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My Least Favorite Murder

Unlike other entries in the genre, crime dramas like ‘The Investigation’ and ‘Clarice’ are uninterested in making their killers the star. It’s a refreshing counterpoint to the sensationalism that has dominated the true crime boom.

HBO/CBS/Ringer illustration

The lead suspect in The Investigation is never mentioned by name. Over six episodes, Tobias Lindholm’s Danish crime drama—which concluded its stateside run on HBO earlier this week—refers only to “the accused.” We never see him interrogated by Jens Moller (Soren Malling), the Copenhagen homicide lead who serves as the show’s protagonist, or any of his deputies. We certainly don’t see him take the stand to face off in court against prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (Pilou Asbaek), whom Jens assists in putting together an ironclad case. As in The Undoing, another recent HBO series, the object of scrutiny turns out to be the culprit; unlike The Undoing, this conclusion is treated as the result of diligent police work, not a shocking twist.

A simple Google search will reveal that Swedish journalist Kim Wall was murdered by Danish entrepreneur Peter Madsen, who was convicted in the spring of 2018, less than a year after her death. The Investigation is well aware its audience already knows the facts of the case, and has no need to illuminate them. (Wall’s murder made international headlines; in Scandinavia, a famously stable and trusting society, it was the story of the year.) Instead, The Investigation seeks to adjust the public narrative around the Wall case, rather than establish one. It is a work of true crime that is also a critique of the sensationalism that undergirds the bulk of true crime.

The Investigation is deeply Scandinavian. Wall died in August 2017, but even in high summer, the landscape is stubbornly rainy and gray; almost all the interiors—police stations included—are tastefully appointed in that minimalist style the region pioneered before it took over Instagram. But the subgenre the show is a part of has plenty of American entries, as well. Over its brief, two-season run, David Fincher’s Mindhunter worked to deconstruct the procedural, both structurally (ditching cases of the week in favor of an elastic, unpredictable rhythm) and thematically (depicting an obsession with serial killers as unhealthy, corrosive, and, ultimately, counterproductive). Bryan Fuller’s beloved Hannibal turned federal bureaucracy into one of Grimms’ fairy tales, revealing lurid murder mysteries as the high fantasies they always were. And most recently, Clarice on CBS shares both a milieu and a message with Hannibal, but adopts a polar-opposite MO by veering away from the surreal and toward the nuts and bolts of what it would mean to come face-to-face with a once-in-a-lifetime evil.

Named after the protagonist of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice picks up a year after the events of the iconic 1991 film and the Thomas Harris novel it adapts. Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) still works at the FBI, but she’s recruited by Attorney General Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson)—the mother of Buffalo Bill’s final victim, whom Clarice rescued in the nail-biting climax of Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece—to work on a special task force to investigate a string of murders. But the show puts Clarice in the interesting position of arguing forcefully that the culprit is not a serial killer, working uphill against the expectations of her bosses and audience alike.

Clarice is a show about trauma. Many scenes show Clarice in therapy, where she continues to unpack the shock of entering Bill’s inner sanctum; Atkinson’s daughter, Catherine (Marnee Carpenter), has developed agoraphobia and an apparent eating disorder as a result of her confinement. The Investigation, by contrast, is a show about process—the painstaking, rigorous, and yes, boring grunt work that goes into collecting evidence. Entire episodes are dedicated to a fruitless search for Wall’s dismembered body parts, and even when they’re found, they fail to provide key data points like cause of death. But while the two shows take place on opposite sides of a suspect’s apprehension—The Investigation before, Clarice after—both are equally committed to undermining the idea that solving a case is the same thing as resolving its harm.

A similar vision doesn’t mean similar execution. The Investigation is very much a prestige product, its pace befitting the birthplace of “slow TV”; Clarice can’t help but take on the rhythms of a broadcast drama, turning its focus to a corporate conspiracy that supplants the serial killer as its Big Bad. But each is, in its own way, trying to navigate a similar paradox. How, they ask, do you subvert the crime fiction industrial complex while still compelling an audience? Are the tropes that can make crime stories so exploitative also all that makes them entertaining?

Fueled by podcasts like My Favorite Murder and docuseries like Tiger King, the true crime boom has long since grown enough to merit its own mini-wave of thoughtful takedowns, whether of specific works or the genre as a whole. The Investigation even takes a stab at a sort of meta-commentary, with Jens and Jakob discussing why the Wall case has become such a national obsession. (Hilariously, they theorize that Denmark and Sweden are almost too healthy, its citizens so sated by free healthcare and ample vacation time they crave the catharsis of a truly messed-up murder.) The knocks are as simple as they are true: Rather than commemorate victims, these works often turn them into plot devices; with the insatiable demand for more content, life-changing traumas become a weekend’s diversion. The same problems occur in crime stories that aren’t literally ripped from the headlines but often take their inspiration from real-life events. The characters on Criminal Minds don’t have to be real to feed the same idea of bloodshed as an evening’s entertainment.

But pointing out flaws isn’t the same thing as correcting for them. Clarice and The Investigation take on the latter, a far more difficult task. Just as Clarice follows Catherine and Clarice herself as they continue to lead their lives, long after the news cameras have moved on, The Investigation spends a significant amount of time familiarizing the audience with Kim Wall. Her killer is deliberately effaced, brought up only in the context of how Jens and his colleagues can bring him to justice. Through her parents, Ingrid (Pernilla August) and Joachim (Rolf Lassgard), however, we come to know Kim’s dedication to her work, her passion for travel, and the legacy she’s left behind. The Investigation inverts its field’s typical focus on the killer over the killed. Clarice does, too—though because it can’t so much as mention Hannibal Lecter for rights reasons, it’s more by necessity than choice.

The Investigation is more successful than Clarice, though not necessarily more engrossing. Its effect can be hypnotic as Lindholm’s camera lingers on sharp, austere compositions that highlight dark seas and open skies. But it’s also tightly restrained, a stylistic choice that equally drives its highs and its lows. The same glacial progress that can make The Investigation a slog is also what makes it an effective counterpoint, and vice versa. No wonder Clarice gives in to the familiar beats of a cop show—the supportive work friend; the boss who gives his grudging respect. Identifying an issue is easy. Building something new is hard.