Black, white or shades of grey?

Fellow crime writer and aficionado Margot Kinberg read my review of Brotherhood at Punk Noir magazine the other day and it set her thinking. In particular, the bit where I mention my theory that US drama tends to be morally ‘cut and dried’, whereas the British equivalent is more ambivalent.

I’m the first to admit that the statement is a. only my opinion and b. a shocking generalisation! It’s also probably more appropriate to film and TV than to books, which tend to have more space to develop their characters and plot lines. But Margot has brought her encyclopaedic knowledge of crime writing to bear on the subject, and come up with an excellently-researched blog post of her own, liberally illustrated with examples.

It makes for fascinating reading, and is much more well argued than my original blog post ever was. So do go and see what she has to say on the whole subject, and whether she agrees with me or not (I’m taking the fifth on that one, but it seems to have generated some healthy debate). I’m delighted that my wafflings sparked her, er, little grey cells into action.


What price brotherhood?

brotherhoodThose nice folks at Punk Noir magazine have reprinted my review of the TV series Brotherhood, which I originally posted on here last year.

If you missed it first time round and want to see what I liked (quite a bit, actually!) about this raw, gritty US crime drama based on the real-life figures of gangster Whitey Bulger and his politician brother, then head over to Punk Noir now. And while you’re there, take time to have a good poke round, because the zine is full to bursting with Good Stuff (TM) – fiction, poetry, news, reviews and book recommendations, all with a noir-ish theme.

Farewell, Brotherhood

brotherhoodYesterday I drew the curtain on another long-standing favourite TV series, Brotherhood. I’ve been watching it, on and off, for the last few months, downloading episodes from the Sky box sets service whenever I got the chance. And I’ve enjoyed it so much that it feels like saying goodbye to an old friend.

The series focussed on the lives of two Rhode Island Irish-American brothers, Michael and Thomas (Tommy) Caffee, one a vicious gangster, the other a successful local politician. The characters were loosely based on the real-life hood Whitey Bulger (played by Johnny Depp in the movie Black Mass) and his brother Billy, but moved from Massachusetts to Providence and with fictional family, characters and plotlines added. However, the basic conflict between an apparent ‘good guy’ politician and his violent, mob-based brother was explored at length and formed the backbone of the series.

I liked it for a number of reasons, not least because it had one of my favourite actors, Jason Isaacs, playing the role of Michael Caffee. However, what began as a bit of a fan-girl thing quickly moved on, and I came to appreciate the authenticity and ‘real-ness’ of the writing. Most of the action was filmed on location in Providence itself (rarely the case with US dramas), which added a sense of grounding. And the characters were a terrific mixture of good and bad, to the point where they were sometimes interchangeable. Tommy Caffee wasn’t above doing a dodgy deal or three to further his political career, while gangster Michael had a strong ethical code which he imposed not only on his family but also on other criminals who worked for him.

This level of complexity is also unusual in American drama, which tends to have a much stronger moral message of ‘good vs evil’ where good is perfect and evil has to be destroyed in order for the good to prevail. That extreme ‘black and white’ world view can feel alien to British audiences and Brotherhood was much more British in its humanity and its portrayal of real life as opposed to something out of a comic book.

Brotherhood was apparently first conceived as a movie and the producer, Blake Masters, was persuaded to turn it into a series by the TV executives. I’m glad he did, but in the end I’m not convinced there was quite enough material to fill the three seasons that were made. In the early episodes it felt fresh and you never knew quite what was going to happen next. By the end of series 3, it was starting to repeat itself. There’s only so many times you can watch Michael being jittery and paranoid, or Tommy and his wife Eileen having yet another domestic falling-out. There has been criticism that it ended too soon, but for me it seemed to be losing its way and I’m not sure that dragging it on through another season (or more) would have worked.

That doesn’t mean I won’t miss it, though, from the slick mix of violence, sex, and American politics to the stellar performances from almost all the cast – but particularly Jason Isaacs, Jason Clarke as Tommy Caffee, Fionnula Flanagan as arch-matriarch Rose, and latterly Brian F O’Byrne as the family’s Irish cousin Colin. RIP Brotherhood, I’m glad I had the chance to see you when I did.

Bingeing on TV crime

There are simply loads of crime drama series on TV at the moment, and although there aren’t enough hours in the day to watch all of them, I’m busy working my way through quite a few. Here’s a pick of the most recent:


Shetland: always a breath of fresh air with great performances from Douglas Henshall and the rest of the cast, some good dialogue, an interesting story arc about a man newly released from prison who may (or may not!) be innocent of the murder he was sent down for, and on top of all that, stunning Shetland scenery. And this time round, part of the series is set in Bergen in Norway, which adds an international flavour. I’ve been to the city a couple of times so it was good to spot all my favourite landmarks again.

Babylon Berlin: A really interesting and original series set at the time of the Weimar Republic in Germany (ie, between the two World Wars). The recreation of the period feels thoroughly authentic, with some chilling reminders of what was to come for the country, a lot of cloak and dagger stuff that you suspect will turn into straightforward crime eventually (less weird politics, more jealousy and greed), and a wonderfully noir atmosphere where every character is deeply flawed and there are probably no happy endings.

Brotherhood: I’m watching this series from a couple of years ago on Catch-up, and really enjoying it in spite of the occasional wobbly accents from the two leads, Jason Isaacs and Jason Clarke – one Brit and one Aussie but both playing Irish Americans. The series is set in Providence, Rhode Island, and unlike most dramas was actually filmed there, which gives it an authentic feel straight away. It’s allegedly based on the real-life relationship between gangster Whitey Bulger and his younger, politician brother. I love the noir feel, the expose of the corrupt nature of American politics, and the way neither brother is wholly good or wholly bad.


Endeavour: This is always a stalwart with solid performances from Shaun Evans and Roger Allam, but the current series seems better than the last, with more believable plots (no more escaped tigers!) and an ongoing story arc about racism in late Sixties Oxford. There are also lots of in-jokes and nods to celebrities and TV programmes of the time – like the dodgy hotel in one episode that was called the Crossroads Hotel!

I Know Who You Are: I finished watching this marathon Spanish crime series a few weeks ago, with mixed feelings. Overall it was interesting to see a Spanish ‘take’ on crime drama, and the central performance by Francesc Garrido as a lawyer with amnesia who may have been responsible for the disappearance of his niece was nuanced and utterly believable. In the end it went on a bit too long, was much too melodramatic, and had a really unpleasant ending which I felt exploited the suffering of a young woman (a frequent gripe these days). But it was good to try.

Not so much:

Vera: This seems to have lost its way since the episodes stopped being based on the Ann Cleeves novels. It’s turned cosy, which the original never was, and the dialogue is terrible. I watched one, two-hour episode of the most recent series and found it dreary and dull, with a telegraphed plot, ‘don’t care’ characters, and far too much reliance on catch phrases. Vera now calls every single character ‘love’ or ‘pet’, every single time she talks to them, and after a while it grates. Not a patch on the production values of Shetland, even though both series are based on books by the same author.