Now Streaming: Quaint-Location Crime Fiction
The Canadian province of Newfoundland may seem a strange place to set a TV series to those who live on the North American mainland. To apply what John McPhee once wrote of Alaska’s relationship to the lower 48 states, Newfoundland is a foreign country largely populated by Canadians.
But because it is so small and insular, the capital and largest city, St. John’s, with a population of just 114,000, makes an unexpectedly interesting setting for the under-appreciated streaming TV series Republic of Doyle.
Republic of Doyle, a former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hit whose six seasons stream on Netflix and Amazon Prime, has all the elements of a successful series. It’s about a loving but frequently squabbling father-son team of private detectives. The co-creator, main writer, and showrunner Allan Hawco plays Jake Doyle, whose impulsiveness and risk taking don’t serve him any better than it did when his brashness got him kicked off the St. John’s police force. While solving crimes, he still causes trouble that requires balancing by the slightly steadier hand of his dad Malachy, played by the veteran Irish actor Sean McGinley.
It’s built around family; it blends comedy and crime, sex and romance with finesse. But the most important character may be St. John’s itself. Hawco and company are keenly aware of the foibles of a place where English is spoken in an accent that may require subtitles or closed captions for other English speakers, where the slang may seem foreign to other Canadians, much less Americans. Hawco and
most of the rest of the ensemble cast are natives of Newfoundland, and their fondness is evident for the quirks of a place where police and thieves, doctors and gangsters, all seem to have known each other since high school.
The importance of place is recognized in meta fashion in Episode 10 of Season One. A pretentious Toronto-based crime novelist Garrison Steele (played with comic condescension by the fine Canadian actor Victor Garber) shows up in the Doyle home with the intention of writing a new book based on Jake and the Doyle clan’s peculiarities. “My publisher wants me writing QLCF. Can you believe it?”
A clueless Jake murmurs: “QLCF?”
“Quaint-location crime fiction,” Steele says. “He suggested I try Newfoundland. . . . The seafood seems passable, and you speak something like English, so I agreed.” Jake reluctantly agrees to let Steele accompany him on a case, and a sub-genre of international streaming TV has been given an official moniker.
Quaint-Location Crime Fiction has become one of the great allures of streaming TV, now that so many channels—including Netflix, Amazon, PBS Masterpiece, and others—have gone deeper into programs that take place all over the world. The
appeal is obvious in this time of staying at home: Armchair travel was never easier to places some of us have never ventured, or even considered visiting.
One of the rules of QLCF is that it avoids the visual clichés TV long used to identify larger cities. The long-lasting French police and justice series Spiral works because you almost never see a shot of the Eiffel Tower or a storefront on the Champs-Élysées. Exteriors are mostly shot in arrondissements where tourists
never tread, immigrant banlieues where even the police dread to visit. It’s not exactly QLCF because it is in Paris, and much of it takes place inside the corridors of power, like Law & Order: Paris.
American network shows rarely get it: Hawaii 5-0, with its touristy shots of Waikiki beaches, is not QLCF. Neither is NCIS: New Orleans, with its try-too-hard French Quarter headquarters and broad clichés about music and food. Perhaps Miami Vice, with its pre-mega-monetized South Beach locations, could thank its quaint location for some of its success.
But QLCF isn’t just a setting, or a studio set, in the streaming world. Indigenous architecture, especially when shot on streets that capture neighborhoods, homes, and apartments that take you behind the doors where the characters might live, are part of the appeal. Here are some recent favorites that make the most of their QLs.
Nit i Dia (Night and Day). Amazon Prime’s Catalan-language show, is set in Barcelona. While most QLCF is set in smaller cities and towns, Nit i Dia stays away from the tourist areas to show the private side of the metropolis. The ensemble revolves around forensic specialist Dr. Sara Grau (Clara Segura), who
becomes deeply involved in the hunt for a serial killer. Like many of the characters, she is unhappily married, a paragon of professional responsibility with a singular compulsion: engaging in the anonymous and semi-public hookups for which Erica Jong coined the phrase “zipless” sex. She is far from the only unhappily mated member of the large, talented ensemble of doctors, cops, judges, lawyers, and psychiatrists, whether married, unattached, gay, or straight, with kids or without.
There are exterior shots of the massive modernist buildings designed by Gaudi and Miers van der Rohe that Barcelona is known for, but the interiors that take us into the homes and workplaces of characters gives Nit i Dia its quirky flavor. There are scenes of churches from which a killer seeks his prey, and neighborhood bars where thugs, drug dealers, and prostitutes gulp beers and plan their schemes.
Most Spaniards live in apartments, according to a survey in The Atlantic, and Nit i Dia likes to go inside the buildings. If you’ve ever visited a large European city and wondered where the residents really live, Nit i Dia will show you. The dark, depressing railroad flat in which a divorced fireman lives, detesting his aging mother and doting on his middle-school age son, gives a hint of the struggles of his divided personality. A guilt-ridden judge, miserably married to his crippled classical-music-critic wife, are evidently well-off, but they live in a claustrophobic apartment, crowded with a piano and the sound of bitter music. In a middle-class neighborhood, a suspected killer gets stuck in an old-school single-compartment cage elevator during a power outage and the other apartment dwellers try to break into the elevator to capture him before a power restoration somehow allows him to escape.
