Watching the (foreign) detectives

Bryan J. Rollins
6 min readApr 16, 2021


Having recent first-hand experience with the quality of the New South Wales Police force, I needed faith that somewhere in the world, good police work was being done, or at least was being attempted, or was at least was entertaining.

Given our global fascination with crime, it’s no surprise that there is a plethora (of piñatas?) of detective TV shows. I found myself captivated by the genre when set in remote locations around the world: The Shetland Islands, UK; Lappeenranta, Finland; Ystad, Sweden; Aberystwyth, Wales; Reykjavik, Iceland.

Bordertown: Quirky as

I never look this normal in the show. I’m quite dysfunctional. Trust me. But what do you expect when they spell the word “Police” with three i’s.

Bordertown focuses on the life of Kari, a detective from Helsinki who relocates to Lappeenranta, Finland, just across the border from Russia, in order to get away from the brutal crimes he worked in the big city. Yet this smaller city has more than its’ share of messed up people.

Kari is what makes Bordertown great and helps you overlook the weak side plots or ridiculous romances of his daughter. He has a perfect recall of everything aided by a technique called a “Memory Palace.” Beyond that Kari can form associations between seemingly unrelated events and “presto”, solve the case. Part profiler, part autistic savant, Kari excels at his obsession of solving crime and at the same time is haunted by the crimes he has witnessed.

Work obsession is a recurring theme in detective shows — the case takes over their lives, again and again. When they have free time, they are empty, and long for the next case. While my profession has never involved tracking down which son shoved a bullet pouch down the throat of their dad, I understood completely. You can’t win: When you’re deep in work you’re missing out on something personal, and when you’re investing in your personal life a part of you just wants to finish the next piece of the puzzle at work.

All three seasons are great. While a lot of the sub plot lines are sometimes weak (and the home invasion episode needed a complete re-write), Kari fascinates, frustrates, and delights. I was so sad when the final episode Finnish’d. (I would have written this entire blog post just to get that line in.)

Wallander: Angst amongst the Swedes

Nearby, in Sweden, based on a series of very popular crime novels (and whose English translations are quite popular in the UK), Kurt Wallander is plagued by similar demons to Kari. His work obsession creates an inability to maintain any relationship or a bond with his father, daughter, or any romantic interest. Like a narcotic, he can stay clean for a period of time but soon relapses into complete work obsession and disconnection from the people he loves.

The real mystery is why I am standing in the water. Am I investigating the death of a seahorse?

Each season is more like a movie — and the seasons occur years apart. Kurt has changed and his situation has changed. Each season is roughly based off one of the books so there’s a natural movement of time. You feel like you get to watch him evolve and devolve.

Kenneth Branagh delivers an exceptional performance in each episode. And his dog is wonderful. But his Swedish sounds a lot like English.

Young Wallander: Beauty is not so deep

Someday when I am older, I will solve mysteries. For now, I will look like a Gap model from the 90s.

Ugh. Luckily I watched this first so I couldn’t be as repulsed by how it pales in comparison to the Kenneth Branagh series. Unlike the dark, intellectual “old Wallander”, Young Wallander is hunky, woke, and dull. He stumbles around following the action instead of doing his job as a detective. Much like the schlock that gets fed to us as “Young Sherlock Holmes,” “Young Charles Manson,” and “Young Detective Pikachu” this won’t satisfy a discerning streaming palate.

Hinterland: Unintentional Comedy in Wales

If you’ve got a murder to solve, find anyone else but this crew. Even the Waverley Police department in New South Wales wouldn’t make so many mistakes. (Mostly because the NSW Police don’t do anything, but it does leave them mistake-free)

The premise of Hinterland has promise — the hotshot, grizzled detective (“DCI Mathias”) from London has been assigned to be the lead detective in a remote part of Wales to get some space from his troubled personal past.

DCI Mathias is possibly the worst detective ever — he sleeps with a suspect (which gets her killed), constantly makes bad personal choices, and then while staring at photos of the crime someone interrupts him with the piece of information that solves the case. His investigation moronis operandi is entering the homes of people without knocking and asking them questions while standing behind them looking off in the distance.

This might be the first series directed by AI, because the third season could have been created through a series of Mad Libs. The low budget shows, with lots of stock footage, and a formulaic plot for each episode starts to feel like Scooby Doo. And they would have gotten away from it if it wasn’t for your furrowed eyebrows.

As the series was filmed both in English and in Welsh, perhaps Too much brain power used just to pronounce the Welsh names and none was left for acting.

Hinterland is certainly cast with locals — you’ll never find yourself asking “Are there really this many attractive people on this sheep farm?” You find yourself saying, “Why are they interrogating a drunken sheep?” only to realise that it’s a Welsh farmer.

“The series reflects the commitment made in April 2013 by the Director of BBC Cymru Wales, Rhodri Talfan Davies, to show more Welsh language, life, and culture on the mainstream BBC channels.” — Wikipedia

Thanks. That was a great idea.

The Valhalla Murders

Flawed characters are always great for gritty realism. This one might be a bit too flawed.

Based incredibly loosely on a true series of events around Reykjavik, Iceland, The Valhalla Murders is a one-and-done series where you realise how cold everyone must be. So hard to solve murders with so many layers that you have to wear! At least here, we have a legit woman detective but she plays second fiddle to another haunted-past reassigned-and-relocated crime savant.

To get a feel for the series, here’s the plot synopsis of one episode:

“The foreign investigator is Arnar Böðvarsson, an Icelandic expatriate living in Oslo, Norway. Arnar notes that the victims must have known the killer, because there are no defence wounds. An envelope is found in Ómar’s safe, containing a photograph of Thor, Ómar, an unknown woman, and a group of teenage boys. Ómar’s son Ragnar recognizes the photograph as of the staff and residents of Valhalla, a boys’ home near Borgarnes, and identifies the woman as Brynja Þorsteinsdóttir. Hákon Jensen, the Borgarnes police chief, visits Brynja’s home and discovers she is missing. Kata searches Valhalla and finds Brynja’s body, with identical eye wounds to the other victims.”

It’s exhausting just reading the names.

There are a lot of murders in small towns

While growing up in the small town of King Salmon, Alaska, I had always assumed that the population stayed small because no one wanted to live there. After watching these detective shows, I have realised that the population of small towns all around the world are kept low by the abundance of serial killers and mass murders.

Why we are fascinated by the macabre has been covered by more thoughtful people than me, but I think the detective character study is what we relish about these shows . We need a subject matter so tormenting that we get to strip the extra layer off of our protagonist. We simply would not stay tuned simply because our hero’s headcount plan for the new product team was not approved by the CFO.