Starring: Paddy Considine, Peter Capaldi, Nicholas Jones
Director: James Hawes, David Blair
This 4-DVD box set brings together the first and second seasons of the Victorian-set detective series inspired by Kate Summerscale’s true crime best seller. It’s a quartet of deliciously gloomy mysteries that sees the put-upon detective visiting lunatic asylums, country houses, stately homes, remote villages and the worst quarters of London, all in a dogged search for the truth.
In the opener, Whicher, a member of Scotland Yard’s newfangled Detective Branch, is summoned to deepest Wiltshire to investigate the murder of a child. The only one of the cases based on fact, in a way it’s the least satisfactory of the four. The word “suspicions” certainly earns its place in the title, because with a dearth of evidence in these pre-forensics days, there’s not a lot else to go on, leaving poor Whicher worn ragged as he tries to sift through unreliable witness testimony. It’s with the second episode – an original story penned by Neil McKay – that the show really comes into its own. Now a private inquiry agent, Whicher becomes involved in a search for a missing girl which leads him to a home for fallen women, only to then find his investigations complicated by an old family dispute. It’s a suitably convoluted tale, which leans towards good old-fashioned Victorian melodrama at times.
The second season sees the introduction of a new writer, Helen Edmunson, and a move away from the harsh visuals established by director James Hawes with the first episode to a slightly more lushly Gothic, Downton Abbey-on-an-overcast-day vibe. Both of the new episodes combine intrigue with social commentary. Beyond the Pale is a Moonstone-like story about a man who has returned from India, only to be pursued by a couple of vengeful lascars (Indian sailors). It takes a surprise segue into an interracial Romeo and Juliet tale which casts an interesting light on what went on behind closed doors during the Raj. In The Ties That Blind, Whicher becomes involved in a divorce case – soon to be the bread and butter of the private eye, but then a relative novelty. It appears to be a clear-cut case of a toff with a philandering wife, but when the co-respondent turns up with his head caved in, Whicher realizes that nothing is as it seems. It’s an episode which cleverly subverts the viewer’s expectations, and with its horse-racing backdrop it plays almost like a Victorian Dick Francis thriller.
Just occasionally some of the characters’ attitudes seem a touch anachronistic, but on the whole these episodes go a good job of serving up decent quantities of clues, red herrings and plush mid-Victorian décor, while also holding up lesser known aspects of Britain’s past up to scrutiny. And something similar can be said of Paddy Considine’s performance. Early on, it’s not easy to get a handle on Whicher. A decent copper, open-minded and methodical, yet inclined to be rattled by pressure from his superiors (such as Tim Pigott-Smith’s waspish Commissioner) – that’s about it. But as the show goes on, he comes into focus as a credibly complex character – capable of being forceful, but also given to moments of mental fragility; often worn and frayed and at the end of his tether, yet clinging to his faith in the cleansing power of full disclosure. The real Whicher was apparently the model for any number of fictional detectives, and Considine captures the spirit of a man fumbling his way into the history books.