Viewers face a very different crime wave as a new set of police heroes hits the small screen

Forget Frost and say goodbye to Barnaby. The latest stars of crime dramas are complicated, compromised and criminal. Gerard Gilbert examines the scene

What do a melancholic Italian policeman, a part-time Irish money launderer and young deaf woman have in common? The answer is that they are some of the new protagonists in British TV's latest crime-wave – a crest of fledgling thrillers crashing on to a shore that is littered with dead and dying formats. David Jason's superannuated DI Jack Frost has finally handed in his warrant card, The Bill has been axed after 25 years (arguably a decade too late), and, after 200 cases that saw a leafy corner of the Home Counties turned into the murder capital of the UK, Midsomer Murders is losing its most familiar crime-fighting countenance, John Nettles's DCI Tom Barnaby.

They are not a moment too soon, these brave new dramas. It's now almost 20 years since the British crime show last showed truly original creative gumption, with Prime Suspect and Cracker, since when it has largely been bound by procedural formats that can look pretty lacklustre compared to their American counterparts. Waking the Dead or Cold Case? Silent Witness or CSI? Take your pick, but I know which I'd plump for each time. And, anyway, British crime is long past the hour when it needed to freshen up and take notice of the genre-bending and deepening that's been happening across the Atlantic with shows like Dexter, The Shield, Southland and The Wire.

On the subject of The Wire, first into the breach is BBC1's Luther, which may sound like a biopic of the great Protestant reformer, but instead introduces us to John Luther, an emotionally intense murder detective played by Idris Elba from David Simon's critically adored, Baltimore-set saga. "He's an unorthodox, very smart, intellectual guy, but also passionate about his work", says Elba, providing an e-fit of just about every fictional detective from Marlowe to Morse. His creator, novelist turned debutant screenwriter Neil Cross, argues, however, that although Luther is firmly rooted in tradition, he is also something new.

"In crime fiction there are two broad genres. One is the mystery genre... the puzzle-solving genre... which is best exemplified by Sherlock Holmes. The second tradition involves a much more morally committed, more beaten and bruised, central hero-figure, like Philip Marlowe. What I've never seen was a character who exemplified both of these primary traits."

Maybe not, but what is certain is that Luther's makers have been lucky in securing the services of Elba. The Wire actor may no longer be playing a big-time drug dealer, Russell "Stringer" Bell, but imports some of that character's air of sly danger into his London murder detective, a man not averse delivering instant justice (in the opening episode, to a serial child-killer). Director Brian Kirk (who has worked on Dexter and is currently filming Martin Scorsese's new TV series, Broadwalk Empire) has managed to make London look shimmering and sexy and new. However, what's really different with this show, explains Elba, is that it's not a whodunnit. "In each episode the audience discover early on who the murderer is, so the drama is not in the mystery – it's in watching Luther work out how to catch the killer."

Neil Cross has dubbed his creation not a whodunnit but a "howcatchem", or "inverted detective story" and, in that sense, Luther is like another upcoming new crime drama, DCI Banks: Aftermath, ITV1's adaptation of Peter Robinson's 12th Inspector Banks novel, with Stephen Tompkinson in the leading role. "Aftermath actually starts with the capture and death of a serial killer and it's about the ramifications of revealing who this man is", says Francis Hopkinson of Left Bank Pictures, which is about to start filming the two-part pilot. "So it is a detective drama, but it starts where most detective dramas end".

Hopkinson is no stranger to pitching unlikely-sounding ideas since his company also makes the award-winning Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh as Henning Mankell's lugubrious Swedish policeman. "I remember other producers thinking we were completely mad doing this, but it was actually the BBC who said, 'we want something completely different'. They were the ones who pushed for it not to be another cosy English detective".

And with Wallander on hold while Branagh directs the superhero fantasy Thor (coincidentally, co-starring Luther's Idris Elba), Hopkinson pitched another offbeat idea to the BBC – adaptations of Michael Dibdin's novels featuring the Italian detective Aurelio Zen – they are a deglamourised portrait of an Italy rife with Mafiosi and political corruption. Rufus Sewell plays the title character.

