The best mystery TV shows of 2021
Brendon Connelly | On 01, Jan 2022
2021’s mystery TV run the gamut of tones, from cosy to caustic. Here’s a quick survey of some of the better mystery series that puzzled armchair detectives over 12 months, including one solid gold masterpiece and plenty of other gems that were sadly overlooked. That’s the magic of VOD – they don’t need to stay overlooked forever.
Death in Paradise: Season 10
The winter scheduling of this sunny, cosy show contributes immeasurably to its continued success, so it’s a little surprising the BBC waited this long before giving the show a Christmas special. The appeal certainly can’t depend on the cast or line-up of central characters who, likeable as they tend to be, are despatched almost as regularly as the island-loads of victims at the bottom of its impossible murder plots. Death in Paradise is the televisual equivalent of a quick crossword – regular, carefully made to formula, and easy fun to play with.
Queens of Mystery
Similarly cosy is Queens of Mystery, the most self-reflexive show on this list. There are puns, volumes of literary in-jokes and references, and a wonderful, Amelie-meets-Pushing Daisies voiceover from Juliet Stevenson that manages to be sweet and sometimes witty but also key to the self-aware structure and tone. Season 2’s individual mysteries did not live up to the first season but the characters and their over-arching plots go from strength the strength, with barely a skipped step coming from the re-casting of lead detective Matilda Stone.
Keeping Faith: Season 3
The English-language version of Keeping Faith was a long time coming but it finally rolled out on BBC iPlayer. It seems a shame to not watch the original Welsh version, Un Bore Mercher, but I was glad to see this low-key, idiosyncratic show back on my screen in any version. The secret weapon is conflicted, tenacious solicitor Faith Howells, played by Eve Myles with a skilfully modulated mixture of warmth and blazing fire.
Keeping Faith’s creator Matthew Hall also wrote the original Coroner novels, now adapted into this winning Canadian procedural. The first season made its way to More4, with the second and third playing on Sky Witness. Morwyn Brebner’s TV adaptation is smart and polished, balancing body-of-the-week concerns and exciting pathology-themed clueing with ongoing character dramas that swerve the worst extremes of soapiness.
The Frankie Drake Mysteries: Season 4
Canada is a haven for great mystery shows, although the latest run of pulpy adventures for the irresistible Frankie Drake were sadly announced to be her last. So many classic tropes sit nicely inside the 1920s Toronto depicted here, from safe cracking for priceless jewels to spy codes hidden in the classified columns, or hard-drinking heroines who can hold their own in the boxing ring as easily as a motorbike chase down at the docks. This all made for a great playground and it will be much missed.
Endeavour: Season 8
If Death in Paradise is the quick crossword, Endeavour is the cryptic. Defiantly literary, full of tricks but always substantial, Russell Lewis’ scripts are fully interested in big themes, principally the class structure and the changing tides of British society, without stinting on the mystery. Now the series’ endgame is creeping over the horizon, looking back at the run in its entirety makes for an increasingly clear angle on what the show Endeavour really is, and what the character Endeavour himself genuinely stands for.
Adapted by Endeavour’s Russell Lewis from Peter James’ Brighton-set mystery novels, which is a promising combination. The titling gimmick with the books is the inclusion of ‘Dead’ in each one: the first is Dead Simple, with a film of Looking Good Dead also in the can but, as is ITV’s wont, delayed indefinitely. John Simm makes for a compelling lead and the stories are good, but it might take a few more episodes to really get the measure of this adaptation.
The Flight Attendant
Ostensibly an amateur detective mystery, this show is structured more like a wrong-woman thriller, with an air hostess on the run after becoming the prime suspect for a murder she – probably! – didn’t commit. The clueing often feels like a cheat, with memories coming back when the plot needs them to and regular contrivances, but the black comedy works well.
Is Don Mancini’s continuation of his Child’s Play movies a mystery series? If it means I can recommend it here, then it certainly is. There’s an element of Columbo-style ‘inverted mystery’, with no question of killer doll Chucky being the culprit but lots of cat-and-mouse as he pulls off his terrible slaughter plots. There’s also Devon, the investigative reporter behind the Hackenslash podcast, who proves a good fit for the teen sleuth archetype, although I can’t help but hope he gets to actually demonstrate some detective work in the next season.
Misty Quigley, one of the four girls at the centre of this vicious, twisty mystery show, actually self-identifies as a teen sleuth. As the first couple of episodes reveal, however, she’s somewhat lacking in a number of Nancy Drew’s better qualities. There’s real horror in this show, some of it from surprising places. Whether the mystery finally slots together properly remains to be seen, but it’s been exciting to see the pieces move around so far.
Look really closely and Lupin cheats and shorts itself all over the place but the chances are you’ll be too magnetised by star Omar Sy to watch anything but his star turn. It’s fun to see a mystery slowly unravel through a series of heist plots – two great flavours that go very well together – and there’s ambition, sincerity and a desire to please the audience in every scene.
The Beast Must Die
There are multiple mystery stories woven together in The Beast Must Die, including a subtle riff on an impossible crime staple in the third act and a clever opening section in which an amateur detective is looking for a killer with nothing but vicious, extralegal justice in mind. There’s a lot going on in this show, from the classic, golden age plotting to modern, coruscating characterisation, and it all knits tightly into something very tense.