It seems purposeful, then, that Dr. Grau and her moody, immature husband, a volatile self-absorbed sales manager, live in a pretty, modern house, with plenty of glass, an indoor swimming pool, and a surfeit of marital strife.
The Paper (Novine) is a newspaper drama (not to be confused with the London-based Press) takes place in Rijeka (population 128,000), the third largest city in Croatia. Much of the show appears to be shot there, although credits (in Croatian) cite locations in Zagreb as well. The first Croatian-made series on Netflix, the drama centers on an independent newspaper in a corrupt country, region, and city. The black, white, and
red fonts in the opening credits remind one of the childhood riddle from a time in which everyone read print newspapers: What’s black and white and re(a)d all over? (The concept may also be borrowed from the color scheme of Masterpiece Mystery.)
Like print newspapers everywhere, Novine is proud of its independent journalism and struggling to survive. The series begins with a fatal automobile accident and hints of a police cover-up. Initially pursuing the story, the editors and reporters start feeling political pressure to leave the story alone. Though these journalists are finely attuned to the labyrinthian ethical landscape in which they must work, they are unprepared for the disruption caused by Novine’s purchase by the corrupt construction executive Mario Kardum. Editors are fired; an ambitious, talented woman reporter is promoted to run the paper; and, as always, power corrupts. Reporters flee or stay, depending on their ability and willingness to compromise their integrity. The drinking of local beer and fruit brandy, for sorrow or celebration, is ubiquitous. The sex, of the easy-come, easy-go variety. Cigarette smoking is so universal it seems mandated by Croatian law.
Rijeka has a lovely-looking port when looking out from the city, but the landscape is filled with construction cranes, cracked cement, houses built on hills with little regard for zoning regulations, and a surfeit of crooked cops, politicians, and clergy wielding power, by fist, gun, blackmail, or through the pages of the newspaper. It’s a small city, and it’s hard to stay out of the way of trouble, especially if you’re one of the throwback journalists seeking the truth.
Scandanavian noir has been a staple of QLCF even before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo crossed over to the mainstream. The venerable Wallander (the original Swedish version) is set and filmed in Ystad, Sweden, where the detective played by Krister Henriksson drinks, walks his dog by the Baltic Sea, and broods while pondering the crimes in his small city—the prototypical example of QLCF.
Bordertown, a Finnish show known in Finland as Sorjonen after the main character, is a particularly interesting example of the sub-genre, and the first Finnish series go to international, via Netflix. (A third season of Bordertown came to U.S. Netflix in May.) Kari Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) is a cop of
extraordinary mental acuity. His wife has been treated for brain cancer: It seems like a good idea to relocate to her quaint, quiet, scenic hometown, Lapeenranta. It would seem like a nice place to raise their teenage daughter, too, if it wasn’t for the teenagers easy access to drugs and a roaming pedophile sex trafficker terrorizing young teen girls. The move from city to country is a staple of quaint location crime fiction, and it never works out for the cop and family looking to lighten their load.
Set and shot in largely in Lapeenranta (scenes in Season One were also filmed in Estonia and Lithuania), the small city of 73,000 is equidistant from Helsinki and St. Petersburg, and about 18 miles west of the Russian border. It’s a popular tourist magnet and center of commerce. But there’s a lot of bad stuff happening here, and like the St. John’s of Doyle, everyone knows everyone else: Paulina Sorjonen’s high school boyfriend is now the deal-making mayor of the city.
Sorjonen joins the Serious Crime Unit of the small police department, and it seems both financial shenanigans and heinous sexual crimes involving both sides of the border require his attention. He’s a crime-solving genius with poorly developed social skills: A flashback to his childhood shows signs of autism, or perhaps what used to be known as Asperger’s. His quirks include barefoot, nearly headache-inducing trances to focus on suspects and solutions, twisting his limber, lanky torso in some sort of inner tai-chi knot while he rearranges his notes on the wall.
He’s a fascinating character, but only to the extent that his personality seems a perfect match for the place. A Lapeenranta tourism website quotes Bordertown show creator and native son Miikko Oikkonen as saying the town is depicted in the series as if it were one of the main characters. Which, of course, is an essential requirement of Quaint Location Crime Fiction. Walking tours of Sorjonen’s Lapeenranta are available.
Wayne Robins is a veteran journalist, music critic, and author. His books include A Brief History
of Rock . . . Off the Record, and Behind the Music: 1968. His articles and essays have appeared
in anthologies about Steely Dan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Joni
Mitchell, and others. A 2021 inductee of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame for his writing and
criticism at Newsday (1975–1995), he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in