Friday, June 10, 2016

Bloody Intellectual

Review: Wire in the Blood, BBC America series (orig. aired 2002-08), with Robson Green

Advertising hype usually arouses nothing but resistance in me, so I was a long time coming to watch BBC America's Wire in the Blood, the "most intense two hours on television." At the time it aired, I just wasn't ready for yet another semi-autistic savant leading investigations; in those days, I had standing appointments with Gil Grissom of CSI and Dr. Gregory House, and had rejected Numb3rs for much the same reason.

Resolutions are made to be broken. After reading a different book by series writer Val McDermid, I finally turned it on—and I was hooked. 

Robson Green's Dr. Tony Hill makes his mental efforts totally transparent, and he's less a mental magician than an obsessed compulsive completer. If you had my training and access to the police data, his manner says, you could solve these crimes, too. The character also has a rational relationship with DSI Carol Jordan, ably played by Hermione Norris, who heads the crime probes he's assisting.

Dr. Hill's assistance comes from his ability to enter the mind of a serial killer (and sometimes, his victims), sorting clues and juggling evidence until a pattern becomes clear. Clear to Dr. Hill, anyway. Wire's process involves some false starts and mistaken diagnoses before the real answer comes clear, when Dr. Hill's solutions are finally couched in ordinary, understandable language.

One episode that originally aired shortly after October 2002 had a chilling echo of that year's Beltway sniper attacks by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo. In Wire's version, Hill and Jordan are faced with a series of seemingly unconnected deaths, in each of which a single playing card is found at the sniper's firing point. Dr. Hill struggles to find a pattern in the killings, even while he deals with the discovery that he has a brain tumor that may or may not be malignant.

Based on the pattern Hill has put together, the police arrest a man who is connected to each of the victims. They seem sure they have the right man, especially when they discover a cache of rifles hidden in the man's home. But as Tony Hill is consulting with a local minister, the man is shot in front of the church, literally inches away from Dr. Hill. The sniper is still at large, and Hill's pattern falls apart.

The phrase "the wire in the blood" comes from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
The trilling wire in the blood
sings below inveterate scars
appeasing long-forgotten wars.

In an interview, Robson Green said the phrase was taken to mean a genetic kink, something impure and unusual in the blood, that might lead to the kind of psychosis Hill deals with. Val McDermid, author of the Dr. Hill and DSI Jordan mysteries, agreed. "Who knows what Eliot really meant by that line? Robson's explanation is as good as any. For myself, I've always taken it to be a metaphor for the thrill of adrenaline surging through the bloodstream. But we'll never know for sure."

This is a well-written drama. If there are stereotypes here, at least they come from British assumptions, and seem less expectable to American eyes. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable, and (I hate to admit) intense experience. 

Liner Note:

The "other book" I alluded to is Val McDermid's non-fiction, Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime, finally out on Kindle.