Jumpers at the ready: The Killing is back

<em>Forbrydelsen</em>, along with other Scandi whodunits, harks back to a more artful age of crime d

ITV once announced the comeback of Columbo by playing Mark Morrison's Return of the Mac -- a whole detective represented by a crumpled old raincoat. This weekend, a similarly feted piece of clothing returns to our screens -- along with the sleuth who inhabits it -- as Danish detective Sarah Lund reappears in the iconic Faroese jumper for series two of The Killing (Forbrydelsen), starting Saturday on BBC4.

I should state at this point that this is in no way going to be an objective piece of writing. I write as an unashamed fan. I absolutely loved the first series of The Killing, and I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the second. As luck would have it, I'm away in Copenhagen (pretending to stalk Troels Hartmann in the town hall) this weekend, but I'll make sure I catch up during the week.

What's so great about this latest piece of Scandi Crime fiction? Are we just interested in our Nordic cousins meandering around because it seems foreign and cerebral to us; a notch up from Midsomer Murders or the standard detective shows on our major channels? As someone once said to me, there are probably Scandinavians sitting down to a subtitled episode of New Tricks, marvelling at Dennis Waterman's subtle characterisation and the psychological pacing of the drama. But I think it goes beyond that: the Scandi shows like Wallander and The Killing hark back to a more exciting, more artful age of crime drama.

Look back at an old episode of Bergerac, for example, and you'll find the pacing is so different. Fires in the Fall, the fabled creepy Christmas special of 1986 is well worth a look (though don't watch it right before going to bed) for several reasons. The plot really takes time to get going, almost as if you're not going to turn it over after 10 seconds if you get bored. As well as that, shows went 30 or 40 minutes before anyone even got killed; it seems John Nettles had a lot less death to deal with in Jersey than he does in Midsomer, where the corpses stack up before every ad break.

What The Killing's first series combined, over 20 hour-long episodes, was a whodunit with a drama about the effect of the crime on those who were left behind, along with a political thriller. It was like 24, but without the torture porn and the need for explosions. No mean feat for a bit of Sunday night telly, but there it was. We had time to learn about the various suspects and characters, to rule them out and then think they might have done it after all. Who knew? No one knew. Even the actors didn't know.

Unusually, The Killing is written as the series is filmed, with the main writers taking account of the actors' interpretations and including them in future episodes. It's this relationship between actors and their characters that makes it feel like a real collaborative effort -- plus no one knew who would be the killer or whether they would live or die until they got the next script, so they were as much in the dark as we, the audience were.

Catch the first series if you can, but keep your head down and don't mention it to anyone who might have seen it; you won't want the revelation of the killer and the noir-heavy denouement spoiled for you, that's for sure. Best to just lock yourself away.

At the heart of Forbrydelsen was and is Sarah Lund, the flawed detective played by Sofie Grabol. If The Killing had been set in England, you just know Lund would have been a ballbreaker or a bitch, power-dressed and full of that ghastly "feistiness" that all female leads are forced to have nowadays. But no: instead, the protagonist is quite passive, almost annoyingly so at times, thinking rather than articulating. She's not even brilliantly deductive: like Morse, she gets to the truth by simply wearing it down. What she has, above all, is patience and persistence -- the kind of qualities that are rewarded with this kind of superior crime drama.

So, jumpers at the ready. Series 2 is here. Just don't tell me who did it, or there'll be a real crime.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear