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Why BBC2’s The Investigation could change true crime drama forever

By telling the story of the biggest murder case in recent Danish history without featuring the killer, has The Investigation found a more sensitive way to make true crime drama?

The superb six-part true crime drama The Investigation (currently airing on BBC2) tells the story of Denmark’s most notorious recent murder, the so-called Submarine Case, in which award-winning journalist Kim Wall was killed.

The high-profile victim and unusual circumstances of the case – Wall was invited aboard a submarine to interview its wealthy owner but never seen alive again; the police had to battle to disprove her killer’s claims that she died in an accident at sea – made headlines around the world.

Given that Denmark is a world leader in television crime drama, it was perhaps inevitable that the case would end up on screen. However, what Borgen co-creator Tobias Lindholm has done with his script is unprecedented – and might have solved one of the oldest mysteries on television. How do you tell the story of a murder without glamorising the perpetrator?

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Because unlike almost any previous depiction of a real crime in a TV or film drama, the killer is neither seen nor mentioned by name across the entire six-episode run. We see nothing of the crime. And we only hear the killer mentioned in passing – described as ‘the accused’ or ‘the suspect’.

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Instead, the show focuses on the investigation lead by unassuming Jens Møller, played by Soren Malling, veteran star of The Killing and Borgen. The series was also made in close consultation with Kim Wall’s parents, Ingrid and Joachim Wall. And you can tell. Their grief is told alongside, and as part of the investigation into their daughter’s murder.

In this, the series borrows from the groundbreaking style of another Danish series, this one fictional, which ushered in a new era of crime drama in 2007. The Killing showed the impact of a murder on the family and the community, shifting the balance of police procedural, ensuring grief was foregrounded, given proper screen time, and treated as forensically as the police work bringing about justice.

In The Investigation, this only adds to the importance of Møller and his team, by showing what is at stake. It shows why results are needed so urgently. And it shows the agony behind every setback or every extra hour or day searching for evidence.

The absence of the killer could, and perhaps should change the way TV drama handles murder cases

There is a beauty in the granular storytelling. At times, this is almost police procedural as slow TV. The Investigation shows policing in all its forensic, methodical detail – the frustration and powerlessness of the murder detective, waiting for forensics or divers to find the evidence to pull the case together.

This is not a tale of maverick genius detective making things happen with their extraordinary deductions – it is one of hard work, durability, diligence, team-building, perseverance and sadness.

But it is the absence of the killer that could, and perhaps should, change the way TV drama handles murder cases – both real and fictional.

Why does it matter? Why not show the murderer? Because narcissistic killers, once caught, feed only on the oxygen of their own notoriety.

The sheer volume of drama centred on murder distorts our ideas of safety. It fuels fear in society. The Investigation focuses instead on the humanity and the healing, the hard yards that bring about justice.

The series came only a few months after Des, a couple of weeks after The Pembrokeshire Murders and is airing at the same time as The Serpent. Four stories that could not be more different. But while all four real-life cases feature a narcissistic killer, only three put the killer front and centre on television.

The Investigation has shown a new way to avoid adding to the mythology and intrigue surrounding men who murder

In writing Des, Luke Neal made sure to foreground the victims and the fight for justice on their behalf. Daniel Mays as DCI Peter Jay was the heart and soul of the drama. But competing with the solid police work and righteous quest to give voice to the victims was a magnetic, enigmatic, narcissistic psychopath – played by one of the country’s most popular actors.

Denis Nilsen was not alive to see David Tennant’s magnetic performance. But despite the best efforts of the programme makers, there was always the nagging fear with Des that, had he been alive to see it, Nilsen would have loved the idea of being played by Tennant in a primetime ITV drama.

The Investigation has shown a new way to tackle sensitive stories. A new way to avoid adding to the mythology and intrigue surrounding men who murder (for it is, almost always, men) and instead focus on the importance of good police work and, where appropriate, the impact of these heinous crimes on grieving families and communities.

The Investigation airs on BBC2 on Friday nights, and is available on iPlayer. Out now on DVD and Digital.

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