Symmetry” was bizarrely laughable, a hodgepodge of Daily Mail hot topics and hoary series clichés which felt like a lazy self-parody, with swinger parties, kinky ‘artistic’ photo portraits and hints of bondage as red herrings proving to have nothing to do with the slender story at the heart of it. The sense of déjà vu was intensified by the actor playing the murderer having previously been arrested in a far superior episode of Morse 20 years ago.
And “The Indelible Stain” was also rather thin and familiar, with almost everyone acting out rather clichéd roles from lecherous lecturer to hard-nosed careerist wife. The person giving the most natural, convincing and warm performance therefore had to be the murderer. And Lewis found a reason to be even more anti-intellectual than ever, ending the series by concluding that having books around is unequivocally bad for you.
At least Lewis has managed to keep the formula reasonably intact, unlike its close relation Midsommer Murders which seems to have had a self-destructive spasm after losing its original series star (John Nettles); and then its creator-producer Brian True-May in a row over alleged racism in the show. It’s an unwatchable show now, sadly; whereas Lewis might have its faults but it’s still as easy to imbibe and promptly forget as it ever was, for better or for worse.
“Lewis” season 6 is out on DVD on June 11, and in a boxset with previous seasons.
The Killing 2/Forbrydelsen II – E9+10
Contains massive spoilers.
So that’s it, a second killing is over and done with – and all too quickly. Whatever are we going to do with ourselves for the 11 or 12 months ahead with no new episodes to live for?
The series certainly went out on a high. Episodes 9 and 10 proved to be an incredibly gripping and intense final two hours, a real roller-coaster ride with multiple moments of genuine jaw-dropping shock along the way.
I said in my review of the opening two episodes that this seemed from the start an altogether sharper, higher-quality production with better production design and classier direction. When I say that the acting all round was a match for the first series, that’s meant as further high praise. And it was also very different from series 1, more of a sharply-written albeit more conventional political thriller than a human drama based in one family’s unbearable grief caused by an unthinkable crime.
I also wrote before that with the appearance of the Prime Minister and Special Branch in episode 1, the second series was playing for “High stakes indeed – we’re almost in 24 territory from the get-go.” I’d assumed that this would prove to be background window-dressing, but no: it was integral. The series followed through and by the final episode, with the programme’s radio announcers declaring that this was the “worst-ever crisis for the Danish government” which may be on the brink of falling, and the investigating team seemingly abducted in the middle of a war zone in Afghanistan in the middle of the night, this really did deliver every bit as much high-stakes drama as we could have imagined.
I also wrote in my original review of the second series that “I have a worrying feeling that I already know exactly what the core mystery is, although I hope I’m wrong.” By this, I meant that I felt that the case was going to come down to a war crimes atrocity committed by Danish soldiers in Helmand province and covered up at the highest levels of government. It turned out that this was spot on; and yet despite guessing it right from the start, it’s amazing how much “getting it right” proved entirely irrelevant to the overall enjoyment of the series, which was always more about the investigation and the characters rather that about revealing the mystery as a big “shock/surprise”. The show simply allowed this solution to evolve as the series progressed, and emerge as part of the mise-en-scène rather than the ultimate destination.
Proof of how much more focussed, sharp and coherent the writing was in this second series was how everything came down to one central question: what happened in that house in Afghanistan (and moreover, who was present)? The personal, the political and the murder strands all came down to this, whereas in the original series there were a variety of strands and stories all with their own separate resolutions (or not – quite a few loose ends never got tidied up.) But here, the whole thing stemmed from that one incident and the consequences of the decisions taken by all concerned.
The show also did an excellent job in growing an entire new cast around Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund. Given such a compelling central character, it’s not easy for a brand new cast to get on equal footing, but several of the performances here managed just that: Ken Vedsegaard as Raben, Carsten Bjørnlund as Søgaard, Preben Kristensen as Plough and Lotte Andersen as Lund’s boss’s boss Ruth Hedeby all became genuine human presences during the ten episodes.
Perhaps most surprisingly was the growth of Lennart Brix, played by Morten Suurballe. In the original series he was a monolithic red herring, a cipher dropped in to impede Lund’s investigation. But here he grew before our eyes, and we gradually realised why he sent for Lund on this case: he knew something was amiss, but was stubborn, bloody-minded and determined enough to do whatever it took to overcome the cover-up he saw and get to the truth. In other words, he saw much of himself in Lund, which made their final glaring stand-off in Memorial Park such a quietly tragic moment.
