“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Thus spoke Jesus on the Mount of Olives, when confronted by a woman charged with adultery. We are all sinners, he proclaimed, our judgement skewed. This is also the position seemingly held by Frances Poletti, creator of twisty new ITV four-parter Without Sin. There’s some Biblical-level forgiveness required in this drama about the fallout from a teenage girl’s murder.
Stella (Vicky McClure), a late-night taxi driver tormented by an all-consuming grief, haunts the streets of Nottingham. Her daughter Maisy was murdered three years ago in their family home. Husband Paul (Perry Fitzpatrick) has moved on with another woman, but Stella is still struggling. Her attempts at normality – cheesy dancing to Dexys Midnight Runners, eating toast at a late-night café, going out for a pint – leave her unmoved. But when the man convicted of Maisy’s murder – Charles Stone (Johnny Harris) – reaches out through a prison reconciliation programme, old wounds might be reopened but the potential for healing emerges.
“Your daughter was already dead when I found her,” Charles announces, when they finally meet. “I didn’t kill Maisy, I’ve been framed.” And, even as he’s dragged away by prison guards, the seed of doubt is planted in Stella’s mind. Charles’s words echo in her mind (“I’ve confronted my past,” he tells her, “and I want to help you do the same...”) and the abduction of another girl forces her hand. Stella is not without sin – she is wrestling with the fact of having left her daughter alone that night – but now she has a purpose. And if she’s playing Sherlock Holmes, Charles is her imprisoned Watson (this is the second time we’ve seen this dynamic in a murder mystery this year, after Steven Moffat’s Inside Man).
McClure is undoubtedly a good actress, and is extremely well versed in playing practical women dealing with some residual trauma. British casting directors are putting her up for the same roles over and over, which has allowed her to perfect her performance – even if it all feels rather familiar. And when her useless police officer friend Remy (Johann Myers) tells her that “none of this is going to bring Maisy back”, that feeling of déjà vu only grows stronger. It’s not uncommon for a thriller to start off as a meditation on trauma and gradually turn into a more conventional piece of crime fiction. As the cogs whir into motion, Without Sin becomes more generic – but more enjoyable.
I’ve seen two other new police dramas this year that feature grieving parents using a murder investigation as trauma therapy (Suspect, starring James Nesbitt, and Ridley with Adrian Dunbar). The convention affords the detective an easy interiority, grounding their motivation and eliciting the sympathy of viewers. But these bereaved gumshoes are also quite gloomy company, and with Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot absent from TV screens in recent years, the detective genre has become a bit of a slog.
Without Sin is passable. It’s fine. For families gathered around the telly this festive season, it will provide suitable post-prandial entertainment. No one will love it, and no one will hate it. But McClure deserves the chance to test herself with material that diversifies her CV – and audiences deserve to have a bit more fun. Murder, my dear Watson, needn’t be so morose, and writers need to stop flogging a dead family member.