Making a real crime drama out of Shetland…

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IT IS easy to praise foreign crime dramas while overlooking our own. So today I shall stop squinting at the subtitles on BBC4 and instead put in a good word for the latest series of Shetland on BBC1.

This has been first rate, pitch perfect I’d say – spoilt only by inconsiderate scheduling. Shetland has already been interrupted once, and the finale should have been on tomorrow, but has been pushed back a week by a rugby match, of all things.

The story took an upsetting turn last week with the rape of one of the main characters. Shetland managed to convey the terrible reality of the sexual assault, without resorting to anything remotely titillating.

This approach was praised by the crime writer Ann Cleeves, whose novels inspired the TV series. In a newspaper article last weekend, Cleeves said she deserved no credit for what appeared on screen, as the character had been created by screenwriters, along with the assault.

The power in this portrayal lay in what was not shown. We did not see the assault; it wasn’t initially even clear what had happened, but once we realised the shock was all the greater.

Cleeves wrote: “I was moved to tears as I watched a bright and confident Detective Sergeant Alison McIntosh, brilliantly played by Alison O’Donnell, shrink into herself, become dimmed and scared of the world around her – a world as safe and friendly as Shetland.”

Ah, the lovely ‘Tosh’ – a side player who has emerged into the light, only now to have something so horrible happen to her. O’Donnell’s performance makes her character real and bright and ordinary in a glorious sense – a proper, rounded woman rather than a prettily confected plot device.

Often in crime dramas rape is little more than a bit of ‘necessary cruelty’ included to push a story along, something that happens to someone anonymous. A character we have come to know and love, that’s far more upsetting.

Not easy viewing, but that’s crime fiction for you. People are hurt in crime stories; people die in crime stories. As Cleeves says, “crime fiction is about violence. Even the most traditional detective stories contain at least one murder. Agatha Christie killed off schoolgirls and wrote about serial killers”.

But she does accept that “there’s a moral ambiguity about turning homicide into entertainment”, adding that a case can be made for graphically showing violence against women in order not to gloss over the matter. Not that she’s keen on this approach.

I confess to being troubled by people I have killed. A number of corpses litter the pages of my two published crime/history novels, although one review of the US edition of The Amateur Historian complained there was not enough crime or enough murders.

In The Baedeker Murders, available only on Amazon for Kindle at present, a German pilot returns to York to apologise for bombing the city during the war. This is based on a true incident, only in my retelling the penitent pilot ends up being murdered; was that a diabolical liberty?

Crime writers should worry about the people they kill, and for my blood-stained money, they shouldn’t dwell on the gory details. But that’s just me, and some writers and readers seem to enjoy dipping into lurid nastiness.

Women are the greatest consumers of a genre that so often concentrates on killing them off in assorted nasty ways. The crime writer Val McDermid believes women are better at imagining the horrible things that might happen to them and they like to scare themselves by living through their nightmares in fiction.

At the moment I am experimenting with a Victorian murder mystery with a Steampunk slant. There are three murders in the opening pages, all the victims are male. Do women remain unscathed? Ah, well – that depends where the flaw in my mind takes me.

As for the delightful Tosh, we will have to wait another week to see what happens to her.

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