Of the new boys, Nicolas Bro made a huge impression as new Justice Minister Thomas Buch. He was very likeable, shambling and endearing – his moment of drunkenness at a foreign delegation meeting was the comedy highlight of the entire series, but there was always something implicitly funny about the way he was played and shot within the show. Frankly I found the writing of the political scenes to be the show’s weakest element – he went from trusted rising star to complete naïve political bungler in seven days and everyone of his attempts to fight back was almost laughably bad. But then, it makes sense if you consider that the Prime Minister probably selected Buch as a fall guy from the start and therefore he really was terribly out of his depth for all his good intentions.
And then there was Mikael Birkkjær as Lund’s new partner Ulrik Strange. A very different character from series 1’s Meyer and with big shoes to fill, it was impressive just how well he did fit in and became accepted and well liked by the viewers. And of course by Lund herself. Perhaps the oddest aspect of Forbrydelsen II is that the series allowed one of the most clichéd of Hollywood tropes to creep in – possible romance growing between the two leads.
Of course, it was all in a good cause and leading to the final confrontation back where it all began, in Memorial Park. This ending really shouldn’t have been a surprise: this show doesn’t do “out of the blue big shocks” and was never going to pull a hitherto unsuspected killer out of the background. There was a possibility that one of the soldiers who had been on the perimeter of the investigation from the start – Said Bilal, played by Igor Radosavljevic – could prove to be the killer in an echo of the way that series 1 played the same trick with Vagn, but by the time he was ‘activated’ as a suspect he already seemed more like a final red herring than a credible possibility (and if I’m honest, I don’t really buy his final explosive exit simply because of a few deleted radio messages.) I did have a sudden thought that if the writers had wanted a shock reveal then it could have turned out to be Raben’s wife Louise (Stine Prætorius) doing it all to vindicate her husband’s story and have him released from the mental facility, but this sort of final twist just isn’t the sort of thing Forbrydelsen goes for.
Instead, the show invariably plays far fairer than that: by the time the reveal comes you should really have worked it out yourself. And this series certainly laid it out as clearly as it could, with Raben’s unshakable accusation that the Special Forces soldier responsible for the war crime was none other than Ulrik Strange. Why did we ever doubt him? It played on our tendency to believe that Raben was still mentally disturbed, even though everything else he’d said proved to be entirely correct. Why, then, not his identification of Strange? Just because the Army – with a chronic history of obfuscation and lying – said it wasn’t? We should have known better, right then and there. Lund certainly did: it’s why she kept picking at the possibility for the rest of the series, despite her growing feelings for her partner.
The real giveaway for viewers really should have been when Lund was knocked senseless by the mystery killer during a chase. The killer leans in, places a gun to her temple – and can’t do it. It’s an odd moment and makes no sense that a cold-blooded multiple murderer should waiver in taking the shot. No sense, that is, unless it was someone who had already developed strong, genuine feelings for Lund. Someone like Strange.
And that made the final confrontation between Lund and Strange back in Memorial Park so shocking: that this time, Strange didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger when confronted by Lund, who clearly knew the truth but desperately wanted to be proved wrong at the same time. The moment the shots rang out was the most shocking of either series of Forbrydelsen to date. Of course, the mind immediately went to “she must be wearing body armour” – and so it proved to be – but that confirmation was withheld from us for a cruelly long time. (We’ll allow the writers some dramatic license here: in reality, I very much doubt that any Kevlar vest would be able to take multiple point-blank hits from a gun and still do its job. At the very least, Lund would have a lot of internal bleeding from the force of the impacts.)
Even after this, the show had two final iconic moments for us in the final minutes: the stare-down between Lund and Brix being one, but the other that sent shivers down my spine was when Lund was descending a set of stairs … and all the other police officers walking up in the opposite direction suddenly started to part and move aside against the wall. Was it awe? Fear? (This was the second partner of hers that had ended up dead, after all.) One way or another, there was a sense that Lund was no longer merely just a police officer: a legend had been born in these final moments, although whether it’s a good legend or one of searing notoriety is yet to be seen.
There will be no return to anonymous border duty for Lund after this, that’s for sure. But it’s going to be a painfully long wait for Forbrydelsen III to find out just what does await her.
In the meantime, what rating to give this second series? If I’m honest, I don’t think it quite matched the first series which was something truly extraordinary. But at the same time, it’s hard not to consider this an emphatic five stars production. So where does that leave us? Forbrydelsen just broke our rating system, it seems – the way that the finest productions really can, do and always should.
The Killing 2/Forbrydelsen II – E1+2
As far as I’m concerned, the original series of The Killing shown earlier this year was quite simply the best thing on TV in 2011. So when the time for the new series approached, I was obviously excited – but also somewhat nervous. What would they do with a sequel? It’s the equivalent of music’s “difficult second album” problem that’s sunk many a band: do you do the same thing all over again and risk being labelled a pale imitation; or do you try something new and different, and risk losing the unique ‘lightning in a bottle’ that succeeded the first time around? Such is the big question facing the makers of The Killing 2, and it’s clear from the outset that they’re daring to be different. This will be no mere retread, and that’s good news – mostly.
