A strange comfort exists in the “British crime show” genre. Maybe it’s the formulaic pleasure of watching good triumph over evil, maybe it’s the accents. In any case, this trusty category remains incredibly popular, causing streaming services to vie for catalogs of crumpet-adjacent crime stories. Netflix may have the most extensive array of options, but Amazon Prime has also developed an established niche of period-piece dramas in the genre.
From the turn-of-the-century England featured in “Arthur & George” to the contemporary London that has to wrestle with the ghosts of history in “Whitechapel,” Amazon Prime has you covered if you love mysteries that wade through the past. This focus does have the flaw of being incredibly white-male-centric, though; you’ll have to go to Netflix for a more diverse array of talent.
Despite the smaller catalog, Amazon still has a few standouts to consider, regardless of whether you like your true-crime shows full of pleasantries or horrific gore.
Premise: A vicar in the 1950s teams up with a police inspector to solve crimes in the village of Grantchester. While the inspector is hard-nosed from his years on the force, the vicar uses his intuition and heart in the investigations.
Sum Up: This is such a “British crime show” that it almost feels like an algorithm whipped it up. Per usual in the genre, it gets its name from a smallish, multisyllabic British municipality, it has a hot investigator, and sexual themes abound while a staid morality keeps things from getting too edgy. That said, the team behind this series hit the beats at a high caliber. In particular, James Norton, who plays the vicar, leaps off the screen as a bona fide star, which tracks with the abundant work he has gotten since, from AMC’s “McMafia” to Greta Gerwig’s upcoming film adaptation of “Little Women.”
Heads Up: As mentioned, this can feel formulaic. Comic relief comes via dumb jokes to break the tension, the cases get wrapped up in a bow, and the good guys win. The writers have a solid sense of injecting emotional stakes, but the show can still feel pretty mindless.
“The ABC Murders”
Premise: A serial killer in the 1930s writes letters to a once-famous detective, teasing the aging man about his fall from fame. As the recipient of the letters, the detective tries to catch the killer and reignite his old spark. This is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name.
Sum Up: John Malkovich stars as the detective, which is one of the only good things about this show. Although not necessarily good or bad, Rupert Grint co-stars as a young inspector and looks completely different than he typically does. So if you like those celebrity gossip articles with the “This Celeb Now Looks Different Than You Think” headlines, maybe you can find some enjoyment there.
Heads Up: As one of Amazon Prime’s most notable “Originals” of 2019, this show had to make the list. But it’s a rather tedious affair, with bad direction and unnecessarily long shots of uninteresting things. I’d like to see a version of this show with better editing, as there’s something worthwhile in the dialogue and acting. But as is, it doesn’t work.
Premise: A Jack the Ripper-esque murderer haunts the streets of contemporary London. The police must comb through history to catch this killer, along with other criminals who draw from the city’s dark past.
Sum Up: The most horrific of the series on this list, this is for viewers who want a show that wallows in the particulars of a crime. If disgusting shots of slashed throats and the liberal use of gargling sounds are your thing (or you like the “Saw” franchise), then this may be for you. The show also has tons of high-octane action crammed in, so if nothing else, it doesn’t feel as formulaic as other British crime shows.
Heads Up: The director seems to be going for a David Fincher vibe, using a dark-green-and-brown color palette and other quirks of the “Fight Club” aesthetic. It doesn’t work. The dialogue is also pretty bad, so unless the gruesomeness appeals to you, maybe skip this one.
“Arthur & George”
Premise: Detective fiction writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle suffers the loss of his wife in 1906. He mourns with his family, while also pursuing a new lover. Meanwhile, a disgraced solicitor gets out of jail as he works on proving his full innocence of a troubling crime. The two men team up to try and find the real criminal. Based on a Julian Barnes novel of the same name, rather than historical fact.
Sum Up: An elegant costume drama with a steady sense of narrative. This may be the crowd pleaser of the list. On the margins of the central mystery, the show also tackles weighty problems of fidelity, race and aging. And at only three episodes of 45 minutes, you can easily finish this one.
Heads Up: The series starts in a jolting place ― a close-up shot of a knife entering a horse, causing the animal to bleed to death. All these shows have crimes against humans, of course, but as many viewers have extra sensitivity to animal pain, this scene needs mentioning.
Premise: A young detective constable in 1960s Oxford works with an older mentor on the force to solve cases. Since the younger man ― named Endeavour Morse ― went to Oxford University, he has more sources to draw from in the town than his colleagues do.
Sum Up: This has a super high level of production and much more nuanced directing choices than the other projects on this list. It looks and feels like a show with real money behind it, which certainly makes it more worth watching than the more formulaic stabs at the genre.
Heads Up: The maximalist directing approach throughout this can get a bit tiresome, with heavy-handed choices here and there. Also, there are many hours of this show, so if you’re a completist, that may fill you with anxiety.