In Suspect (Channel 4), James Nesbitt plays a goofy detective caught up in a slapstick caper … oh stop it, of course he doesn’t. Nesbitt is Danny, a moody, troubled cop – married to the job, estranged from his family – who ends up unofficially investigating the murder of a close relative. This is a remake of a popular Danish noir series Forhøret, so it was never going to be a lighthearted romp, but it takes dedication to the dark side to make Nesbitt’s last outing as a troubled cop, Bloodlands, look upbeat.
There are two episodes per evening until it concludes on Wednesday. I was allowed to see seven of the eight, so if the big reveal turns this into one of the smartest crime series of all time, I can only apologise for being premature. It has a wintry chill so pronounced that I almost put on a jumper, so it seems odd to strip it across a warm week in June. Each short episode is a two-hander between Nesbitt and another actor, though occasionally others drop in for a minute or two. It is not dissimilar to the Netflix series Criminal, although that looked at one case per episode, rather than stringing one case out over the whole run.
The case, then. Danny pops into the morgue for a chat with pathologist Jackie (Joely Richardson) about the body of a yet-to-be-identified young woman, which presents as a suicide. Naturally, he is suspicious of the circumstances, because that’s the kind of copper he is. After some technical notes, Danny goes to leave, only for something to draw him back to the slab. (Quite a lot of the plot moves forward on the characters’ intuition.) He recognises the necklace that has been placed in a sterile plastic pot. He lets out a howl of pain.
It isn’t too much of a spoiler to reveal that the body turns out to be that of his daughter, Christina, because the rest of the series hinges on Danny tearing around trying to find out who murdered her. But not before he has a meltdown in the morgue, refusing to believe Christina killed herself. “Open her up, else I’ll do it myself,” he roars, waving a scalpel at Jackie, who he has locked in the mortuary with him. “They are gonna throw the fucking book at you for this,” she spits. Suspect is many things, but understated isn’t one of them.
Clearly Suspect is aiming for a certain mood, a sort of Luther-lite. It is noirish, all neon lighting in darkened corners, with locations named the Crimson Orchid (a strip club), Baz’s Sauna and Gym (a boxing club) and, er, County Racecourse. But it is a strained version of noir that doesn’t land, and often ends up cartoonish. Over the course of the series, Danny is bounced from lead to lead, following the trail of breadcrumbs that teach him about his daughter’s life. On his journey of discovery, we meet Christina’s friends, colleagues, partner and the assorted wrong’uns in her orbit.
As the pair have been estranged, Danny does not know anything about Christina’s life as an adult. He kicked her out when she was 15, we are led to believe, when he found her in bed with another girl. Taken from its most flattering angle, the idea that he might have to learn who his daughter is by piecing together the remnants of her life is intriguing. The fact that her life was made up of the parts and people he has spent his career fighting offers a low hum of tragedy. Anne-Marie Duff, who appears late in the series as Christina’s mother, provides plenty of grief and gravitas, as you might expect.
The opening credits, which make this look like a big-budget, big-name game of Cluedo, and I suppose it is, proudly parade the cast. This is a top-notch collection of British and Irish acting talent, from Richard E Grant to Niamh Algar. The subject matter demands intensity, and Nesbitt has to go toe-to-toe with them; after all the raging, I can only imagine he was knackered after filming it. It is highly theatrical, and it has, oddly, the feel of early lockdown TV, when as much was done with as little as possible. But this isn’t lockdown, and I found the theatrics so heightened – Christina regularly appears to her father as a sort of shimmering clue from the afterlife – that by episode seven, it had lost me completely.