In any case, too much has changed for them to be able to “do more of the same” even if they’d tried. Where the original series was visually like a dull, drab everyday documentary of a routine police investigation, the second series has the confidence and indeed the swagger of knowing that it has won international acclaim. This is signalled early on by the stakes being played for: where series 1 was arguably just the small story of a local schoolgirl’s murder and some petty squabbling in a local election of marginal importance, here we’re presented with a high-profile killing with international terrorism implications that immediately drags in the Prime Minister, the Justice Minister, the Army and Special Branch (which on this showing is Denmark’s equivalent to the FBI in terms of getting under the feet of the local police). High stakes indeed – we’re almost in 24 territory from the get-go.
A matching upshift in production values is also clear: instead of the cold, grey cityscapes of old, we have Copenhagen glistening in sunshine under blue skies; the police and political offices are now large modern open plan spaces; the initial crime takes place at a famous national memorial park; the main character’s pale and wan iconic sweater is now replaced by a rich red one to suit the more vibrant palette being used. Even once the action switches to The Killing’s natural habitat – rain-soaked night time – the quality of the filming is different and superior, with darker blacks and sparkling highlights more akin to the sort of thing we expect from a David Fincher Hollywood production. Certain scenes set in a sewer late in episode 2 seem to evoke movies such as The Shawshank Redemption or even The Third Man; and there’s one shot looking up at a group of guards through a manhole as they peer down at us, waving their torches around for no realistic practical reason other than that the questing, probing beams of light look really cool in the frame composition. The Killing is now sleek and stylish cinema noir of the highest order.
The new sense of superior quality and professionalism extends to the writing as well. There was something charmingly ad hoc and improvised about the writing of series 1, as if the writers were finding out about this world at almost the same time as the characters and we the audience were. Such an approach might have had its drawbacks – the number of red herrings got out of hand as they scrambled to extend to 20 episodes, and too many loose ends were left dangling at the end – but it also meant that there were scenes and characters featured in the series for no reason other than this was their universe and they lived in it. They were there because they were people, not because the plot required them to be. This gave us the Birk Larsens, and series 2 has nothing to compare with Theis and Pernille – and I miss them greatly – whereas the politicians have almost direct counterparts with just cosmetic changes (the razor sharp Troels from series 1 is replaced by the rotund and shambling Thomas Buch, less of a heartthrob than someone people will want to mother as it seems clear he’s being set up as a patsy to take the fall later on down the line.)
There’s no equivalent of Theis and Pernille in series 2 (so far at least) because there no family at all shown for the two victims: what we have are suspects and players in some mystery, but as a result the emotional heart of series 1 is missing so far. There’s a strong sense that everyone we’re introduced to in episodes 1 and 2 (BBC4 is once again showing the series in weekly double doses) is there for a very specific reason. The writers have a solid sense of what’s happening and where this is going; everyone who is in it has a part to play in how this will unfold, just like in conventional UK and US crime dramas. As a result, I have a worrying feeling that I already know exactly what the core mystery is, although I hope I’m wrong.
It’s surely churlish and rather absurd to complain that a series is simply too good, too stylish, too well shot and just too much better written than its precursor. So let’s instead turn to the one thing we can all agree on – the character of Sarah Lund, as played by Sofie Gråbøl. In the first series, the character of Lund (initially at least) was simply the first among equals in an impressive ensemble cast: but now, as the only (main) character to return in series 2, our relationship with her and the series as a whole has changed. This time she’s our single point of identification and our overwhelming initial interest, meaning that the show is about Lund as much and indeed more than it is about the titular killing/crime.
We’re far more interested in watching her personal journey: from working in disgrace and utter isolation as a border security guard (we see her first from a long, high crane shot that makes her look very, very small next to a huge truck) back to Copenhagen where she is initially shockingly uncertain, unsure and timid; but then once back in her one true natural habitat – the murder scene – her confidence grows by the second and you can see the blood fair flow back into the character’s bones by the second, such is Gråbøl’s superb performance.
But it does mean that the moments when the second series comes truly alive are those that best recall and evoke the first series – the three-note theme as Lund stares off into middle distance making a realisation, or where she cuts her new colleague dead because he’s getting in the way of her work. We’re entirely engrossed in Lund’s renaissance and by Gråbøl’s compelling acting; by contrast, the surrounding events of the crime shown here are simply not as interesting or absorbing as the tragic tale of the Birk Larsens was right from the very first scene, despite the implied raised stakes here.
