The case of the unsatisfying female cops

There's no shortage of interesting male detectives on TV, yet the women are either grim or fluffy, says Ben Walsh
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The Independent Culture

Morse, Columbo, Kojak, Starsky and Hutch, Taggart, Rockford, Magnum, Frost...monikers etched into every murder-mystery enthusiasts' psyche. There are plenty of lovable, three-dimensional, flawed but brilliant, male TV detectives. They're smart, often eccentric, mavericks, whom the British public have taken to their crime-loving hearts.

In comparison, the list of memorable, believable and lovable female detectives is depressingly small. Female sleuths appear to divide between the gritty, grim and emotionally tortured – Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect and Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer – or the cosy, preposterous, and criminally silly – Rosemary and Thyme, the obnoxiously twee Murder in Suburbia and the perfectly appalling Murder, She Wrote. (Or, worse still, the excessively camp and ridiculous like Charlie's Angels or Stefanie Powers's Jennifer Hart in Hart to Hart). The one towering exception is, of course, Jane Marple.

Can there really not be a modern equivalent of Agatha Christie's keen-minded, keenly humanist spinster? A sleuth who is a recognisable member of the human race and solves crimes without coming across like Angela Lansbury's perfectly unreal Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote?

ITV have lavished us with Kelly Reilly's DC Anna Travis in Lynda La Plante's Above Suspicion, but, as good an actor as Reilly is, her role feels underwritten, and her character isn't lovable or interesting enough. She is no Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), or Detective Sergeant Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless) from 1980s Cagney and Lacey or, even, Velma Dinkley from Scooby-Doo. The so-so dialogue Reilly is provided with certainly doesn't help – which is unusual, as La Plante (Prime Suspect, Widows) does consistently create believable, strong, if not entirely sympathetic, women.

Emilia Fox, as Dr Nikki Alexander, is trying her sultry darndest to breathe some life into pathology drama Silent Witness, taking over from the deadpan Amanda Burton, who mainly acted with her eyebrows. But, put simply, it's no Quincy.

So, will ITV's much anticipated Vera, based on Ann Cleeves's bestselling crime novels set by the Northumberland coast, be the answer? From the very start, its star attraction, Brenda Blethyn's Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, looks glum, slightly worn out, viewing the sea through a telescope while her cop son studiously deposits her father's ashes in the sea. Vera is tough, you see, pet. A damaged hard-nut, with dad-problems and closed-off emotions – she doesn't even ask about the birth of her son's very recent child. It doesn't bode well for emotional engagement, and feels so far, so Wallander. Plus, like Prime Suspect, there are plenty of extreme close-ups of our Geordie female detective's pained face as she investigates a suitably grisly case – the death of a 15-year-old boy drowned in the bath. It's played out against scenery similar to that in Wallander, too – windswept, chilly, beige – and there's a similarly sparse feel to proceedings. Plenty of dead bodies pile up – there are Midsomer Murder levels of death – but there's an odd lack of tension.

Perhaps ITV1's other big hitter, Scott & Bailey, will be more engaging. The six-part series follows the fraught lives of DC Janet Scott and DC Rachel Bailey, who find "themselves in extreme and challenging situations every day of their lives". The wonderful Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones play the cops. It seems, however, that Danish television is paving the way with the excellent Sofie Grabol as Sarah Lund in The Killing – she was believable, intense, very human, very alluring – and wore a terrific cardigan. She knocks DC Travis and Dr Alexander into a cocked hat. And, to be even-handed, US TV has given us Sonja Sohns's wonderful Kima in The Wire and Melina Kanakaredes's Detective Stella Bonasera in CSI: NY.

But it's still early days with Vera. This well-made policier does have lots of potential. Yet, even this early into it, it's tricky feeling genuine warmth or affection for Vera.

'Vera' screens on ITV1 on Monday 1 May at 9pm

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