There’s something about watching Detective Inspectors and Chief Constables go about their jobs that’s simultaneously engrossing and comforting. The bowler hats, the checked cravats, the baffling lingo — somehow there’s nothing like a British crime series for sheer bingeing delight.
With generally top-flight production values, clever writing and crackling casts, these series are as well-made as they are fun to watch. And they’re a great place for spotting talent that’s about to get a bigger profile. American audiences were first introduced to the perfection of Olivia Colman in “Broadchurch” and “The Night Manager,” and Richard Madden impressed in “Bodyguard” and “Game of Thrones” before moving into the Marvel world as Ikaris in “Eternals.” Could Bond be far away for him?
These series range from a tight six or eight episodes (“River,” “The Stranger”) to several satisfyingly bingeable seasons (“Line of Duty”), and from the pulse-pounding suspense and violent action (“Bodyguard”) to more sedate procedural pleasures (“DCI Banks), so whatever flavor of crimes you’re in the mood for, there’s bound to be something new to discover on this list. (Lovers of “cozy” crime shows, however, will find this list skews toward the darker, adults-only side of the spectrum, and most of these series have been released in the past decade.)
With “Happy Valley” set to return for another season on AMC+ in 2023 and a new season of “C.B. Strike” premiering in the U.K. in December, it’s time to get up to date on all these shows before the new seasons arrive.
But first, you might need to bone up on your British crime vocab. After all, you wouldn’t want to get the gaffer confused with the grass! Here’s a guide to some of the terms used on “Line of Duty,” while this glossary can help with general police slang terms.
Line of Duty
It’s no surprise that many British crime show fans would rank “Line of Duty” in their top series of all time. It’s got everything viewers might want in this genre: Six seasons to power through; a cast of compelling continuing characters in baby-faced Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), dedicated Kate Fleming (Vicki McClure) and loyal Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), and a revolving door of bent coppers that include notable names like Kelly Macdonald, Lennie James and Thandiwe Newton. The premise of the series — a group of police officers in the AC-12 internal affairs unit investigates the misdeeds of their fellow officers and their connection to organized crime — can be a bit hard to grasp in the first few episodes, but stick with it and you’ll soon be hooked.
Seasons 1-5 available on Amazon.
Season 6 available on Britbox.
Each of the four seasons of “Unforgotten” starts with the discovery of a long-buried body and the introduction of several seemingly unconnected characters going about their business in the present day. As DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) of a London cold case unit start to investigate the people who were connected to the victim, it becomes clear over the course of each season how they’re interconnected and what led to the murder. Though the crimes are brutal, they’re far in the past and it’s the humanity of Cassie and Sunny that makes an impression, along with their struggles with family and work. The series can be dark and emotional, but not as violent as some.
Watch on Amazon Prime and PBS Masterpiece in the U.S.
Make sure to turn on the subtitles so you don’t miss a word of this pulse-pounding crime series set in Northern Ireland. Jamie Dornan stars as the brooding serial killer Paul Spector, while Gillian Anderson is the Detective Superintendent who is brought in to help track a murder investigation. Family drama plays out as a brutal killer stalks young women in this series that is not for the faint of heart, but pays off in sheer suspense. Though Dornan’s character’s story came to an end in Season 3, Anderson said during Variety‘s Actors on Actors in 2021 that she’d like to do more of “The Fall.”
Watch on services including Pluto TV or rent on Amazon in the U.S.
Rejoice, British crime show fans, because a third season of the emotional drama set in West Yorkshire is finally in production. Before it premieres, catch up on the first two seasons of the Bafta-winning series that stars Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant who tracks brutal criminals while juggling the care of her young grandson and her sister, a recovering addict. Don’t expect a lot of happiness to come out of the Happy Valley area, but do expect to be amazed at Lancashire’s vast reserves of patience and humanity as she deals with human trafficking, serial killers and drug addiction.
Originally available on Netflix in the U.S., “Happy Valley” can now be rented on Amazon or streamed on AMC+.
A small seaside village in Dorset is the seemingly idyllic setting for this three-season series about how a child’s murder affects a close-knit community. For many U.S. viewers, this may have been one of the first times that Olivia Colman, who plays DS Ellie Miller, made a distinct impression. David Tennant had just wrapped his stint as The Doctor in “Doctor Who” when he came on to play DI Alec Hardy, while grieving mother Beth Latimer is played by Jodie Whittaker, who is coincidentally the current Doctor. Everybody is all tangled up in each other’s business, as happens in small towns, and though the child’s death is devastatingly sad, this series has a lower quota of blood and mayhem than some other British police shows.
Available on Amazon in the U.S.
