What The Fall says about our enduring fascination with evil
There used to be a phrase in Northern Ireland to characterise those who carried out non-political illegal activity. Remember "ordinary decent criminals"? They were burglars, car thieves, muggers, TV licence dodgers, double do-ers and spivs. Fair enough, it's a wide moral compass to the word "decent" but we got the point.
But I don't think the phrase was meant to include psychopathic serial killers. Nevertheless, the whole principle of The Fall, BBC2's new crime series, is to showcase Belfast as the sort of place where an ordinary decent deviant can ply his trade without fear or favour, just as if this was Leeds, London or New York.
Job done, I'd say. That's "normalisation". And as far as that goes it must be progress, bearing in mind that serial killer fiction, thanks to CSI, Cracker and Prime Suspect, is a very modern way to show off the night-time economy. With its fashionable eating places, shiny watering holes and their impossibly attractive patrons, Belfast as depicted in The Fall makes the grade.
In fact, as soon as I find out what street here has shops open after 6pm, I'll take my life in my hands and hasten there, dodging handsome young men with little beards who have tribe neutral surnames like "Spector".
Because, interestingly, taking into account the universal moral distaste for serial killers – obviously! – The Fall hasn't (yet) presented the people of Ulster with the uncomfortable requirement to regard the psycho as "one of ours" or "one of theirs".
Without the killer badged with any paramilitary tag, we can all settle back into our sofas and enjoy young ladies being strangled with their own stockings without having to think there must be a bloody good reason why she's getting what she deserves – ie, she's a Provie or a tout. Indeed, about the only reference to our bitter little feuds came when a character referred to his dead child's heart being in the body of some Taig. Happily that theme wasn't developed. Would they even understand it across the water?
It's early days, of course, but The Fall is shaping up as a highlight of the TV year. Local faces, familiar locations and an easy on the eye cast help hugely. Gillian Anderson brings welcome Hollywood glamour to the action and John Lynch has matured into the rugged leading man his early stardom promised.
While short on dialogue, the show certainly enjoys high production values. And if previous serial killer series are anything to go by, expect murky childhood trauma to rear its head. It's also likely the denouement will involve Ms Anderson trapped in a cupboard while young Jamie Dornan slinks about the house.
Equally certain is that the PSNI are unlikely to show this series at passing out parties for recruits. After all, episode one not only trashed a recent investigation into the killings but showed two beat coppers checking a victim's house, while she was gagged in an upstairs room, concluding – as they looked upon her car in the drive and a light on in the house – that she must be at her sister's. Still, "uniform" never comes out of these things well. If they did, there'd be no Hollywood star investigating their performance.
There's a strange fascination with the murder of young women on TV, which is creepy but true. It's been there for years, mind you. Maybe it's because young women are the target audience and like a bit of a frisson while snuggling up beside their completely useless portly boyfriend who is getting texts about football scores. It's the Hitchcock principle – the louder they scream, the better they like it, so to speak.
We've had our serial killers, of course. Robert Howard, serving life for killing a Kent teenager, remains the only suspect for the murder of Arlene Arkinson. Robert Black was convicted of the murder of Jennifer Cardy. But who knows how many remain undiscovered? For example, no one has been caught for the murder of German teenager Inge Maria Hauser.
If television drama of this type, as we're told, is meant to have some social message which justifies the graphic violence and the tedium of police procedure, then these issues in a Northern Ireland context are even more poignant. Unlike the experience of so many survivors of murder – family, friends – in our recent history, The Fall is likely to produce a conviction. Stark realism, though, would argue for no arrest, the killer simply moving on to the equally thrilling prospects of Dungannon or Banbridge. And that's how far TV, however gritty, is from real life.