There are many theories about why we love being enthralled, tantalised and often bewildered by crime mysteries, whether they are in literary form or on film or TV. Maybe because we live in a society infatuated with bad news, we simply want to see some order brought about, if only in fiction.
Then again, perhaps seeing puzzles solved not only gives a sense of closure — the restoration of order and the righting of wrongs — but stimulates our brains in an agreeable way. Or maybe it’s about the appeal of the hero, the best ones not unlike ourselves, even if we envy their physical and mental qualities.
No simple answer explains why we put ourselves through such emotional torture as we grapple with the fiendish machinations of writers taunting us with their riddles of guilt and menace. Distinguished novelists John Connolly and Declan Burke suggest in their wonderful anthology Books to Die For, in which leading crime writers guide us through the authors they admire, that even the darkest mystery “provides us with a glimpse of the world as it might be, a world in which good men and women do not stand idly by and allow the worst of human nature to triumph without opposition”.
These thoughts come to mind in the opening episode of season two of the BBC’s The Missing, so engrossing and stressful you can’t wait for the next episode to come through. Again written by the brilliant Williams brothers, Jack and Harry, masters of cliffhanging storytelling, its central defining feature is that guilt and innocence are infuriatingly problematic. These writers thoroughly subvert any reassurances they establish as their complex story unfolds.
The world they create — it’s done with economy and taut understatement — is the most convoluted place you might imagine. The Williams and their polished director, Ben Chanan, constantly manoeuvre us into various forms of complicity then invert our expectations. It’s a show in which everything we are led to believe is quickly thrown out of kilter and we doubt the innocence of the most empathetic of characters.
The first season was hugely successful, nominated for Golden Globe, Emmy and BAFTA awards, and introduced us to French detective Julien Baptiste, played with grizzled intensity by French actor Tcheky Karyo. It was the compelling story of Oliver Hughes, a boy who disappeared while on a holiday in France. It followed the desperate, sometimes frenzied search by his father Tony, brilliantly played by James Nesbitt, to find him, and thematically dealt with the notion of how a family tragedy affects the people involved.
More recently, the Williams developed a similar theme in the BBC’s One of Us, a kind of profound morality tale centred on two Scottish families ripped apart by the seemingly senseless murder of two of their children. The family members then all became involved in another death. It was a dense psychological crime thriller, dubbed “family noir” by British critics, that asked: what would we do in the same circumstances?
It’s the same in The Missing 2, which begins when a young British woman stumbles through the streets of a German town called Eckhausen, which houses a British military base. The scene is shot as if for a horror movie — it’s snowing and she moves silently among tall bare trees with a kind of supernatural intensity. It is intercut with scenes from years earlier of a younger girl wandering off from school while watched by her anxious brother. She is abducted by someone in a yellow mini-van.
As the ghostly woman collapses in the town square we learn it’s Christmas 2014 and her name is Alice Webster (Abigail Hardingham) — she has been missing for 11 years. We then see her oblivious mother Gemma (Keeley Hawes), a teacher on the base, in the middle of a class. The Williams brothers set us up with the first major epigrammatic clue with a quote from Goethe, spoken by Gemma. “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free,” she says quietly, teaching her students about Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in pursuit of power. What will that mean later on, we ask ourselves?
Gemma has dreamed of Alice’s return for a decade but the reunion is hardly the stuff of dreams. Alice’s father, Sam (David Morrissey), is a tough military man, still fractured by his inability to find and rescue his daughter. And her brother Matthew (Jake Davies) is haunted by his part in her disappearance.
“We didn’t want to recreate the same story, we wanted to do something different,” says Harry Williams. “Rather than losing someone, it’s about finding someone, and whether that is the happy ending that everyone thinks it is.”
It is Alice’s possible connection to another missing girl, Sophie Giroux, that brings Baptiste, these days known as “The Great Detective Baptiste”, out of retirement and into the lives of the Webster family. The lead investigator of Sophie’s disappearance, her case has haunted him for years, so he joins the search for Alice’s abductor in the hope it will lead him to the girl he couldn’t find.
“Sadly such cases rarely finish with all the loose ends tied in a bow,” he says in a documentary as he is reintroduced in 2014, discussing the disappearance of Oliver. “This is the unforgiving nature of tragedy. The Oliver Hughes case was no different; the truth of his death will not give his parents respite.” Another possible clue?
The story juxtaposes several time zones, sometimes abruptly, largely from 2014 to the present day. Baptiste is looking for a man who had something to do with both Alice and Sophie’s imprisonment in a basement; it might be a soldier called Daniel Reed whose father, Henry, took his own life (viewers should pay close attention to the time lapses).
Baptiste’s search takes him to the ISIS battlefields of northern Iraq. The impact of war is a prevailing subtextual theme, with the base’s veterans carrying a load of traumatic memories. Baptiste himself has a brain tumour; he’s on the trail of one last ambiguous lead, two years after the case was supposed to be closed, and with Alice’s family still distressed by her return.
While it is easy in places to work out where the story is going, this is a trick to pull the audience in. We are lulled into a false sense of security that we understand what is happening, and we can pinpoint who is to blame. What we are then given, though, is just one line, look, enigmatic shrug or camera movement that turns everything on its head.
None of this is as callous as it sounds; there is no pervasive sense of exploitation as there sometimes is in these plot-heavy, high-end thrillers. The Williams brothers appreciate that, as with the best mystery writers, character comes first and plot comes from character. They are far too clever to let narrative fatigue set in with an excess of one-thing-after-another storytelling.
The acting is exemplary, deeply felt and mesmerisingly naturalistic, and Chanan’s direction creates an ominous atmosphere of dread and anxiety. The dialogue is minimal and always apt, giving the characters room to move and breathe as real people. It’s some achievement. Sunday, 8.30pm, BBC First.
David Morrissey, Keeley Hawes, Abigail Hardingham and Tcheky Karyo in The Missing, above; Morrissey as tough military man Sam, left