If all this sounds negative, then it shouldn’t do: if there wasn’t the original series of Forbrydelsen to look back on, then this series would still be comfortably in the top five shows of 2011 in its own right. And in many ways it really is a better, a more classy and accomplished series than its predecessor. It is certainly more than worthy of carrying the series forward. My comments here are not intended as criticisms or judgements, they’re merely observations: in particular, much depends on how the rest of the ten-part series plays out and where it takes us. It’s very early days yet, and now that series 2 has made its return and put the new characters and basic scenarios in place, it may all have a chance to breath and rediscover some of that charming ad hoc improvisation to blind side us with another dose of brilliance that we didn’t see coming, just as series 1 did on so many occasions.
The Killing 2 is being shown on BBC4 on Saturdays at 9pm, with repeats on Wednesdays at around 10.30pm. It will be released on DVD on December 12.
Spiral (Engrenages) S3 E1/2
When The Killing started, I really didn’t want to tie myself into watching 20 hours of subtitled drama on a Saturday night, but I felt obliged to at least give it a go. And damn the thing if it didn’t leave me gasping by the end of the first hour, deeply and permanently addicted to see it through to the end.
Now The Killing – or Forbrydelsen as we true fans like to call it, to prove our smart arse credentials – is finished and a gaping void awaits us on the Saturday night BBC4 schedules into which the network hopes to inject another lengthy subtitled European crime drama – the third series of French drama Spiral, a.k.a. Engrenages. Since my ‘taste’ of The Killing led to such delights, I figured at the very least that I had to extend the same courtesy to Spiral as well: watch the first week’s episodes and then take it from there.
There’s no doubting that Spiral is a very solidly made piece of high quality programme making, with impressive performances all around. And yet at the end of that first week’s episodes, I came away … completely indifferent. When the following Saturday came around, I still felt a sense of obligation that I should watch, but once I made the decision not to, my mood instantly lightened and I knew that it was the right call.
So why did Spiral not work for me? I think partly it was because it seemed very similar to the likes of familiar BBC fare Silent Witness and Waking the Dead in the sense of being dark and gritty, and everyone having issues and rows with/shouting at everyone else, and the whole spirit of the show being of things being crap and falling apart. Lord knows, The Killing was no music-and-dance joy-fest and had its moments of friction, but somehow it did it all so much beter, with more subtlety, intelligence and class.
Where The Killing compelled by concentrating on one case throughout, Spiral is structured with one over-arcing “Butcher of La Villette” serial killer (yawn) storyline but individual episodes seem like stand-alone instalments focussing on red herring or distraction cases and multiple unrelated sub-plots for the straggling cast all of which feels like an exercise in filling up an hour’s screen time instead of every single moment feeling like it’s absolutely vital to the storyline, as is the case with The Killing
And all of the above rather gives the game away with what’s really wrong with Spiral for me: it’s not The Killing. I’m comparing the two shows with each other all the time, and Spiral is coming out distinctly second best in every department. It’s not its fault, and I suspect that if the show had been aired maybe two months down the line when memories of The Killing had faded a little, then Spiral would leave a distinctly better impression. Simply put, I think BBC4 have made a mistake by bringing this show in so hard-on-the-heels of their Danish breakout super-hit – and that’s a shame.
Meanwhile I’m pleased to have my Saturday night’s freed up and not to have to commit to another subtitled programme straight off. It gives me time to build up my strength for the rigours of Forbrydelsen 2 in the autumn …
The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E17+18
Over the course of the last nine weeks, The Killing has become one of my favourite TV shows – not just of the year but of all time. It’s as good as State of Play or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – but where those shows spun out perfection over six episodes, The Killing has managed to do it over an astonishing 20 hour-long instalments; and there hasn’t been an episode, a scene, a line that hasn’t been brilliantly done. It’s a quite astounding achievement, and I can’t remember the last time that I was so keen for a TV show to come around that I was literally counting down the hours till the next episode, and so emotionally involved while it was actually on that it hurt. While other shows can lose momentum and struggle to run to full length, this show hasn’t put a foot wrong and has sustained the mystery, intrigue and tension through a longer time than even most full length American TV seasons. The only disappointment is that it all comes to an end in a little under seven days, and Saturday nights are going to feel very odd and empty afterwards.
The show’s various individual strands – the anguished drama of a bereaved family, the political machinations of a campaign, the dark conspiracy arcs – are powerful in their own right and would fuel many a British TV series on their own, but here of course they’re all bound together by and in support of the whodunnit aspect which hones the series into a ruthlessly efficient and compelling mystery. If there were any justice in the world then “Who killed Nanna Birk Larsen” would be every bit as much a seminal television question as “Who shot JR?” and “Who killed Laura Palmer?”
Spoiler crime scene tape
The rest of this longer-than-usual post focuses on that question, as this penultimate week is my last chance to muse on some theories in public. Of course it can only do that by talking openly about the events to date right up to the end of episode 18, so if you’re not up to date with the series then look away now and read no further. (I have no spoilers from the final two episodes or any internet gossip to share, so you’re safe in that respect if you’re on the BBC4 schedule.)
