Saturday, April 12, 2014

Nosing It out in Northumberland: Vera, Season One (2011)

Recently I reviewed at this blog Ann Cleeves' new Vera Stanhope detective novel, Harbour Street (2014).  I liked the characters of DCI Stanhope and her subordinate DS Joe Ashworth and the evocatively portrayed north England setting, so decided to give season one of the popular television series, starring Brenda Blethyn as Vera and David Leon as Joe, a try, despite some qualms I have about Cleeves' plotting in Harbour Street. I am happy to say I liked the series and will be getting season two, though again I have some qualms about the plotting.

In my view the strongest of the four episodes in season one was the fourth episode, Little Lazarus, the only one not based on a Cleeves novel. This was an extremely good television crime film. The other three all had good points as well, but were not on par with the superlative Little Lazarus. I'll talk about each one in order.

"Hidden Depths"

Vera cogitates

Vera and her team investigate two seemingly related murders, that of a teenage boy and a young woman schoolteacher.  In both cases the corpse, garroted, was found in water, strewn with flowers. Vera focuses her sights on a group of four male ornithologists.

This was a very solid opening for the series.  As in all the episodes of season one, the score and the photography are superb. The wide open, bleakly beautiful spaces immediately reminded me of Wallander.

Also striking was the centrality to the plot of mental aberration and sexual psychosis.  It is no surprise to me that Ann Cleeves is a great fan of Nordic crime fiction in general. The influence is quite evident in all three season one episodes based on her novels.

Arguably the suspects were not as well fleshed out as the could have been, but there are a lot of interesting plot wrinkles and the final revelation of the identity of the killer allows an important thematic point to be made, one that relates to the personality of the title character. Additionally, I thought there were some memorable insights into the state of families in modern England (I also noticed this in the novel Harbour Street).

"Telling Tales"

Joe questions

In this episode Vera discovers that a recently deceased woman may have been wrongly convicted for the murder of an adolescent girl.  There soon follows another murder, which Vera believes is related to this earlier case.

I found this episode the least satisfying of the season.  Again psychosis and sexual misdeeds are brought to the fore, and I found it hard to square behavior with character, as it is presented to us. Additionally, I was left in confusion about aspects of an assault made late in the story, and Vera reaches the solution by pure (and unlikely) happenstance. Blah!

"The Crow Trap"

one of the many sad souls Vera encounters in the course of her investigations

A woman who co-owns land desired by a quarrying company is murdered.  It turns out that this woman was a suspect in a previous case, concerning the disappearance of a child. Another murder follows.

Yet again psychosis plays a great role and the whole thing seems rather far-fetched in the final analysis, but I did admire the plot construction and found the whole thing quite engrossing.

In all three of these episodes Vera's personality is nicely developed, along with her relationship with Joe. One is inevitably reminded, I think, of Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. Like Morse, Vera is a loner who doesn't take good care of herself and can be difficult to work with, though she can have great empathy for the sorry souls she runs across in her cases.  Like Lewis, the young family man Joe is more placid and helps anchor his boss to the social world.  They make a nice team.  Both Blethyn, a twice Oscar-nominated actress, and Leon perform extremely well in these roles.

Other members of the team are non-entities, with the exception of Holly Lawson and Kenny Lockhart, and even they are not given too much of interest to work with.  Paul Ritter's pathologist Billy Cartwright, on the other hand, offers some memorably mordant moments.

Finally we come to the season one finale:

"Little Lazarus" (story by Paul Rutman)

Vera is judged

In this one, a young boy survives a brutal attack in which his mother is killed.  Investigating into the mother's past, Vera finds a maze of mystery, some of which seems to implicate people in high places.

I found this a tremendously engrossing episode, with good characterization and an interesting, intricate plot that thankfully for once did not depend on anyone being absolutely stark ravers.  The ending I found quite poignant, because we have been made to care for the people involved, including two interesting modern couples.

Vera's relationship with the boy is nicely developed and we are left with a cliffhanger about Vera's health--as if we didn't have reason enough already to come back for season two!


  1. We watched both seasons on DVD a couple of months ago and enjoyed them. They don't touch Morse, though. Have you tried the Inspector Montalbano books and DVDs from Italy? They are superb.

    1. Nope, haven't seen those, will have to check out. Morse still is the gold standard for this sort of police series, I agree. I thought they have been doing quite a good job with Endeavor as well.