The mystery genre, and in particular the detective story, has been around for so long on television and film that one could think that every possible permutation and subtle derivation has been tried. Case Histories, the nuanced and intriguing detective series from the UK, is happy to show that this is not the case.
The series is adapted from the books by Kate Atkinson, and is presented in six one hour episodes, each novel being represented by two episodes. Jackson Brodie (Jason Isaacs) is a former police officer and soldier, turned detective who doesn't so much look for finger prints and fresh dirt in the garden next door to solve crimes, as understand people and how they interact and what motivates them. Brodie is divorced and not too happy about it, but is very attached to his young daughter Marlee (Millie Innes), though he does tend to take her along on investigations, which can lead to the occasional awkwardness, and sometimes danger.
Brodie never has enough money, much to the chagrin of his longsuffering secretary Deborah (Zawe Ashton), but he's not grasping of money. He scrapes by well enough, often with the help of his former partner DC Louise Munroe (Amanda Abbington). He and Munroe have something of a history, a lot of respect for each other, and a low smoldering sexual tension, but this doesn't stop Munroe from becoming ever more frustrated at his frequent requests for favors and often unorthodox methods. And while Brodie's methods might leave something to be desired, at his core he has a rock solid code of ethics and perhaps even a soft spot for hopeless cases. He often takes on cases that he thinks are hopeless of being solved because of a heartfelt plea from his would be clients. Some of this sentiment doubtless stems from the long unsolved murder of his sister, fitfully remembered from his childhood.
His cases range from long ago disappearances, murders the police are unable to solve, missing persons, and even lost cats. He often gets injured (and sometimes quite badly) in the course of his investigations, can be thoughtless and inconsiderate, and is more interested in what might be called karmic justice than in necessarily catching the bad guy and seeing him go to trial. But there is a fundamental decency that Isaacs brings to the character that makes him incredibly sympathetic and compelling. The series almost entirely eschews the tropes of the police procedural, and focuses much more on the characters and relationships. How three sisters deal with the vanishing of a fourth, or how Brodie reacts to his ex-wife and daughter moving to New Zealand is as important as how he figures out where a missing doctor is or who killed the lawyer's daughter. The characters are very real and present, and the performances all top notch, especially Isaacs, who brings a subtlety and feeling to a role that could easily have been played as simply an unfeeling brute. The audience is invested in how the crimes are solved, and who did it, but there is much more of interest here than that. The plots sometimes rely heavily on coincidence (the old "These two cases are related!" type), but this comes off as more of a stylistic flourish of the creators, rather than a narrative crutch, and even feels pleasantly quaint.
Below are descriptions for each episode, as provided on the discs:
Brodie gets a couple of new cases in quick succession. The first is for two sisters who want him to investigate the disappearance of their younger sister 30 years ago. The other case involves the distraught father of a murdered daughter.
In addition to his hunt for a killer and a long-vanished young girl, Brodie takes on another missing-persons case. This time the absent youth is the niece of a woman he met in a bar, who secured his services through an unorthodox method.
On an early morning run along the coast, Brodie spots a woman's body in the water but is unable to prevent it from floating out to sea. When the police appear less than enthusiastic about investigating, Brodie decides to do it himself.
Brodie has several questions to ponder: Why would a road rage attacker want to kill him and another bystander who witnessed the incident? What does the attacker have to do with a shady cleaning business? And how does it relate to the body Brodie saw in the sea?
While investigating an apparently routine case of marital infidelity, Brodie falls into another job-tracking down a mother and her baby who, the husband claims, are staying with a relative.
Brodie picks up a lead on the missing mother and child, and learns that the husband knows more than he has been willing to admit. Brodie discovers why one of his clients has been so desperate to find his wife.
The series has few flaws, but lots more going for it: outstanding performances, compelling plots, genuine pathos yet without too much sentimentality, a wry and wistful sense of humor. This is a different kind of detective story than one is used to seeing, but all the more worthwhile for it. Highly recommended.
The video is 1.78:1 widescreen, and looks quite good, with rich colors, that are often muted to conform with the dark subject matter. A few brief moments of posterization are the only defects to be seen.
The audio is Dolby digital 2 channel, and works well. The dialogue is always easily audible, and no hiss or other problem can be heard. Optional English subtitles are included, but no alternate language track.
Other than a few previews, the only extra included is the fifteen minute Behind the Scenes featurette. It includes interviews with Jason Isaacs and Amanda Abbington, as well as Kate Atkinson, upon whose novels the series is based. There is a lot of discussion of Brodie's character, which has both strong masculine and feminine aspects, and of Edinburgh as a location. Interesting, but not enough material for such an interesting show.
Case Histories is a different kind detective show. It focuses on emotional relationships much more than clues and procedures, but can still be enjoyed as a mystery. Jason Isaacs is performing at his straightforward best, investing Jackson Brodie with equal parts toughness and sensitivity. This is a very good series, and one hopes there will be more to come.