Cormoran Blue Strike is a charismatic yet grumpy guy with a checkered past and a war injury, but he’s also a hell of a detective. When he hires an assistant and the pert and plucky Robin (Holliday Grainger) shows up, they make an unlikely but formidable crime-solving team in this dramatic and lively series adapted from Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novels. Galbraith, of course, is a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling, but there’s nary a wizard or owl to be found in this London-set mystery drama that’s strictly hard-boiled, but with a dose of serious chemistry between the two leads and a lighter, more humorous touch than some of the more dour crime shows. The show aired as four series on the BBC in the U.K., but streams as two seasons in the U.S.
Available on HBO Max in the U.S.
“Line of Duty” creator Jed Mercurio is at it again with this extremely suspenseful six-part limited series that was Emmy-nominated and won two Golden Globes. Richard Madden plays David Budd, a police sergeant suffering from PTSD after his time in the military. When he’s assigned to protect an important politician whose politics he can’t stand, he grapples with his beliefs and her ability to help his family. Though we do get to know Budd’s family and personal issues, this is a dead-serious look at contemporary issues of terrorism and British politics, so be forewarned.
Available on Netflix.
Based on the mystery novels by Ann Cleeves (who also wrote the novels “Vera” is based on,) this six season series has a strong sense of place due to its setting on the remote Scottish islands. Douglas Henshall, Alison O’Donnell and Steven Robertson star as the main local detectives, with guest appearances from familiar faces like Brian Cox, Ciaran Hinds, Gemma Chan and Archie Panjabi. The activities of the close-knit families of the rustic, wind-swept Shetland Islands and the tourists, scientists and archeologists who cross their paths makes for plenty of grisly happenings and most likely, a far bigger body count than is actually occurring in the tranquil Scottish countryside. You’ll want to keep a wee dram of Scotch and a cozy wool tartan blanket on hand to watch this series.
Watch on Britbox in the U.S.
British detective series have provided some meaty roles for middle-aged women, from Olivia Colman on “Broadchurch” to Sarah Lancashire on “Happy Valley,” and before that, Helen Mirren on “Prime Suspect.” Brenda Blethyn has had amazing staying power as the lead in “Vera,” based on the Ann Cleeves mystery novels. In the grand tradition of cantankerous, disheveled detectives, Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope of the (fictional) Northumberland and City Police in Northern England is as crotchety as they come and not above lashing out at her coworkers when she’s frustrated by lack of progress in a case. But she makes up for her temper with vast reserves of empathy and the sort of practical wisdom only learned after decades in the field. Her partner Joe Ashworth is played by the handsome David Leon in the first few seasons, which revolve around solving various murders presented episodically in a seaside setting. The crimes are brutal, yet not portrayed too graphically, the writing sharp and humorous, and Blethyn is a national treasure, so it’s not surprising the series is soon rolling out its 13th season.
Season one available on Amazon in the U.S., other seasons available for rental.
Who knew the Scottish Police Service had oversight even when crimes happen in the middle of the ocean? When a Royal Navy officer (the hard-working Martin Compston) turns up dead of a suspected heroin overdose on a ballistic missile submarine, DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) is sent by helicopter from Glasgow to board the submarine and investigate what happened. Her arrival is met with suspicion by the sub’s commanders, who try to block her investigation at every turn. Back on land, Silva’s police officer and ex-girlfriend is in charge of tracking down links to the crime where the officer was stationed. “Vigil” ratchets up the tension by utilizing the sub’s natural claustrophobic setting to dramatic effect.
Watch the first episode free on Peacock. The rest are available on Peacock Premium.
If you enjoyed watching Holliday Grainger in “C.S. Strike,” you’ll find her just as good, if a bit less effervescent, in “The Capture.” As all British crime fans know, the streets of London are thick with surveillance cameras that capture just about every inch of the city. But what if the videos they captured, which are often used as evidence of crimes in court, couldn’t be trusted? Ron Perlman co-stars as a CIA man who might be master-minding some very questionable practices used by the British police all in the guise of “keeping the nation safe.” There are two seasons so far of this high-tech entry the world of modern British policing that keeps the viewer guessing right up until the end.
Watch on Peacock.
Unlike many British mystery shows, “Traces” isn’t based around the police force. Instead, it revolves around Emma Hedges (played by Molly Windsor), who joins a university forensics lab in Dundee, Scotland as an assistant and immediately comes across clues to her mother’s murder many years ago. The striking, fresh-faced young Hedges reconnects with her father and finds a new love interest in Daniel McAfee (played by “Line of Duty’s” Martin Compston) while a local DI helps her investigate how her mother’s bones came to be found buried on a hill in the middle of the city. Though everything is pretty much by the book, “Traces” offers a welcome respite from male-heavy police fare with a heavily female principal cast. A second season is in the works.
Watch on BritBox.
