12 June 2019

Wire in the Blood

Wire in the Blood is a Brit TV show based on Val McDermid's series of books featuring forensic psychologist Tony Hill. The character's played by Robson Green, who might be familiar to some of you from Grantchester, and who was also in seasons 4 and 5 of Strike Back, which is where he first caught my attention. He's had a solid career going back to the late 1980's, light comedy and heavy drama, but I wouldn't wonder if doing Tony Hill isn't one of the highlights.

Criminal profiling, in the formal sense, goes back at least to the Whitechapel terror - Jack the Ripper is said to be the first object of analysis. David Morrell would give you an argument, and suggest Thomas de Quincey's essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," which examines the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, predating the Ripper by some 75 years. The 'science,' disputed by some scholars, has gotten a lot of traction over the last forty years or so. The FBI commissioned their Behavioral Science Unit in 1972. Thomas Harris published Red Dragon in 1981. Popular imagination does the rest.

Wire in the Blood falls very much in hagiographic terrain. Tony Hill has an unsettling ability to put himself in a killer's shoes, but his insights aren't always appreciated by the more evidence-driven homicide dicks he works with. He'll make an intuitive leap; they'll be looking for a DNA match. In practice, it usually works out, and the bad guys meet their just desserts. In terms of narrative structure, it can be a little predictable, since Tony's so often proved right. This isn't, in the scheme of things, actually a weakness. It provides a two-track storyline, and even though you know Tony has his finger on the killer's internal mechanics, it's gonna be the cops who run the villain to earth.

There's a very definite something else going on with Tony Hill, though, and certainly in the way that Robson Green inhabits the character. Tony isn't socially adept. If he's not quite as bone-headed as, say, Doc Martin, he's obviously somewhere on the spectrum. This plays out as an interesting contradiction. Tony will walk his way through a crime scene, and try to experience it from the POV of both victim and killer. This kind of sympathetic vibration doesn't work for him, however, with what most of us think of as generic social interaction. He'll stop a conversation cold because he's had a sudden epiphany, he'll forget what he was saying, he'll walk out of a room. He doesn't realize his behavior is often careless or even hurtful. He doesn't mean it to be, of course, and he's embarrassed when he's caught out, but he's obsessive-compulsive. He's got tunnel vision.

This is a curiously common characteristic in our ratiocinatory detectives - is that a word? Sherlock Holmes, for one. Emotion clouds the reasoning process. On the other hand, empathy is a necessary part of it. Tony Hill is deeply affected by what he does, but he has to keep his distance. It's a puzzle in and of itself, and Robson Green makes the guy fascinating to watch. Not endearing, mind, but isolated, apart. Too much in his own head.

I should add a cautionary note. Wire in the Blood isn't a cozy. The theme is damage, the pathologies are unsettling, the prey are children, or the weak, or the damned. It's not terribly reassuring. It makes for one hell of a compelling narrative, though.


  1. Interesting. I haven't read those books or watched that series, but I shall have to. Have you read McDermid's nonfiction book Forensics? Fascinating stuff. One thing she talks about is the 1992 case of Colin Stagg in which profilers so ruined an innocent man's reputation that the government had to pay him a ton of money because he couldn't get work. https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2016/06/the-scientist-and-man-in-black.html

  2. I'll look out for it! Thanks for the tip.

  3. Erm, I've been known to drift off into space. Might have something to do with my 4th grade teacher calling me Absent-Minded Professor. An NYU instructor, Dr. Paul Abrahams was even worse. He'd spend most of his time in space only by addressing him did his attention settle upon you for the duration of the question.

    In the early 80s, I read a forensics / medical examiner novel. I didn't realize I was reading the first of a trend. I believe the protagonist was female, and impressed me by solving a death by hair dryer. At that time I had an Oster that started giving nasty shocks. Apparently it wasn't polarized making it very dangerous indeed.

    Another British mystery series with an obnoxiously anti-social detective is Broadchurch. I'm only four episodes into it, but I vote for murdering the copper.

    On the other hand, I loved The Tunnel. The French anti-social female lead charmed me to pieces.

  4. Thanks for an interesting post. I'm with Leigh - I also couldn't stand the detective in Broadchurch! Frankly, I'm getting pretty tired of the somewhere-on-the-spectrum detective. It was quirky in Monk, but after that...

  5. I can't handle BROADCHURCH, either. but I too enjoyed THE TUNNEL. And am I the only one who's immune to SHERLOCK, in spite of the usually endearing Benedict Cumberbatch?
    The best off-the-wall, on-the-spectrum detective I've encountered is the hero and narrator of MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, who's got Tourette's. (Around the same time, Sue Grafton used a guy with Tourette's as her heavy.)
    I think also that the Brits rely less on one-note characterizations. For instance, compare the UK and US versions of CRACKER: Robbie Coltrane is aggravating, if somehow sympathetic, and keeps you off-balance; the American show just doesn't have the writing to sustain that.
    Death by appliance. I'm guessing we've all come close, toasters and coffee-makers.
    Rob - I'll look for the McDermid non-fiction forensics book.

  6. David, I couldn't handle Sherlock either and I despised the cartoonish Robert Downey version. However, for some reason, I liked Elementary, which I wouldn't have predicted about myself.

  7. David, I too am immune to Benedict Cumberbatch's SHERLOCK.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>