Mare of Easttown
A rare success on more or less every conceivable level, Mare of Easttown manages to tie up nicely as a mystery while making sure that machinery and plottiness service its complex character relationships, the strong sense of time and place, and an astute point of view on many facets of contemporary small-town American life. Kate Winslet: Detective is a thrilling three word pitch for all sorts of different shows and it would be nice to see them all, somehow, but this specific series, with its richly drawn tapestry of old friends, broken bonds and lost souls, would probably have worked with a woodentop in the lead role.
Unforgotten: Season 4
The fourth season had some big plot points that will ensure it always stands out in the series overall, but this is also, in the best sense, very much business as usual for screenwriter Chris Lang. There’s nobody else in British TV today who can drop a big monologue on a character but also craft it so it feels as natural and flowing as any dialogue. He’s also expert at creating funnelling plot structures, throwing all sorts into the mix and confidently bringing it all out the other end, newly contracted and combined into something satisfying.
Shetland: Season 6
The BBC’s Shetland, also back on our screens, has an irresistible atmosphere, a commanding Douglas Henshall as the unbeatably stoic Jimmy Perez, and ambitious, emotionally charged scripts by David Kane. There was one night in October that Shetland was airing at the exact same time as ITV premiered The Long Call, a weighty but sometimes threadbare new procedural based on another of Cleeves’ novels – thank heavens for VOD!
Beautifully styled and efficiently adapted from the classic novels by PD James, this new TV outing for Inspector Adam Dalgliesh benefits hugely from the casting of Bertie Carvel. He’s perfect as the introspective, simmeringly cerebral detective who moonlights as a poet in a series that’s moody, airy and much more grounded than “the one with the poet cop” suggests.
McDonald & Dodds: Season 2
Yet another ITV mystery to be delayed indefinitely was the third and final episode of this Bath-based cosy show’s second season. Adding international insult to injury, the episode was released to BritBox in the US while the UK has been left waiting. The positive spin, perhaps, is that we’ll now get one extra episode in 2022. Stars Tala Gouveia and Jason Watkins are more than likeable enough to carry this one for years.
The Madame Blanc Mysteries
Another burst of cosy mystery tourism, the top-line, Mad Libs description of Sally Lindsay’s deceptively formulaic show would seem to be as simple as “France” and “Antiques”. There’s more going on than that, however, with some slow-burn concerns throughout, centred on a detailed central character, played superbly by Lindsay herself.
Guilt: Season 2
Hard-edged, sharply funny and dazzlingly intricate, there’s something cold about Neil Forsyth’s Guilt, but there’s also counterpoint of warmth throughout, especially when Emun Elliot appears as Kenny, a heart-breaking private eye with addiction issues, clawing his way back up from rock bottom. A modern classic in the “Stop digging, you idiots!” sub-genre of thrillers, filled with indelible characters playing high-stakes games of chicken in a crime-ridden Edinburgh.
The North Water
For some of its duration, The North Water is a grisly, even distressing mystery story. All the way through, however, it’s a hefty take on the adventure yarn – like a cosy jumper pattern knitted from heavy, oily ropes. Perhaps best enjoyed if you take it slightly less seriously than it takes itself, there’s still a lot of good craft and dedication on display.
The call of the sea is similarly strong in Whitstable Pearl but despite the vivid, and extremely well-shot setting of Whitstable, it’s the Pearl part of the title that gets the upper hand. Kerry Godliman glows as the titular lead, a restaurateur who solves mysteries on the side. Some episodes seem a little over-clipped, but the pace is sometimes a benefit too. Conversely, it’s getting to spend so many episodes with Pearl and her love interest police detective that really brings out the best in the show as the series goes on.
This maritime crime series gives the exceptionally talented Nicola Walker a second appearance on this list. Annika is the funnier show, and more idiosyncratic too, but arguably not as accomplished or affecting. Originally a Radio 4 series that blended full-cast scenes with narration by Walker, the format has translated to TV with some fourth wall-breaking. One of the more distinctive-feeling shows in the genre right now, this Alibi series feels like a cult hit in the making.
After premiering on Alibi back in 2019, Traces made its way to the BBC in early 2021 where it was a stopgap acquisition to plug a pandemic-wrought hole in the schedules. The show became a hit for the BBC and it was great to see such a solid, thoughtful mystery series get the audience it deserved. Molly Windsor stars as a forensic lab technician looking into the historic murder of her mother, and she alone would be a fantastic reason to click play. Windsor is very much the real deal, and here she gives one of the most multi-dimensional, effortlessly plausible performances of the year.
Paris Police 1900
As shepherded by Fabien Nury, the comic book author who originally created The Death of Stalin, this is a potent concoction, ready to explode from its opening minutes. There’s a strong sense of time and place, and a whole web of well-drawn characters, all related in a style that eschews comfortable, familiar period drama tropes. It’s not clear why this wasn’t a runaway success – no matter what the title implies, Paris Police 1900 feels so very timely.
Seemingly two or three shows woven into one relatively cohesive whole, including some Bluebeard-ish elements that are very much in vogue right now. Angela Black was touted as “Hitchcockian” by its creators, Jack and Harry Williams, which seems abstractly pertinent quite quickly, but becomes concretely relevant by the finale. Low-key ITV superstar Joanne Froggatt does most of the heavy lifting as the title character, a woman subjected to domestic abuse who finds out her situation is even worse than it first seems. Watching Angela fight back is very fulfilling.
Only Murders in the Building
A straight-up instant favourite, this brilliant blend of comedy, character and capering survives its one flaw through sheer virtue of ambitious storytelling and a near-perfect cast. Here’s hoping that the second season can keep up this outrageous standard. (Read our spoilery analysis of the finale here – or our spoiler-free review here.)