“Giri/Haji” means Duty/Shame in Japanese, and the eight-episode series is a fascinating mix of a Japanese crime story and a proper British police yarn. Kelly Macdonald, who played a compromised copper in “Line of Duty,” appears here as DC Sarah Weitzmann, who attempts to help Tokyo detective Kenzo Mori, played by Takehiro Hira, track down his brother in London. Since his brother is suspected of having killed the nephew of a powerful Yakuza figure, there’s plenty of brutal Tarantino-esque action taking place among organized crime figures in both countries in this stylish and original bilingual thriller.
Available on Netflix.
Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira),
The beheading of an alpaca? A fake pregnancy? Enough cliff-hangers to fill the Grand Canyon? This could only be a Harlan Coben story, and indeed the eight-part series is based on his 2015 novel. Featuring Jennifer Saunders of “Absolutely Fabulous” along with “The Hobbit” star Richard Armitrage, “The Stranger” revolves around a mysterious young woman who reveals secrets to people, leaving a trail of murder and destruction in her wake and triggering several police investigations. Massively popular American novelist Coben is also behind other Netflix limited thriller series such as “The Five” and “Stay Close,” as well as several series produced in other European countries.
Watch on Netflix.
If you’re not a fan of costume dramas, don’t worry: The Bafta and Emmy-winning series based on the Sherlock Homes stories is set in the present-day, though it preserves the famous detective’s Baker Street address and retains his infamous adversary, Moriarity (“hot priest” Andrew Scott). Benedict Cumberbatch is Holmes, while his roommate Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) is a former army medic who served in Afghanistan. Rupert Graves, as DI Greg Lestrade, is gradually won over by Holmes’ uncanny powers of observation as he consults to the police force. Dr. Watson is a crime blogger, text messages onscreen help propel the plot, and the lead characters call each other Sherlock and John instead of Holmes and Watson — it doesn’t sound like it would work, and yet somehow the top-tier cast and talent bring it all together in a way that’s far from elementary.
Watch on Crackle or rent on Amazon Prime, Apple, etc.
The ubiquitous Nicola Walker is already dead when this six-episode series starts, but she tends to turn up frequently to banter with her former partner, police officer John River, played by Stellan Skarsgard. Are River’s “manifestations,” as he calls his ghosts, real? Is he mentally stable enough to stay on the force, despite his amazing case-solving record? Lesley Manville co-stars in this psychological mystery that even introduces a historical criminal by way of River’s imagination, which conjures the deceased to give insights on his cases. Tracking down Walker’s murderer is just one of the cases the haunted and rather grim detective tackles, and if you can set aside skepticism about his mental fitness, it’s an engrossing and manageably-sized watch.
Watch on AMC+ or on Freevee via Amazon.
Anna Friel plays DS Marcella Backland, a former London detective who decides to return to duty after raising two children, in this dark and sometimes violent series that raises issues of mental illness alongside the usual serial killer pursuits. It’s not until Season 3 that we get a glimpse of some of the reasons behind Marcella’s blackouts, but all three seasons offer plenty of underworld figures, suspenseful action sequences and grisly crime scenes, along with a view into the detective’s fractured home life.
Available on Netflix.
The moody Yorkshire countryside is the setting for this rather formulaic but nonetheless satisfying series with five meaty seasons. Based on the detective novels by Peter Robinson, it stars Stephen Tompkinson as the divorced and somewhat dour Alan Banks, who partners up with attractive younger colleague Detective Sergeant Annie Cabbott to solve a series of rather vicious and bloody crimes. Caroline Catz joins the team as DI Helen Morton when Cabbott goes on maternity leave.
Watch on Amazon Prime in the U.S.
In this compact four-episode mystery from “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock” showrunner Stephen Moffatt, the Doctor himself, David Tennant, is a vicar and family man who quickly gets himself into a sticky situation when his son’s math tutor goes missing. Stanley Tucci is a Hannibal Lecter-esque murderer on death row and Lydia West, of “Years and Years” and “It’s a Sin,” is a young investigative journalist. It’s all played a bit broadly, and those who have proposed that Moffatt might be Britain’s Ryan Murphy are not far off. But the star power is undeniable and the length is just right for those who are intrigued enough to stay with this tale, though it might be just a little too unbelievable for some.
Watch on Netflix.
Adapted from a radio play, “Annika” stars Nicola Walker, beloved for her role in “Unforgotten,” as the new DI at Scotland Police’s Maritime Homicide Unit. Her Norwegian background is shown by her predilection for salted licorice, though the setting has moved from the radio version’s Oslo to seaside Scotland. It’s apparently a chaotic place, since bodies keep turning up in boats elsewhere, and Annika has her hands full parenting a teenaged daughter on her own while keeping the Homicide Unit in shape. Though Annika often breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera, it’s a fairly straightforward episodic procedural that’s livened up by Walker’s emotional range and stunning Scottish scenery. A second season is in the works.
Watch the first episode on Amazon; others available for rental.