"What Henning Mankell wanted to write about was Sweden", says Hopkinson. "He didn't set out to write detective stories – they became the best way to write about Sweden. It's also what we're trying to do with Aurelio Zen and what we're trying to do with Inspector Banks. They're not sort of Asperger's geniuses – they are emotionally engaged with the crime. I think that's much more interesting to people. I think people are looking for something a bit deeper from their detectives – certainly detective fiction has become much less procedural... [with] puzzles to be solved... and much more exploring the world around them. "

Happily, the BBC's Head of Drama, Ben Stephenson, agrees, saying he is also looking beyond the straightforward whodunnit as he attempts to modernise the genre with shows that also include Five Days and Criminal Justice. "I think crime is a fantastic subject for television because it gives you a plot motive that allows you to tell loads and loads of complex stories."

Is the time ripe, I suggest, for a crime drama version of The Street? "Jimmy McGovern's new show, Accused [see box, right], is just that", says Stephenson."It's taking the crime genre but using it to tell intensely personal and emotional stories about individuals going through extraordinary situations."

Ed Whitmore, meanwhile, is a genre veteran, having begun his career reading scripts for The Bill, before graduating to writing episodes of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Waking the Dead and Silent Witness. He has now created a new crime drama for ITV, Identity, about an elite police unit set up to combat the explosion of identity-related crime. Keeley Hawes plays the unit's head, while Aiden Gillen (yet another graduate from The Wire) is an undercover operative who can't leave his covert life behind. Identity comes to our screens in July, by which time Whitmore will be in Los Angeles, ABC having purchased the American remake rights to his creation.

"They really liked the idea of the Aidan Gillen character who can't give up his undercover identity as an Irish money-launderer", says Whitmore. "He's a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde character – by day he's in this identity unit being himself for the first time in years, by night he's entering his old undercover life so he can be with the love of his life, who is the sister of a Turkish drug-dealer.

"We're so lucky to have Aidan Gillen in that role. Although he's deceiving his boss, you still love him... you still want him to come out okay. It's the same thing as in Dexter [the drama with Michael C Hall about a serial killer who rids the world of serial killers], a profound mirroring between cop and criminal.

"You can't just do a straight procedural any more. You need some kind of angle. My experience of reading network pilot scripts is that they're all taking what I'd call a tonal chance – just like Dexter – that they've all got a kink or a twist. It's great... it's really healthy. You've got to really drill down deep these days."

"Angle is everything", agrees Neil Cross, creator of Luther, who quickly realised the classic whodunnit, as practised from Conan Doyle and Christie to Morse and Frost – in which the crime is there to be solved like a crossword puzzle – is exhausted. Or, as Cross puts it, "as a form of algebra... most of the permutations have already been used up". But does the darker, more complex and emotionally intense new wave of crime drama spell the demise of the straight whodunnit and what might be called "the white middle-aged male detective"?

"Not by a long chalk", says Cross. "We've seen the last of Morse and Frost as individuals, but a new angle will be hit upon from which we'll be able to revisit characters of that general type. What'll matter is that those new characters are created with genuine excitement, not simply to fill, say, a Frost-shaped hole in the autumn schedule. The audience sees through that kind of contrivance pretty quickly. "

Indeed, Lewis returns to our screens this month to continue filling an Inspector Morse-shaped hole in ITV's schedules – having however successfully bridged the deaths of John Thaw and Morse thanks to some clever casting and character decisions. It was inspired to give Laurence Fox's DS Hathaway a theological training – and in many ways Hathaway is the new Morse, while Kevin Whateley's Inspector Lewis is still the sidekick.

Lewis is the traditional so-called "cosy", but crime writer Ian Rankin firmly believes there is room for the cosies. "The harder-edged crime has come and gone but there is still a huge audience on Sunday night for the comfortable stories of crime fiction", he says: "officers and gentlemen in misty English villages solving crimes the police can't."

