After 17 consecutive number one bestsellers in the UK, more than 20 million copies and 37 different languages, Peter James’s hero DS Roy Grace has finally made it to the screen. The first two books, Dead Simple and Looking Good Dead, have been adapted for ITV by the Endeavour creator Russell Lewis. (All the Grace books have “Dead” in their titles.) For the many committed Jamesians this is a famous moment, and I’m sure there will be plenty of teeth-gnashing over the casting and directorial decisions. I’ve not read any, so I come to it cold.
The first 25 minutes feel like familiar territory. John Simm plays Grace, a once-respected Brighton detective stuck doing cold cases. If not fully washed up, he’s starting to roll against the beach. His wife, Sandy, vanished six years ago, and at 46 he has a personal life as lively as the West Pier. He’s mocked by his colleagues and the local media for consulting a psychic to help with his investigations. When a local property developer, Michael Neward (Tom Weston-Jones), goes missing after his stag do goes wrong, DC Glenn Branson (Richie Campbell) calls Grace back in to bring a bit of the “old Grace magic”. Their boss Alison Vosper (Rakie Ayola) isn’t happy about the situation. Grace is a liability. “Drop a bollock on this one and the CC will have the pair,” she warns him.
Suspicion instantly falls on Michael’s business partner, a shifty type who managed to miss the stag because of a delayed flight. His wife-to-be, Ashley (Alisha Bailey), also smacks of shenanigans. As we learn what befell the stag, Grace grows into something a cut above the average detective drama. That’s mainly thanks to its pacing, which plaits two time frames towards a tight, only intermittently preposterous climax. Plot points that other series might dwell on, in particular a walkie-talkie situation, pass at a satisfyingly tight clip. If you wondered what Miami Vice would have looked like in Shoreham, wonder no more.
James has said Simm’s casting is “inspired”, and that he actually “looks like the Roy Grace of my imagination”. Simm gives him a winning sense of humour beneath all the grit. He knows that he looks a bit ridiculous. It’s another layer of angst, but he won’t change while his methods bring results. Campbell is a smooth foil, playing Branson quietly enough that Simm doesn’t have to be enormous to stand out. Brighton’s mix of pretty shoreline, faded glamour, criminal past and contemporary hipsterism makes it a ripe spot for some murder. The action feels rooted in its setting without pretending that mobile phones and the internet don’t exist, a balance that surprisingly few detective series pull off. Compared to the police sections, the backstory about Grace’s wife feels underbaked – the price of drawing new viewers into the plot. I’m sure Lewis and co will have time to rectify that.
It’s almost inconceivable Simm hasn’t already been in a long-running franchise about a grizzled old detective, and I expect the wait’s over.
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