Sometime around 2008, I realized I could solve every Law & Order mystery before the first commercial break whether I had seen the episode or not. For Law & Order SVU, of course, this is no difficult feat: the perpetrator is always the most famous of the guest stars. But I began to realize that I’d watched so many episodes of the original series, SVU, and Criminal Intent that I could guess the plotlines along with the killer. “The lady from Facts of Life killed the maid because she’d have to split her inheritance if anyone found out the maid was her dead father’s love child from the blood test they all had to take after a recent burglary,” I would triumphantly declare to my empty living room. But being right about formulaic mysteries is only impressive to an audience of one for so long, which is why I moved on from American murder to British murder, an entirely different kettle of dead fish. And at this point, I have spent over a decade watching every BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Acorn, and Britbox mystery available on each of my various streaming services. And while I only have a DI Lestrade record of solving them before the detective does, I’ve got a Sherlock level of canniness for discerning what a murder show will be about based on its title.
Murder is the obvious answer. But much like American chocolate or cheese, it becomes incredibly clear that Yankee knowledge of the genre is severely limited when sampling the varieties Great Britain has to offer. And just as a Gloucester simply won’t suffice in place of a Shropshire Blue, a drizzly rain murder is not the same as a sunny manorhouse murder. Sometimes, one wants a murder that isn’t really about crime so much as it is Scottish sweaters and loneliness. Other times, one simply wants to watch a hot man solve a mystery, though, in the case of Shetland, these impulses are interchangeable. Occasionally, a person might want to spend an afternoon unfurling a cheerful yarn in which a drifter is found bludgeoned to death in a Cotswalds vicarage and the killer must be caught before all this bothersome death puts a damper on the much-anticipated church bell unveiling ceremony. Different moods require different murders. So if you’ve been sitting at home thinking that you might enjoy passing the time by watching other people attempt to understand why one person might kill another but you’ve seen all available Law & Order, allow me to help you sort, at a glance, the British mysteries available through your streaming services.
A body is discovered or a body is missing or someone died a long time ago. The sky is grey and a wizened detective looks on in the drizzle. He or she has seen this before, has seen it all before, and the seeing is simultaneously too much and nothing new. The detective is good at exhausted wincing but struggles to make conversation with a loved one who could never understand the wincing or the murder. Teacups clatter against saucers in the silence, and our hero has drifted away from the sister or child or neighbor across the table, yet remains bound to the killer by the bleak thread of loneliness spun of the knowledge that each of us is born with a bottomless capacity for cruelty. The killer is someone the viewer and the sad detective have met but also could be any of us given the wrong set of circumstances coupled with the right opportunity.
The detective is a solitary genius with a small, yet tastefully arranged living space. He is estranged from one or more family members or his parents both died without ever loving him. His hobbies include quietly thinking and warning those who, unlike his parents or his brother or his daughter, have come to love him despite his rough edges not to get too close, as constantly peering at darkness has blinded him to lightness and love. The murderer is someone you would never have guessed for reasons that can only be properly worked out in the lonely, dark brain of the genius detective. Does he wear a hat or scarf? Then he is incapable of solving a murder without first behaving like a complete asshole for, at minimum, the better part of an hour.
It is a beautiful summer’s day, and the whole of the cobblestoned village is looking forward to a pie-making festival/gardening exhibition/showcase of Edwardian cutlery, only to find that a person central to this event whom nobody liked much anyway has been poisoned/garrotted with floral wire/choked with the apostle handle of a mustard spoon. The male detective is dumbfounded, as surely this case has nothing to do with women’s nonsense like pies, flowers, or cutlery, despite those things having been used in the murder, and because of this lack of man’s clues, he must bluster around doing nothing. Meanwhile, our amateur lady detective knows that the tippleberries from the gardening show taste exactly like the currants commonly used in the Staffordshire pie from the baking show and noticed at once that St. Peter was facing west in the display case when he always faces east on the dining table, so it must have been the vicar’s wife, secretly the sister of the murder victim, which is obvious based on the way they both took their tea.
Someone is missing or was never reported missing or has been dead a long time, but the past never dies. The headmaster or a vicar or a priest did it. The sky never stops hemorrhaging rain, and the lonely detective investigating these lonesome deaths watches the rain alone in perpetuity.