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The Very Best British Crime Dramas

Best British crime dramas, featuring (clockwise from left): 'Luther,' 'Queens of Mystery,' and 'Poirot'

If there’s one type of media the British have cornered, it’s crime dramas. Whether you’re looking for a cozy mystery to put on while you craft, or the sort of grim, fast paced murder-fest that fills the true crime-adjacent vacuum in your soul, our wet little island has a show for you. There’s something weirdly soothing about watching crime dramas—even the blood-soaked, genuinely frightening kind. Maybe it’s the formulaic structure; even if you can’t predict the specific details, you always know which element of the story is coming next. Or maybe it’s just the fantasy of an effective legal system and cops that actually do their jobs (the Olivia Benson effect).

Either way, Britain really does produce the best of them, and I’d like to offer up my own, not even remotely subjective list of the top 10 crime dramas we’ve ever produced for your consideration.

1. Midsomer Murders

John Nettles as Tom Barnaby and Jason Hughes as Ben Jones in Midsomer Murders

This is hands down, 100% the best British murder show around. There are 23 seasons of Midsomer Murders (with even more in production), so you’re never going to run out. Join Inspector(s) Barnaby in the idyllic British country town of Causton and the surrounding areas, where so many people are murdered on a weekly basis it’s amazing there’s any population left at all. Watch their iconically, comically middle-class wives do lovely, restful things, like join a painting class or am dram society, only to uncover heinous murder right in the midst of it (every damn time—that Joyce Barnaby belongs on a watch list). See the inbred aristocracy bump each other off with such ineffable smugness that, come episode’s end, you’ll be baying for everyone’s blood. Witness the Inspectors Barnaby wade through cults, conspiracies, and such complex networks of sexy-murder they belong on The L Word, with a constant disgruntled practicality that will make you feel like you’re hanging out with your own dad while he complains about work (it’s father energy, not Daddy, let’s be very clear about that).

One of my favorite things about Midsomer Murders is the folk horror touch, which somehow completely fails to take the show into horror territory despite the occasional human sacrifice, wicker man, and actual ghost interfering with the investigation. It shouldn’t work that way, but somehow it does. This show got us through lockdown is what I’m saying, and it can be your emotional support murder show, too, if you’ll let it.

2. Jonathan Creek

A red haired white woman stands next to a white man with long dark curls in front of a white painted windmill.

An investigative journalist (Caroline Quentin) with little to no scruples meets an anti-social designer of magic tricks (Alan Davies), dragging him kicking and screaming into the mystery-solving business in Jonathan Creek. After watching a performance by the magician Creek works for, crime reporter Maddie Magellan realizes that his particular skill set—ranging from clever engineering to the creation of illusions and complex puzzles—is exactly what she needs to prove the innocence of a suspect in a locked room murder mystery and expose what really happened. Creek gets involved despite himself, which quickly becomes something of a pattern, until Maddie no longer needs to bribe or coerce him into helping her figure out the case du jour—even though their work regularly leads to one or both them nearly being murdered.

A darkly funny show at times, Jonathan Creek is exceptional at satirizing the rich and famous, especially through the person of Adam Klaus, Creek’s philandering man-baby boss. Jonathan Creek is one of those crime shows with borderline supernatural elements that can actually be a little scary at times, though it stops short of the Midsomer Murders approach by having Creek uncover the very corporeal explanation behind the supposed paranormal phenomenon every time. Though there are serial plotlines (Creek and Magellan’s ongoing will-they-or-won’t-they, his eventual marriage, etc.), most episodes stand alone and can be watched that way, so if you can’t track down every season, it doesn’t really matter.

3. The Father Brown mysteries

Mark Williams as Father Brown in 'Father Brown'

Another show that makes for a great comfort watch because of the gentle (dad, not Daddy) energy of its lead, Father Brown embraces the grand British tradition of making a TV show about a beautiful part of the countryside that’s just chock full of murders. Aided by the redoubtable Mrs. McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack as a woman who’s very much an acquired taste), tastefully naughty noblewoman Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll), and a rotating cast of other capital C characters, Father Brown (Mark Williams) pursues justice and mercy for all while attending to his duties as a parish priest.