But before we all come over depressingly John Major-like, there is a rather more exciting future for crime drama – one that can be discerned in two of the most intriguing characters to have been created in recent years – Dexter Morgan and Lisbeth Salander – psychopath and sociopath. We've had the cinematic versions of Stieg Larsson's kick-ass, computer-hacking punk heroine, and it's surely only a matter of time before this brilliant creation is nabbed, lightly disguised and used in some TV format or other. For copyright reasons she won't be called Lisbeth Salander anymore, but Larsson's creation is so rich in possibilities that we should expect a knock-off sooner or later. Maybe the Larsson estate should green-light an official straight TV adaptation now.

Dexter, like the Salander character, and indeed The Sopranos, proved how far people's sympathies can be stretched, as long as the criminal is normalised. American TV is becoming very adept at this moral skewing, and perhaps the greatest crime show currently on television – although many people might not identify it as such (I do) – is Breaking Bad.

A sort of hard-drugs version of the pot-smoke wreathed Weeds, Breaking Bad stars the magnificent Brian Cranston as Walt White, a high-school chemistry teacher struggling to make ends meet for his wife and cerebral palsy-affected son. When Walt is diagnosed with lung cancer he goes into business with a former student, cooking crystal meth, in an attempt to secure his family's future. Walt journeys from being a wimpish failure to hardened criminal and we're cheering all the way.

"You can use crime drama to Trojan-horse your way into a massive drama like The Wire, or you can use it to devilishly entertain, like Dexter; that's what's so fantastic about crime drama", says Ed Whitmore. "The familiarity of good guys versus bad guys allows you to go anywhere and do anything". Only, as we've seen with Dexter and Breaking Bad, indeed even with The Wire, the boundary between good and bad has now been almost completely blurred in some of the more sophisticated reaches of television. If forensics and criminal profiling ruled in the Nineties and Noughties, then the coming decade will belong to deeper, more complex and morally troubling psychological crime drama. Cops are going to be pushed ever further towards the edge of the screen.

It's interesting that in BBC1's new four-parter The Silence, the police are involved, but only tangentially, in the context of a family drama. It's about a deaf teenage girl who witnesses a murder, and she just happens to be the niece of the murder detective in charge of the case. Although there's a whodunnit element, there's also an exploration of what it's like to be deaf. And if that smacks ever so slightly of the gimmicky then that is a weakness, because gimmicks won't cut the mustard anymore, or at least not for long. Anyone for an autistic detective? Or how about one where the detective is a ghost? Oh, yes, we already had Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Twice.

"If anything will slay the genre, it'll be the search for a new gimmick", says Neil Cross. "Once a sterile high-concept has been explored, put through all its permutations and reversals, the whole thing tends to sputter out pretty quickly. Eventually I grew a little tired of CSI , but those early series had found a genuinely fresh angle from which to revivify the whodunnit. And the genre will survive because people who love crime stories will hit upon their own ways of telling them."

'Luther' starts its run on BBC1 on Tuesday 4 May

The line-up: television's new suspects profiled

The Accused

"It's the spiritual successor to 'The Street'", says Jimmy McGovern of his new drama centring on six people awaiting verdicts in court. "The lead character in each episode is accused of a crime, but the verdict on whether they are guilty will arrive at different points in each episode."

When? 2011.

The Silence

A teenager (played by severely deaf actress Genevieve Barr, above), who has been fitted with a cochlear implant that enables her to hear for the first time, witnesses a brutal murder in a new four-part series. The girl is living with her uncle (Douglas Henshall), who is a murder detective, at the time.

When? May.

Aurelio Zen

Produced by the same team behind "Wallander", and set in Rome, Rufus Sewell plays the late Michael Dibdin's Italian police detective in three feature-length mysteries. Cases will involve the Mafia and political corruption.

When? Winter 2010.

DCI Banks: Aftermath

Stephen Tompkinson plays Peter Robinson's brooding and melancholic detective in a two-part pilot adaptation of "Aftermath", in which the identity of a serial killer is known from the start. The story focuses on the effects of those close to the crimes.

When? Autumn 2010.

Identity

Keeley Hawes ("Ashes to Ashes") and Aidan Gillen ("The Wire") lead the cast in a new drama about an elite police unit set up to combat the boom in identity crime. Gillen's character has a secret life when he becomes addicted to his undercover identity as an Irish money-launderer.

When? July.

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