Final chance! Look away now!
Right, still with us? Then let us begin.
Once again the series threw us some almighty curve-balls in these two episodes, which totally transformed the substance and nature of the investigation. The series has done it before (when car fuel logs suddenly focussed suspicion on city hall; then when a cold case and a belated video tape from Nanna transferred the focus back to Birk Larsen’s haulage company.) Now, as the series enters its end game, the producers seem determined to flip us into chaos once again – by making literally everything and everyone a suspect, and by resurrecting doubt in characters we long ago thought ‘cleared’. The key drivers in this final turn in the show have proved to be:
- Nanna’s passport was found in the basement of her family’s new home, putting suspicion back on the family. Since the passport was the object Nanna went to the principle crime scene to pick up, and because it has blood on it, this is the biggest piece of “first-degree” direct evidence that’s emerged. At the time of the murder, Nanna didn’t even know about the new house.
- Another body (from 15 years ago) has been found in the canal, seemingly confirming that Nanna’s murder is one of a series. Mette Hauge’s corpse was wrapped in a removal sheet from the defunct company Merkur, but is this purely circumstantial and a red herring? A search for the decedent’s possessions takes the police on a fatal visit to a derelict storage warehouse.
- A journalist has been asking some awfully good questions of politician Troels Hartmann: was the package containing a key piece of evidence sent from Hartmann’s office? If so, by whom? And why was his party’s flat – the main crime scene – not used for two weeks afterwards in a frantically busy pre-election period and able to stand untouched, soaked in blood? (I admit, I thought this “two weeks undiscovered” was the series script’s one poor lapse/oversight but instead it’s transformed into possibly the vital clue.)
What new light do these latest developments and other events from E17 and 18 shed on the suspects in the case? Many of them could be red herrings and are circumstantial at best, so we have to start with with the one incontrovertible bit of direct evidence – the passport. It could only have been put in the basement of the new house after Nanna’s death, and almost certainly by the killer.
That seems to cast suspicion back on the family, and it’s interesting how the father, Theis Birk Larsen, is now being filmed and acted in a markedly more sinister way in these episodes; the way his impassive face looms at the back of shot, the way his calm demeanour only grows agitated when he finds police inside the house (and moreover in the basement) for the first time, and demanded they leave; the way he shut the door on the basement at the end of E18 … Guilty signs, or just a man pushed beyond his limit? Even his wife Pernille Birk Larsen, whose anguish over her daughter’s death has been so strikingly portrayed, is suddenly unnaturally calm and distanced. The scene where she and Theis faced down their previously trusted live-in friend, employee and lodger Vagn was actually quite chilling and cold blooded. But can either of them really be suspects? We saw their reactions in the first episode when Nanna was missing and they seemed totally genuine – the mounting panic and grief as worst nightmares were confirmed. Theis’ search for Nanna, his rage and his bid for violent revenge against the then-prime suspect teacher are hard to reconcile with being guilty of his daughter’s murder; and surely both have alibis, being at a country cottage on the key weekend? That it’s one or both of them is not quite entirely impossible – the grief could have been guilt over a tragic situation that got out of hand, for example – but it feels a stretch.
A more likely family suspect is the aforementioned Vagn Skaerbaek. Right now he’s the prime suspect: he had access to the house, it’s unclear where he was or what he was doing at the weekend, the police did a lengthy job of demolishing his alibi and proving he had opportunity, and he worked for the old Merkur company. As an employee of Birk Larsen’s haulage company he could also be the person Nanna’s boyfriend Amir thought had overheard them making their plans to elope, a critical aspect with regard to the opportunity to commit the crime (as well as a possible motive, if the killer had a sexual fixation on Nanna and was feeling betrayed by her plans to leave.) The smart money right now has to be on Vagn, and the fact that at the moment people are behaving as if Vagn’s been cleared with everyone apologising for ever unfairly suspecting him almost adds to the sense of sleight-of-hand and misdirection. Vagn’s no longer in the crosshairs only because the police have been distracted by the emergence of Leon Frevert, a co-worker of Vagn’s who also worked at Merkur and had the same access, opportunity and haziness of motive. Leon was also moonlighting as a taxi driver and had previously been questioned as the last known man to see Nanna alive; he has sold off his furniture, got tickets for a flight to Vietnam, and has a creepy serial killer-esque collection of press clippings of the murder case stuck to his wall. In real life this is exactly the sort of person who would be revealed as the killer. Short of a big neon arrow saying “I’m the killer” pointing at his head, he couldn’t be making it any more obvious for them – which is why he’s surely a red herring? Perhaps most significantly of all is why he phoned the detective (the wonderful Sarah Lund, played by the incomparable Sofie Gråbøl) and told her, when asked why he had kept his connection to Nanna a secret: “You have no idea”. That seems a tantalising link to an altogether different conspiracy mystery rather than an admission from a killer. He’s running to Vietnam because he’s scared.