Father Brown is a man who has thoroughly perfected the Paddington Stare and is less interested in law and order than he is in protecting the innocent, and giving the guilty a chance to repent and make amends for whatever it is they’ve done. Possessed of a lovely found family vibe, Father Brown includes such highlights as a good old fashioned jewel heist (with Father Brown befriending the thief, naturally), cold war spies, and some real Agatha Christie-style rich people drama™️.

4. Queens of Mystery

The cast of 'Queens of Mystery': A young white woman with short blonde hair stands in front of three older white ladies, one blonde, one brunette and one redhead.
(Acorn TV)

What’s a girl raised by three crime-writing aunts after her mother mysteriously disappeared to do but join the police force? That’s the path Matilda Stone (Olivia Vinall) takes in Queens of Mystery, in which the newly qualified constable has to contend with her deeply loving, meddling aunts getting involved in her investigations. Each aunt is a delightfully different person: Cat (Julie Graham) is a former rockstar who still dresses the part, while Beth (Sarah Woodward) is a sweet natured hippie, and Jane (Siobhan Redmond) an eminently sensible, left-brained type. Seeing multiple women in their fifties allowed to be complicated, unique individuals is frankly brilliant and something I’d like to see more of in TV.

Plots range from quirky to genuinely heartbreaking (the episodes about Cat’s former bandmates and her ex-girlfriend hit you right where it hurts), with all the cozy murder classics of big houses and locked rooms as well as fun modern settings, like a crime-writing convention (very meta) and a day spa. It’s a little bit like something Agatha Christie would write if she’d been born in the modern era, so if that’s the vibe you’re after, you’ll really enjoy this.

5. Agatha Raisin

Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin in Agatha Raisin, wearing sunglasses and speaking on the phone
(Acorn TV)

Agatha Raisin is what happens when a corporate nightmare of a person retires, realizes she has no friends on account of being The Worst, and decides to turn her life around, accidentally falling into mystery-solving as a result. Agatha manages to fulfill her childhood dream of retiring to the Cotswolds and—discovering that the well-to-do locals look down on her for being common, an outsider, or both—tries to integrate with the local community by entering their annual quiche making contest, only to end up a murder suspect.

By the time she’s proven her innocence, she’s not only made a group of friends for the first time in her adult life (including her former assistant who did actually miss her once she was gone), but also discovered her inveterate nosiness makes her particularly good at solving crimes (much to the chagrin of the local police). Another show featuring an excellent, complex older woman—she may start out as The Worst, but there are reasons for that—Agatha Raisin is funny, touching, and honestly really fun.

6. Poirot (1989 – 2013)

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie's Poirot

Everyone loves Poirot, and the classic BBC TV series with David Suchet as the iconic Belgian detective is, in my completely objective opinion, the best adaptation available. Agatha Christie’s grandson seems to agree, as he said he wished his grandmother could have seen it because of how close Suchet’s Poirot is to her original vision. In this series, Poirot—along with his gentleman companion Hastings (Hugh Fraser), secretary Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), and best frenemy Chief Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson)—travels from Egypt to Scotland, finding and solving murders everywhere he goes. Filled with elaborate murder plots, infidelity, spiritualism, and drugs, Poirot fully conveys the hedonistic chaos of the upper classes Christie wrote about—along with her sometimes biting social commentary.

One highlight, for me, is the unrelenting kindness of both Poirot and Hastings, their absolute respect for women (albeit in sometimes patronizing, period-typical ways), and the tenderness of the friendship between them. That kind of non-toxic masculinity is rare in crime dramas and makes Poirot a particularly enjoyable watch.

