Whether it’s the atmospheric landscapes, the accents, or the tension between social classes, there’s something about British crime dramas that I find irresistibly intriguing.
These ten tv shows are my picks for the best of the best, guaranteed to make you want to grab your deerstalker cap, put on a pot of tea, and crack the case.
This British-Irish series stars Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson, a superintendent sent to Belfast when local police realize a serial killer is behind the deaths of several women.
Unlike most murder mystery shows, The Fall tells the audience ‘who done it’ almost immediately. Paul (Jamie Dornan) is a handsome grief counselor with a wife and daughter—and a secret taste for killing. He plays the role of compassionate counselor and family man so well that at times Paul is an unnervingly sympathetic character, but the show doesn’t make the mistake of reducing the series’ women into pawns used to tell his story. Stella is liberated, fierce, cunning, and exactly the kind of badass I want from my TV detectives. The women she collaborates with on the case are equally as complex.
As Paul’s crimes become more brazen and his carefully fabricated double life disintegrates, the cat-and-mouse game between he and Stella rises to tense new heights. The Fall will have you thinking about it (and triple-checking that you’ve locked your doors!) long after you’ve caught up with its three seasons.
Finished with The Fall? Queue up Marcella, on Netflix now, where former London detective Marcella Backland returns to investigate a once-dormant serial killer who may have begun killing again.
Detective John Luther (Idris Elba) is a maverick, volatile detective in the Metropolitan Police’s Serious Crime Unit. When Luther’s pursuit of a child killer ends suspiciously, his role on the force and his relationship with his wife, Zoe, are jeopardized. Luther is desperate to hold on to his job and marriage, but all bets are off when the prime suspect in a new case—sociopathic genius Alice Morgan—becomes obsessed with him.
This series, in true British fashion, is comprised of only 16 episodes to date, ensuring that the cat-and-mouse game between Luther and Morgan never feels drawn out. And with a fifth season (finally) filming, there's no time like now to begin your Luther obsession.
If you’re considering diving into this drama about a pair of mismatched detectives, make sure to have tissues handy. Set in a fictional market town inspired by show creator Chris Chibnall’s childhood home on the Jurassic Coast of Britain, Broadchurch Season 1 follows the investigation into the shocking death of 11-year-old Danny Latimer.
Detective Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), a close friend of the Latimers, arrives home from an extended family vacation to find arrogant new detective Alec Hardy (David Tennant) has received a promotion that she deserved. When Danny’s body is found later that day, Ellie and Alec are forced to put their differences aside and collaborate on the tragic case, unearthing the town’s many secrets along the way.
Heartfelt, incredibly acted, and propelled by the chemistry between Colman and Tennant, Broadchurch—now in its third season—is a must-binge.
This modern-day take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth stars Benedict Cumberbatch as consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, and Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson, a military vet recently returned from Afghanistan.
Although the series remains loyal to the core characteristics of Doyle’s work, primarily in its depiction of Sherlock’s conflict with Moriarty, its modern updates are refreshingly irreverent. For instance, Watson is a blogger whose online following earns them attention from all corners, and Sherlock uses the new technology at his disposal to crack cases.
It’s worth noting that Freeman and Cumberbatch have surprisingly sizzling chemistry on this show. Their connection is so obvious that many fans have expressed a wish for the series to make ‘Johnlock’—a portmanteau created by the Sherlock fandom to refer to a romantic relationship between John Watson and Sherlock Holmes—canon.
Top of the Lake
This BBC Two police procedural stars Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, an Australian detective who returns to her hometown of Laketop, New Zealand to investigate the pregnancy and disappearance of a twelve-year-old girl named Tui. Despite its idyllic appearance, Laketop is full of ugly secrets, and Robin soon realizes that this trip home may prove to be her undoing.
Top of the Lake's depiction of abuse against women and children can make the show difficult to watch at times, but Moss’ stunning performance is not to be missed.
A second series aired in 2017, adding Game of Thrones's Gwendoline Christie and Nicole Kidman to the main cast. Although less enthralling than the first series, China Girl is worth a watch not the least for Kidman's bossy, self-absorbed foster mother.
Based on the beloved novels by Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse ran from 1987-2000 and stars Kevin Whately as Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis and John Thaw in the title role of Morse, a senior officer at the Thames Valley Police Force in Oxford.
Morse is an opera-listening, finer-things-loving, cantankerous bachelor with a dark past. With the help of his working class partner Sergeant Robbie Lewis—later the focus of the spinoff show Inspector Lewis—Morse solves 33 episodes’ worth of mysteries. The series is full of gripping cases as well as surprisingly thoughtful commentary on aging and British class differences.
One of our favorite facts about the show? Apparently, the composer of the theme and score, Barrington Pheloung would sometimes spell out the name of the killer in background music using Morse code–but if you can figure that part out, don't get too cocky. He also sometimes put in a red herring name!
Prime Suspect stars Dame Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, a trailblazing female detective in London’s Metropolitan police service. As Tennison determinedly rises through the ranks, she takes on the institutionalized sexism of the police force—as well as her own demons.
Prime Suspect has seven cases, otherwise known as seasons, which ran over the course of 15 years. Each case functions rather more like a movie than the shows we are used to in the U.S. With two parts, each clocking in at about an hour and 40 minutes, you can knock down a season a night easily.
The Inspector Lynley Mysteries
Another series about partners from different sides of the metaphorical tracks, this BBC show ran for six seasons. It follows Detective Inspector Tommy Lynley (Nathaniel Parker), a posh Scotland Yard detective paired with Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers (Sharon Small), who comes from a working class background and whose lifestyle Lynley sees in many ways as an affront. Their social differences come to light in the first season as the pair collaborate on two very different cases: the brutal axe murder of a farmer, and the killing of a student at Lynley’s alma mater, Bredgar Hall.
Can't get enough? There are five more series, totaling 22 episodes–a truly British season-to-episode ratio.
Eight years after the suicide of her daughter, Becky, police sergeant Catherine Cawood is still reeling. Catherine lives with her heroin-addicted sister Clare, who is helping to raise Ryan, Becky’s son from the man who raped her. Catherine becomes obsessed with finding Becky’s rapist, but can’t understand just much danger pursuing him will create for her and her family.
Sarah Lancashire won a BAFTA for Best Actress for her role as Catherine Cawood, while the show won for Best Drama Series. This intense drama will appeal to those who like their crime shows with a taste of darkness.
Agatha Christie's Marple
Based on the Miss Marple character by Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie’s Marple ran for six seasons. The show initially starred Geraldine McEwan in the title role, but Julia McKenzie replaced her for Season 4-6. The critically acclaimed series follows the episodic adventures of Jane Marple, a woman who finds a statistically improbable amount of murder and mayhem wherever she goes. Each of the twelve novels written by Christie was adapted for the series, although many short stories were not included.
I like to think of Marple as a cozy mystery equivalent to Great British Bake Off–there's something inherently soothing about watching it. Make yourself a cuppa, grab a blanket, and devote a few hours to Miss Marple for a lovely afternoon.
Once you close the case on Christie's mysteries, check out the Midsomer Murders. A veteran DCI and his young sergeant travel to the seemingly peaceful English county of Midsomer, where mystery is afoot. All 19 seasons (!) of this whimsical murder mystery are currently available on Netflix.
Featured still from "Luther" via BBC