Haven't we tired of crime dramas that gawp at dead, naked women?
The US streaming service Paramount+ is dipping a toe into the British market. So, to its roster of very American shows featuring Kevin Costner in a cowboy hat (Yellowstone) and Renée Zellweger in a fat suit (The Thing About Pam), it has now added a crime drama set in sleepy Norfolk. There are no shoot-outs or Hollywood stars in The Chemistry of Death. Instead, Harry Treadaway plays a nicely spoken village GP who investigates crimes.
Based on the books by Simon Beckett, Treadaway’s character is Dr David Hunter, who used to be a forensic anthropologist but has retreated to this job after a terrible tragedy that we see in flashbacks. “You’re not just a specialist in decomposition, you’re the specialist,” says an admiring detective. Thus, instead of calling on the experts that police forces have at their disposal, the team investigating a murder in Dr Hunter’s village just hires the local guy, not minding the fact that he has personal relationships with the victim and the accused. A real police force might make him their number one suspect after he leads them to the crime scene and later lets himself into the victim’s house.
Treadaway is a soulful actor and the production is atmospheric, although it could make more of the Norfolk landscape. The claustrophobia of a small community is well-portrayed, and the film-makers deserve credit for eschewing a chocolate box, Midsomer Murders-style village for something that feels more commonplace. The story spans three episodes and contains one twist that you won’t see coming.
But as with so many other dramas of this type, the crime involves the murder of women, their naked bodies laid out for us to gawp at. Women here are abducted, bound, gagged and chloroformed; they scream in terror and plead for mercy. We first see the corpse – grotesquely arranged to appear as if it has angel wings – when it is discovered by two horrified young boys; then again on the mortuary slab, and again in close-up on the police officers’ screens. Future episodes will have less of this, thankfully.
The USP of The Chemistry of Death is that Hunter solves the crimes using his knowledge of decomposing bodies, so we hear him in voiceover informing us that soon after death a body begins to digest itself, larvae hatch, insects arrive to consume the larvae… it’s grim stuff. Actually, can we have a moratorium on voiceovers? They’re good in Stand By Me and Goodfellas and The Wonder Years, unnecessary in everything else.