Sometimes a crime show on TV turns into something higher and better, a transfigured thing. The Victim, from Scotland, falls into this category. Then there are the crime series which offer a sleek refined pleasure that fills a deep, civilised need. A Murder of Crows from Germany does this is in a way that cheers the soul even though it looks at dark and terrible things.
Nothing could be more terrible on the face of it, than The Victim which is about the ghastly shadow of a Bulger-type murder, i.e., a killing of a child by a child. Kelly Macdonald is the mother who, like Rachel in the Bible, will not be comforted. She clings obsessively to her grief for her dead son and she gets it into her head that a man she’s accused of assaulting (James Harkness) is in fact the ancient child murderer whose identity has been hidden these many years.
On the sidelines there’s John Hannah as a detective who knows what it’s like to be wrongfully accused. Whether Harkness is the long-ago killer is the great question mark of this beautifully paced Scottish drama, full of surprise and sparkle as we watch Kelly Macdonald on trial for seeking vengeance for an unassuageable wrong. Then in the last movement, in a way that shakes up and defeats all expectation, The Victim turns into a very disconcerting and harrowing drama about forgiveness and pain and throws away all the stylish suspense tricks it has used so well and confronts us with emotional realities and mysteries that lay bare the deepest kind of ethics and edge this very unpretentious Scottish story into art.
A Murder of Crows is an utterly different kind of detective show — sleek, brilliantly articulated and expositionally complex with a flawed but humane detective Martin Bruehel who is played with moody understatement and keen ironic intelligence by Roeland Wiesnekker. The episodes are movie-length and superbly paced. The one I watched Der Kommissar und Die Wut (Anger and the Inspector) is about a young boy who was apparently kidnapped by someone who demands money from his father, a somewhat imperious importer of top-level sportscars. Any more information would create spoilers but the information is introduced early on and the unfolding of the plot although intricate and expositionally very precise is superbly done and gives equal weight to the fascination of twists and turns and the complexities of the human heart.
The hero is a bit of a sad sack with a heart and a brain and he also has a workmate girlfriend, a psychologist (Meike Droste), who looks after him while seeing through the chimeras of his melancholy. A Murder of Crows is in brisk, plain contemporary German and it is set in upper middle class suburban Berlin but it shines not only with understated sophistication but with a spirit of compassion that makes most Anglo-Saxon thrillerdom seem callow. I was reminded of that old Italian gem Inspector Montalbarno.
The mystery story is a confounding thing because it can seem such a jigsaw puzzle of rearranged serenities. It was Raymond Chandler who said Dashiell Hammet had taken the detective story from the English country garden and given it back to the people it belonged to, the tough guy cops and crooks and private eyes. But Chandler himself made his hero Philip Marlowe into a knight of the mean streets and his style sang so much that he could make even a hardboiled critic like Edmund Wilson wonder at the resemblance to art even though F. Scott Fitzgerald’s friend ultimately rejected Chandler as someone who threw it all away just as he was becoming humanly interesting.
Film and television have always had the potential to deepen the detective story by giving it a more human face. Hitchcock backed away from filming Crime and Punishment because Dostoyevsky’s vision of a human murderer and a psychologically astute detective was too close to him. One of the fascinations of the recent detective story — exemplified to the level of art in Ruth Rendell’s writing — is the way in which Dostoyevsky’s sense of transgression and humanity as a unity is allowed back in.
In its quiet way, A Murder of Crows is in this tradition.
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