Case Sensitive: Does a mixed-gender detective duo offer a different perspective on TV crime drama?

From Cagney & Lacey to Morse & Lewis, bestselling novelist Sophie Hannah reveals the secret of TV's finest cop double acts

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When you’re making a TV crime drama, the first and possibly most important decision you face concerns the detective partners: will they be two men, two women, a man and a woman? Does it matter what gender they are? Surely it’s just the individual personalities that count, right? Wrong. Because men and women are different.

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The first TV cop show I fell in love with was Cagney & Lacey. I danced around the lounge to the theme tune, and turned down social engagements in order to watch it. Sometimes I answered the phone in my office with the words, “Detective Lacey, 14th Precinct”, delivered in a flawless American accent. Callers were baffled, and my boss was not amused.

It wasn’t the crime storylines I fell for so much as the characters of Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey: their often fraught friendship and the way they struggled to balance the ups and downs of their personal lives with their work. Chris had a series of unfulfilling relationships with men-who-weren’t-the-one, and Mary Beth had constantly to placate the easily angered Harv, who could be relied upon to yell at her in his pyjamas at the end of all her shifts.

Luckily, both women were able to release tension by meeting in the 14th Precinct ladies loo for an emotional showdown. These bathroom scenes were the cathartic focal point of each episode, the psychological heart of the drama, and they followed a strict pattern: Cagney/Lacey would start out in semi-hysterical denial about whatever issue was troubling her. Lacey/Cagney would point out the denial – sometimes diplomatically, sometimes not – in response to which provocation Cagney/Lacey would face the painful truth, shed a few tears, realise something about herself and feel stronger and wiser, prompting Lacey/Cagney to make proud and encouraging comments.

Crucially, there was no danger of interruption from blokey colleagues during these transformative ladies room scenes, which is just as well, because, as all viewers of crime drama know, as soon as a male detective enters the picture, the attempt to unpick any matter of the heart must be abandoned.

Am I being unfair to male TV cops? I don’t think so. Morse and Lewis, Lewis and Hathaway, Wexford and Burden … The closest any of them come to an analytical soul-healing conversation is a one-liner containing a heavy hint about all not being well. How do we know when the personal-relationship crisis has been resolved? Easy: our protagonists speak in jollier voices and turn their attention back to the matter of who killed the classics professor.

It’s an accurate reflection of reality. My female friends and I talk about almost nothing but our personal and emotional lives. We constantly ask one another the following questions: what do you think he meant when he said X, Y or Z? Am I an idiot for staying with him? He says he loves me, but does he mean it? Why do I get trapped in one destructive relationship after another?

Men prefer to talk about what my husband calls “other, more interesting things”: dormant volcanoes, rare animal species, old maps, polar expeditions – and male TV cops are no different. Recently, my husband met up with a male friend of his whose marriage is a disaster. Afterwards, I said, “Did you ask about the state of his relationship?” “No,” he replied, wincing. “I don’t want to know about his love life. It’s none of my business.”

Thank goodness women are different. As a female fan of TV crime drama, I love ITV1’s Scott & Bailey. The protagonists, Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey, offer one another precisely the same service that Cagney offered Lacey and vice versa: each one is always available to hold a mirror up to the other’s behaviour, always on hand to puncture dangerous illusions, but also to be a true friend, there to provide support come what may… Women, you see, can do all that and solve the crime at the heart of each week’s episode.

When I started to write a series of crime novels, before I knew they would be adapted for ITV1, I chose to have a male-female detective partnership. My two protagonists, Simon Waterhouse and Charlotte (Charlie) Zailer – played by Darren Boyd and Olivia Williams – are also an item of sorts. I wanted the tension that’s generated when you throw two people together who have different attitudes to the way in which the personal should overlap with the professional. Charlie is a conscientious detective, but uppermost in her mind is her passionate and, she suspects, largely unrequited love for Simon, whose top priority, always, is solving the case they’re working on.

The clash between what he wants and what she wants adds to the drama, I hope, both on the page and on the screen. While Simon would love to escape from the tension of their personal relationship by turning the conversation to who should buy the next round, Charlie would happily abandon all discussion of everything apart from how she and Simon feel about one another and whether there’s any future in their relationship. Without really thinking about it, I found myself attracted to the Mars/Venus detective-duo template because it’s a discord that will never be resolved – neither in drama nor in life – and so can generate endless dramatic tension.

Recently my husband and I watched a preview disc of the second series of Case Sensitive. Afterwards, I asked him what he thought. All his comments related to the crime storyline, its structure and execution. “What about Simon and Charlie’s relationship?” I asked him, eagerly. “Didn’t you think that was brilliantly done?” He shrugged. “The love bits in crime drama always bore me,” he said. “I just want them to stop whining and solve the case.” 

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Case Sensitive starts tonight on ITV1 at 9:00pm