Female-Led Murder Shows I Have Binged of Late
Our extended time inside means that I’ve been binge-watching a lot, and “murder shows”—both detectives solving crimes, or murder driving the plot—are a popular genre in my apartment. Most of the series on this run-down are British, where murder mysteries are in the blood, and I’ve been on a kick of choosing shows that prominently promote their female leads.
Many great British crime series are led by hugely talented women who are serving as lead detectives; it’s also refreshing that these crime-solving ladies don’t have to be twenty-five, and their love lives aren’t their defining factors. (This also holds true for the one American series that grabbed me recently.) Here’s what’s been on my screen that I’d recommend making the jump to yours.
It’s a bit of an unwieldy title, but this series has a compelling energy that sneaks up on you—a slow boil that’s well worth sticking around for the payoff. Unforgotten follows cold-case London detectives who investigate “historic” murders (think skeletal remains discovered at construction sites or found decades later in a suitcase). The team is guided by deeply invested DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker), who will leave no stone unturned. I also adore Sanjeev Bhaskar as her sensible second DI Sunny Khan; their friendship and partnership is everything.
Walker gives DCI Stuart a focused, dogged energy, and the mysteries—one per season, with three seasons available—are twisty and often have surprisingly disturbing conclusions for a show without any car chases or onscreen violence. (Season two is fantastic, but deals with graphic details of sexual abuse.) Unforgotten is about the awful things that can be buried under a veneer of humanity, which Stuart and Khan work to unearth. I’ll be there with bells on for season four.
I’d wanted to watch The Killing back in 2011 when it first took off on AMC but lacked cable, so I was glad to find it available on Hulu. The rare American show on this list, The Killing was based on a Danish drama called Forbrydelsen (The Crime). Its leads are Good Omens’ Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden, another deeply invested detective (often to the detriment of her personal life), and Altered Carbon’s Joel Kinnaman as Detective Stephen Holder, who at first seems an unlikely partner in crime-solving.
Linden and Holder are on the case of who brutally killed 17-year-old Rosie Larsen in a perpetually raining Seattle backdrop. Unfolding alongside the investigation is a city councilman’s complicated run for mayor and an intimate look at the unraveling of the Larsen family in their grief. It’s wild how outdated the decade-old technology and Obama-era politics feel in our current hellscape, but at least it makes for some escapism into a past where everyone still smoked cigarettes. Enos’ Linden is also a multi-faceted female protagonist who’s allowed to be flawed, make mistakes, and not have to look picture-perfect at all times. I’ve become deeply invested in this show, which excels at leading you in one direction before spinning you around completely. The Killing was canceled after its fourth season, but I’m still on the second, so don’t you dare spoil me.
Based on the eponymous novel (by Harlan Coben, not Camus), this is an odd show, but it’s captivating from the start and easy to watch. Ant-Man and the Wasp’s Ghost, Hannah John-Kamen, appears as a mysterious stranger who threateningly enters people’s lives and seems to know all of their most buried secrets. She sets Adam Price (Richard Armitage) onto a path of suspicion that results in the disappearance of his wife. Siobhan Finneran, a superstar lady-detective on several British murder shows, is here to investigate, and things become personal when The Stranger visits her best friend (the great Jennifer Saunders).
I remember who the bad people were in this series’ twist end, but that’s almost an afterthought: come for the weird premise, stay for the sleek production values, Armitage running around with his eyebrows knit, John-Kamen doing her ambiguous character specialty, Finneran being Finneran, Anthony Stewart Head being flawless as usual, and to untangle what the hell is really going on here. The Stranger is convoluted and somewhat overwrought, but you won’t be bored.
Unlike some of the shows here, Loch Ness (also known as The Loch) isn’t a sprawling, multi-season production, but it’s a perfectly neat little six-episode murder mystery anchored in its gorgeous Scottish tourist attraction. It’s also got not one but two strong female leads in small-town cop DS Annie Redford (Laura Fraser) solving murder crimes alongside big-city DCI Lauren Quigley (Siobhan Finneran, again, doing what she does best, which is being a boss). The hyper-local mystery ticks along and has one of the twistier twists in this here twist business.
There are no Nessie-sightings in Loch Ness—all of the monsters are human-shaped. The show’s lakeside setting feels like another character in and of itself, as action revolves around the beautiful loch and its environs. This is a pretty paint-by-the-numbers crime-solving drama, but the vistas are unbeatable, the ladies are in charge, and if you see that twist coming you’re a better detective than I.
The Nest is a psychological thriller above all else—the murders that occur are either in the past or secondary, but they haunt the plot throughout. Stars Martin Compston and Sophie Rundle are well-known in the UK and do a great job, and the show is propelled by a tour-de-force performance by the young Scottish actress Mirren Mack. Mack can only go on to do more extraordinary work from here.
The Nest is about a privileged couple, the Dochertys (Compston and Rundle), who live in a dazzling waterfront house in Glasgow. They have everything save the baby they’ve long tried for, and after a series of improbable events, end up having Mack’s 18-year-old Kaya serve as a surrogate. Kaya, who has a mysterious and possibly sinister past, is a fascinating character—you’re never quite sure if you want to give her a comforting hug or run from her screaming in terror. The show does well in balancing this ambiguity, though there are several over-the-top twists that can feel exhausting, and I wish we’d spent more time on the resolution after so much build-up.
Even so, The Nest will keep you guessing. It has interesting things to say about class, capitalism, motherhood, who society protects and deems worthy of forgiveness, and some stunning production values. The Dochertys’ show-stopping glass house, presumably “the nest” in question, suggests they shouldn’t throw stones at others before looking at themselves. Unlike the other series here, The Nest isn’t really about solving a crime, but it’s an intriguing change of pace, and Mack is a force of nature.
Other female-fronted crime shows I’ve enjoyed in the past include Prime Suspect (and its newer spin-off origin story, Prime Suspect: Tennison), Broadchurch, Happy Valley, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and on this side of the pond classics like Veronica Mars, Law & Order: SVU, and Murder, She Wrote. What’s missing? What should we check out next when we have a hankering for an intriguing crime and a great leading lady?
(images: ITV, AMC, Netflix, BBC One)
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