Why do we love crime dramas on TV so much?

From Broadchurch to Silent Witness, The Bridge to Shetland, what is it about TV crime dramas that keeps viewers hooked? Alison Graham investigates...

Broadchurch

My love of crime fiction began with my dad’s ancient paperback copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It had been on our bookshelves at home for as long as I could remember, but the spine had disintegrated, the glue holding it together was brittle and flaking, the cover loose and tatty.

Advertisement

But once I started reading, holding the book carefully as it was in bits by this point, I fell hard. A Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Speckled Band, The Five Orange Pips… those yellowing pages shimmered with brilliance. Ten-year old Alison was lost in those magnificent stories!

At 11 or 12 I raided the shelves of our local library for every Agatha Christie story I could find. I still remember gasping at the audacity of the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

On television I became entranced by the Miss Marple adaptations starring the peerless Joan Hickson and I developed a crush on Jeremy Brett’s ascetic Sherlock Holmes in those fantastic Granada series.

The appeal was simple and classic: a good story, well told. A beginning, a middle and an end. Which isn’t as prosaic or pedestrian as it sounds. Get it right – more recently Happy Valley, Broadchurch – and it is richly satisfying.

As a really small child I adored Dixon of Dock Green on the BBC. I think I was probably still in infant school, but even then I liked the circularity of the crime stories; something bad happened, there was an inquiry, someone was caught, they were punished.

I’m lucky that television has always loved crime stories as much as I, and huge, huge audiences, do. Just look at the roll call of returning crime series – Shetland (BBC1), Marcella (ITV), Strike (BBC1), The Bridge (transferring from BBC4 to BBC2), Unforgotten (ITV), dear, baroque Midsomer Murders (ITV) – death by giant cheese, anyone?

And three that are currently on: Silent Witness, Death in Paradise and Spiral. Endeavour (ITV) also returns with a satisfyingly gnarly mystery peppered with red herrings and 1968 period details.

silent witness
Silent Witness

Our love of crime fiction on television and in books must surely call out to our ancient, rooted devotion to storytelling. Author Ann Cleeves knows more than most how audiences devour murder and mystery: her Vera and Shetland series have been successfully adapted for television. (Her latest Vera novel The Seagull has just come out in paperback, and the final novel in the Shetland series, Wild Fire, is published in September). And she knows a good plot and, crucially, a good cop character, when she sees one.

So why do we love crime so much? “It really does depend on the story,” says Cleeves. “A Colin Dexter Morse plot isn’t going to scare the reader or viewer; much of the pleasure is in the character of Morse, his relationship with Lewis, and of course in the puzzle. It’s no coincidence that Colin set crosswords.”

Is television crime drama a curious form of escapism from the uncertainties of a tilting world? Not for Sarah Hilary, author of the award-winning DI Marnie Rome series of novels (the latest, Come and Find Me, is out in March). “On the contrary,” she says, “I think the darker the real world becomes the more we need to confront and process the darkness on screen. Crime fiction tells the truth more honestly and resoundingly than any other form of fiction.”

Hilary, like me, grew up watching and reading Sherlock Holmes. More recently, though, she has looked to Scandinavia: “I’d say the Swedish drama The Bridge has never been bettered in recent times.”

For Hilary, crime drama and fiction hit “the sweet spot between our logical brain and our primitive brain. We live in darkness and dread for 60 minutes or 600 pages, but it’s a darkness we can wrestle with and ultimately rationalise. At its best, crime fiction allows us to confront and conquer our worst fears.”

The strength of Ann Cleeves’s DCI Vera Stanhope and DI Jimmy Perez, played in Vera and Shetland by Brenda Blethyn and Douglas Henshall respectively, meant the page-to-screen translation was easy. “My attitude to the adaptations is very relaxed,” she says. “I don’t know anything about making TV, so I never interfere in the process.

“I think both Vera and Shetland capture the tone and essence of the books, even though they’re mostly making original stories now. I can’t wait to see the new series of Shetland!”

Advertisement

The two crime writers nominate the same French, subtitled, show as their current favourite: Spiral, which ends on BBC4 this Saturday. Says Ann Cleeves, “It’s completely compulsive because the range of characters is so strong.” For Sarah Hilary, Spiral’s appeal is “its rowdy, shambolic French cops”. She doesn’t look for escapism in crime fiction, though: “I want it to tell uncomfortable truths with emotional insight and compassion. Leave the escapism to other genres.”