If not the family, and with the school friends and teachers not seen since episode 10, we have to look elsewhere for people who have been in that house. What about the police for example? Lund herself is beyond suspicion – the show wouldn’t work if there was any chance of it being her, or any doubt about her. I confess I was keeping an eye on her rude and arrogant partner Jan Meyer – the murder happened just days after he had arrived in town after all, and where was he 15 years ago? Being a cop is a great cover. But even paying close attention to him there seemed nothing untoward, and with his relationship with Lund developing as it did it seemed less and less likely that he was under any suspicion. Instead, I’d rather come to fear that he wouldn’t be getting out of the show alive – I just didn’t expect it to happen in episode 18 as it did.
Their superior, Lennart Brix, is an obvious dark and evil suspect – almost laughably so in a pantomime-villain way, which is why I tend not to think it’ll be him. He’s the front man for some conspiracy no doubt, just not murder – not least because he only came into the series midway through and has had no detail given to his character. He seems to be there mainly to be an obstacle for Lund’s work, this week by pulling her off a crucial raid that gives the prime suspect the chance to escape or, more likely, be inconveniently shot dead in the raid by Brix’s more trusted personnel. He is too obvious, too underdeveloped for it to be him as the killer, but he’s clearly playing a major role in some grand plot.
Which leaves us with the political strand, and here we’re overflowing with suspects – the problem is that none of them have a connection to the Birk Larsen basement. They do have access to the party flat/crime scene, however, and a major question right now is why that flat was untouched for two weeks. Mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann was a prime suspect for several episodes and even arrested and charged, having admitted being in the flat just minutes before Nanna was known to have arrived and been assaulted there. Charges against Troels were dropped when suspicion fell on one of Troels’ opposing party leaders, Jens Holck, who looked and acted incredibly guilty and ended up being shot dead by Meyer but who has been posthumously cleared by airport CCTV footage. Does that mean the investigation of Troels was distracted and derailed but that he’s still the guilty man? He had all the access he needed, and he’s been pressing the police very hard for updates about the investigation to allow him to stay one step ahead. His ‘alibi’, that he went to a country cottage and tried to kill himself, could well have been remorse at what he had done; and his loyal campaign manager Morten Weber could have been an accomplice, clearing up after him (and been the “shorter” man at the flat window that an eyewitness saw.) In fact, Morten could be the killer in his own right – he has the aura of being a man who has been exonerated from the investigation, but in actuality that was because he was reinstated after being briefly fired having been unjustly framed as a political “mole”. Despite the off-hand revelation that he has driven the car in which the body was found, and some increasingly suspicious snooping round the office and being busy casting doubt on others, Morten has oddly escaped any serious suspicion for the entire series …
Troels’ assistant and lover Rie Skovgaard has also not been suspected of the crime, although Morten’s suggestions in response to a journalist’s enquiries about who sent the key piece of evidence from the office and who cancelled a toilet repair at the flat that would have caused the crime scene to be discovered immediately, seem designed to make her emerge as a suspect now (while they could just as equally apply to Morten – or to Troels.) Rie appears cunning and opportunistic, her affair with Troels suddenly back on after a frosty couple of days while simultaneously suspicions fly around that she’s been getting her valuable secret intel by sleeping with the mayor’s top aide Phillip Dessau who was briefly presented as a possible suspect in the murder itself. And yet despite them being nasty, double-dealing, two-faced political operatives, it’s hard to really see either of them resorting to murder. Rie might kill Nanna if she mistook her for a rival for Troels’ affections or a threat to the campaign, but murder – and in the party flat – seem grossly ill judged and unsubtle, totally out of character for her, while in other ways she’s too obviously hard and nasty to give us the ‘jolt’ we need when the murderer is unmasked.
That’s just some of the suspects. With two hours of drama still to go, the show could still pull a suspect “out of plain sight” that we hadn’t considered before just as Leon the taxi driver was. What about Lund’s boyfriend Bengt? Seems unlikely as he was the one who triggered the police to seek out previous cold cases. Maybe her odious ex-husband? Surely too coincidental and contrived. One of the detectives who’ve been handing Lund and Meyer files – or in particular, the detective who ‘searched’ the Birk Larsen’s basement just before the bloody passport was discovered? Talk about opportunity. Hell, I’d even suspect the Birk Larsen’s little boys, one of which – Anton – found Nanna’s bloody passport and then oddly just threw it back where he found it and wandered off without a reaction. If only the boys were old and tall enough to drive a car! Very strange. Let’s put that one down to wooden juvenile acting and an attempt to generate more tension and false leads!