7. Luther

Idris Elba in Luther as DCI John Luther

Luther is a little different from the others on this list in that it’s darker, grittier, and much more violent. I don’t normally lean toward this side of the genre, but Luther is an exception because it’s the kind of obsessive, enthralling TV that you end up watching because you just can’t look away from it. John Luther (Idris Elba) is a DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) with the Serious Crime Unit, and the kind of cop who can’t leave his work behind at the end of the day—which means his entire life is consumed by the darkness he deals with on a daily basis. Luther has a complex, obsessive, Holmes-and-Moriarty relationship with genius serial murderer Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), and the series features a number of uniquely disturbing serial killers in addition to all the violence and corruption you can imagine—making it easy to see why Luther is the kind of show people binge until the sun comes up.

Unfortunately, there’s only 21 episodes across five seasons (plus a movie)—more what you’d expect of a cult classic British show—but it’s the kind of show that stays with you long after you’re done, so you’ll be satisfied for a while.

8. Marple

Julia McKenzie in Agatha Christie's Marple surrounded by flowers

Another Agatha Christie classic, Marple takes a number of the author’s novels (not all featuring the titular heroine) and adapts them for the small screen. Miss Marple (first played by Geraldine McEwan, and later by Julie McKenzie), seems to come across murders everywhere she goes—from the Caribbean island where she was sent to convalesce to her own picturesque English village. Similar to Poirot, the series is filled with the aristocratic scandal and general debauchery. Many of Marple‘s mysteries are more domestic in nature, rooted in familial drama, class conflict, and greed.

Which makes sense: Marple finds her murders through referrals from family and friends—when they’re not straight-up falling into her lap—so of course they’re low on international scandal (it’s not completely absent, however). They’re all every bit as tense, with twists just as shocking as anything the great detective had to deal with. And somehow Marple still finds time to meddle in the love lives of every young person she comes across, with a surprising success rate.

9. Cadfael

An older white man in a brown monk's robe looks wryly at the camera

Cadfael is set in and around a medieval monastery during the Anarchy, a time when the Empress Maud and King Steven battled for the English crown. The eponymous Cadfael (Derek Jacobi) is a soldier-turned-monk who specializes in healing, and his unique skill set sees him taking on a role similar to that of a modern day coroner or medical examiner for the area around the monastery. Like Father Brown, Cadfael has a surprisingly modern sense of justice and tolerance; his experiences prior to taking holy orders having left him with the conviction that God is rather more forgiving and less judgmental than advertised. Particularly sympathetic to young lovers and those whose sins have harmed no one but themselves, Cadfael navigates political conflicts large and small, works hard to clear the names of the innocent, and regularly pulls the wool over the eyes of both church and secular authorities to ensure the right—rather than the legal—thing gets done.

There are depressingly few episodes of Cadfael, so don’t get too attached, but there’s a whole series of books out there to get you through the withdrawal when you run out of episodes.

10. Sherlock Holmes (1964 – 1968)

A black and white image of two older white men in suits looking at each other. One is holding a cane.

It’s vintage, and it’s really good. The 1965 Sherlock Holmes is iconic, with its eponymous hero (played by Peter Cushing) exactly who a lot of British people picture when they think of Sherlock Holmes. I feel a little bad placing this at the bottom of the list because I have such fond memories of watching Sherlock Holmes with my dad as a kid, but I have to remind myself that’s still 10 out of all British crime dramas out there, and we do have a lot of them. This particular adaptation of Sherlock Holmes captures the Gothic horror elements of the novels really well, and the dynamic between Holmes and Watson is perfect. While Peter Cushing wasn’t particularly happy with his performance in this series, I think his Holmes really feels like the detective of the books (unlike certain, later BBC adaptations, which I won’t mention here).

(featured image: BBC / Acorn TV / ITV)

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Siobhan Ball is a historian, an archivist, and loves Star Wars so much her English teacher once staged an intervention with her family to try and get her to read other books. Now writes about it for a living.