Am I a Luther convert? Yes. The plot might not stand up, but it's a cut above most cop series

The show's garnered praise for Idris Elba's performance, but really its most important character is London.

Luther
BBC1

Not even a TV critic can watch everything, so this, the third series of Luther (Tuesdays, 9pm), is my first. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to catch up. Luther is nothing if not hyped, which is why I’ve known ever since it started in 2010 that DCI John Luther (Idris Elba) is a maverick cop (though in this instance the cliché “maverick” means “borderline nutter” as opposed to someone who isn’t crazy about paperwork).

I was also aware he was involved in some funny business with a brilliant killer played by Ruth Wilson – though she seems to have disappeared this time round. In series three, her character appears only on a noticeboard, where her photograph has been stuck alongside all of Luther’s other “victims” by the coppernow investigating his dubious methods.

Yes, Luther is under investigation and it’s his loyal sidekick DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) who’s the mole. I doubt this state of affairs will last – Luther is almost certain to win Ripley round in the end – but it’s fun for now, a pleasing seam of reality making its way into what must be one of the most preposterous shows ever made. Not that I mind. However loopy, Luther is still quite frightening, the kind of programme that makes you worry about walking home from the bus stop (as usual, most of the violence – and there is plenty of it – is directed at young women).

It makes you jump and sometimes (perhaps this is just me) it makes you run out of the room with your hands over your eyes. In the first episode, a killer, having decided that he would not allow the police the satisfaction of taking his fingerprints, went into his kitchen and shoved his hand in his blender – a refreshingly edgy take on the 21st-century craze for juicing.

It’s quite clear that Neil Cross, Luther’s writer, is deeply in love with his creation. His passion is there in the small stuff: a serial killer who dresses his victims up like Siouxsie Sioux (“late-Eighties post-punk”, as Luther explains it to Ripley); a serial killer who fishes in the Thames for freshwater crayfish and then eats them for his tea with a bag of chipshop chips. Why does Luther drive an old Volvo estate? I don’t know but I like that he does. Delightfully at odds with his tendency to dangle suspects by their ankles over the edge of tower-block balconies, its low-slunk bulk is one reason among many why the viewer is never quite sure how to take him. Luther not a loveable rogue; he’s a monster with a badge. And yet he is sometimes on the side of the angels, morally speaking, and he cruises around London in the same motor in which I used to travel to Brownies. I wonder if there are Wet Ones and a tin of sugar-dusted “travel sweets” in the glove compartment.

Elba’s performance as Luther has been much praised (he won a Golden Globe for it in 2012) but he doesn’t have an awful lot to do in the way of nuance. I prefer Dermot Crowley’s turn as his boss, DSU Martin Schenk; one look at his hair (lank as day-old underwear) and skin (dishcloth grey) and you absolutely believe in him. If you could hand him his police pension there and then, you would, just as an act of pity.

But Luther’s most important character is London. The series is beautifully shot, blues always bleeding into greys and every pano - rama framed or gloriously bisected by some bridge or tower. You watch it and think: this is what album covers used to be like, kids. (Though I also think, sometimes: my God, I’m seeing Blackwall in a whole new light. The location scout deserves a medal.)

So, am I convert? Yes, I think I am. It doesn’t stand up, any of it, plot-wise but it’s still a cut above some cop series. And it stays with you. I keep thinking about a certain stiletto heel, as seen from the perspective of a man who is hiding beneath its owner’s bed . . . Tonight, I will be checking out my boudoir very carefully, just in case.

Monster with a badge: Idris Elba in Luther. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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