And finally …
But there comes a point where I have to present some idea, some theory about it all, and here it is. It’s not perfect and I’m really not sure about it, but what the hell, right?
From the above analysis I’d have to say that the leading suspects must surely be Vagn (if the political aspects can be explained away by other conspiracies) or Morten (if there’s a convincing reason why he would have ended up in the Birk Larsen basement.) These are the suspects that my head says are the most logical and rational.
But without a doubt, the character I’ve been most irrationally suspicious about since midway through the series has been the incumbent mayor, Poul Bremer – for no good reason, I have to say. Just a feeling. His purpose in the series – as Troel’s scheming political opponent – has been clear, and he’s been overtly lying and deceiving everyone in sight, most recently manufacturing a couple of witnesses to escape a charge of political malfeasance and obstructing the police by withholding evidence because it gave him an electoral advantage. But the closest he’s come to being suspected of involvement with the murder was when a civil servant, Olav Christensen, confronted Bremer and said he’d procured the party flat (the crime scene) for the mayor in the past. Bremer denied it, and minutes later Olav was dead after being run down by Jens Holck.
And while we’re on that: just what was Holck’s involvement in all of this? The investigation into him went cold when he was shot and assumed to be the killer; if he wasn’t, then why did he do what he did and practically confess all to Lund before dying? Holck was suspected because he was on a particular foreign junket some months ago – with Bremer, it was pointed out, although no one attached any significance to this; Holck was also Bremer’s lapdog, and you have to consider whether his apparent affair with Nanna wasn’t actually just him setting up meetings for Bremer all the time instead. Rather than Holck buying her gifts, were they in fact from an even bigger political fish?
Bremer’s certainly got all the information he needs to carry out the crimes – he frequently knows developments before anyone else, even the police: he knew who was paying Olav for access to the party flat months ago, despite his look of bafflement and denial when confronted by Olav. If he’d been having an affair with Nanna months ago and needed to hush it up, then how clever to use the flat to frame Troels and gain unbeatable political advantage out of a potential career-ending scandal over an affair with a schoolgirl?
Bremer being the guilty party would explain much, and would tie up the various strands into one tight cohesive whole in a dramatic context. And yet for all that, there are major problems with the theory of it being Bremer. Can we seriously see the elderly mayor managing to climb through a broken window into the storage warehouse? (Although the slow, deliberate way the killer stepped toward a prostrate Meyer could easily have been someone of Bremer’s age …) Or of outrunning Nanna in the woods by the airport in the opening scenes of the series? Like all those from the political side, how could he have ended up leaving Nanna’s passport in the basement of the Birk Larsen house? Moreover, the detectives seem very convinced that the killer is in his/her 30s-40s and that the link between the killer and his victims is through removal hauliers – are they simply wrong on both counts? The Merkur sheet could certainly be a red herring (it might have simply been to hand when the killer murdered Mette Hauge, who had just employed the company to move house 15 years ago) but the idea that the killer meets his victims and gets to know where they live through this ruse is a compelling one and simply can’t apply to Bremer.
The Killing‘s greatest trick is to present us with such a large cast of realistic, beautifully-drawn characters, all of whom we suspect and yet none of which ultimately make complete sense as the killer. It could well be that we’re talking about at least two different culprits in the end – Bremer perhaps is guilty of something (the mention of Vietnam put the idea of a child paedophile ring in my head from out of nowhere, for example) and his cover-up conspiracy may have massively affected the murder investigation because of some overlapping factor; but the killer might be someone else entirely, such as Vagn or Morten. Or even Troels after all …
Safe to say, I can’t wait till next Saturday to find out. And yet at the same time, I dread finding out because that means the end of this superb show. I suspect that when the end comes, I’ll want to go back and rewatch the series from the start and see whether I can get it right second time around and see all the small signs and clues that I’ve missed that would have made this article so much more accurate if only I’d been paying attention at the time …
If you do comment on this story – and please do! – then speculate to your heart’s content but please don’t put in any known spoilers from E19 and 20 until those stories have aired in the UK on BBC4 on March 26. Thanks!
The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E9+10
There was a moment at the end of episode 8 of this series where I suddenly started to fear that the surface of this perfect gem of a show had started to crack. It was when the show all-but-repeated the cliffhanger of two episodes previously where one character seemed on the verge of extracting bloody retribution on another. Surely, I thought, the show can’t have run out of steam and ideas already?
Fortunately episodes 9 and 10 didn’t disappoint and were the show’s best yet. Almost as if the frustrating dead end of both the previous episode and the stalling of the police investigation itself had pulled the pin on things, this week’s instalments catapulted the series off onto an entirely new trajectory. It was almost all down to the lead character Sarah Lund’s following up of a seeming bureaucratic anomaly in the evidence: suddenly we have a whole new set of main suspects, a whole new chronology for the crime – and at last, a primary crime scene. We also have a fundamentally altered view of the victim from developments in the heartbreakingly gripping strand featuring the bereaved family, and some fine political bloodletting going on in the city hall strand featuring the character of Troels Hartmann. And all of this came over as a natural progression of what had gone before, of plot strands knitting together, of seeds long sown coming to flower, rather than the ad hoc “make it up as you go along” feel of similar high-concept US shows like 24 and Lost.
The one potential problem with the new scenario is that it seems to be forcing Lund to become that hoary old Hollywood cliché, the lone maverick cop going rogue against her superiors’ wishes. The joy of the character to date has been her extraordinary ordinariness, so this is potentially a problem. Fortunately the show is playing it in an interesting way so far: instead of raging against the system, Lund seems merely to be ignoring it all and just carrying on with the same intensity as before, almost as if she hasn’t noticed. And that intensity, initially so admirable, is increasingly the source of her problems as the relationships all around her fall apart: I’m actually starting to feel sorry for the dislikeable partner, Jan Meyer, because of how poorly Lund is treating him now. I never expected that!
As episode 10 came to a close, there was a shot – not lingered on by the director – of a now-familiar item that had become ubiquitous to us over the course of the show to date: but this time, splattered with blood. The symbolism of it, and what it portends for characters in the second half of the series, genuinely sent chills down my spine.
(With apologies to returning to the subject of this show so soon after my initial short view.)
The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E5+6
A couple of years ago, BBC4 had an unexpected hit on its hands when it screened four episodes of the Swedish TV detective series Wallander as part of a “support package” for the launch of the British version on BBC1 starring Kenneth Branagh. It was so well received that the rest of the Swedish series was picked up and shown in its entirety; and continued to prove so popular that it was repeated again while the second season was snapped up and shown as soon as it was produced. Finally, BBC4 even went back to the older, original Swedish film adaptations of the Henning Mankell novels and showed those as well, even though they duplicated the Branagh productions.
But having mined the Wallander seam to extinction, BBC4 needed some new blood to fill its Saturday evening crime spot – and turned to Danish television’s International Emmy-nominated series The Killing (Forbrydelsen, in the original Danish), which follows the investigation into the brutal rape and murder of a schoolgirl. I decided to try it out, but I’ll admit that the last thing I wanted was another long-running (20 hour-long episodes shown over ten weeks) heavy series commitment to a subtitled show. Hopefully I would not like it all that much.
Unfortunately The Killing turned out to be utterly brilliant. I mean, utterly. I’ve said it on Twitter but I’ll say it again here: I reckon it’s the best drama on television at the moment. In fact quite possibly the best thing I’ve seen in years. It’s completely magnetic, utterly absorbing, a compelling mystery with edge-of-the-seat moments of suspense, political conspiracy and heart-wrenching depictions of domestic loss and bereavement.
It makes The Wire – which it resembles in the way it cross-cuts the various sectors of society with its intelligent strands of storytelling – seem rather ordinary by comparison, while the central character of Detective Sarah Lund who is intelligent, insightful, low-key and committed makes Wallander (in both British and Swedish guises) look a bit of a doddering old fool.
Strangely the show that The Killing most reminds me of time and again is Twin Peaks. Not, I hasten to add, the bizarrely quirky and humorous side of that show (such as David Duchovney as a transvestite FBI agent and director David Lynch on-screen as his stone-deaf boss) but those times when Twin Peaks was very, very dark and chilling, when there was real sense of terror about characters going into the woods: for example, the moment at the end of the pilot episode when a hand reaches out of the dark to unearth the just-buried necklace of the murdered girl made me jump out of my seat at the time.
The entire series had an atmosphere of doom and menace, which The Killing shares: in both shows much is implied but little is shown, compared with a great many modern detective shows that spare the audience nothing. There is also the way both series involve the investigation into the life of a popular schoolgirl who, as the layers are peeled back, is shown to have ever-darker secrets. The moment the cops find a hidden room in the school basement where the students went for sex reminded me strongly of the boxcar scenes in Twin Peaks – it’s just that now the students are recording it on phone cameras rather than the handheld video cameras of Twin Peak‘s day. The victim’s flight through the forest in her underwear with airplanes coming into land overhead evoked much of the cinematic Lynchian style of that 1990s show.
I hear that American cable channel AMC is producing a remake of this, but I’d be amazed if it is anywhere close to being as good as this quite brilliant original production, or that anyone can compete with the astonishing Sofie Gråbøl in the central role.
As you can tell, I can’t praise this show enough. Please don’t miss out – watch it on Saturdays at 9pm on BBC4. It’s not too late to start – all episodes to date are available on the BBC iPlayer through ‘series stacking’.