AFTER DAVE Creegan takes a bullet to the head and goes through a near-death experience (out of the body in the operating room), he's reassigned to the Organized and Serial Crime unit in London. Recuperation is assumed to be complete, but there are a lot of lingering ghosts in his head. The brilliant blue-green eyes of actor Robson Green reflect some of this. The rest is camera work in the smoothly directed "Touching Evil," and perhaps Creegan's cryptic responses mingled with predatory silences are a further clue.
Things in detectives' heads take crime stories like those in "Touching Evil," and the two in "An Unsuitable Job for a Woman," to a further interesting point than achieved by merely a procedural view of collaring the bad guys, which is like reading the assembly instructions to a complicated toy.
Cordelia Gray (Helen Baxendale) of "Unsuitable Job" hasn't quite the willies that Creegan does, but then, she's in the private line, not the public defender line. Still, she has had better days. She, too, is back from a death, her father's in Italy where she was caring for him. At loose ends in London, she signs on as a temp with the Bernie Pryde detective agency, ballooning the staff to three.
Pryde is a good guy, an avuncular figure, if a little wobbly on drink and health problems. He mentors her. She finds she likes it, probably she doesn't have anything better to do, and it appeals to her intelligence. Comes the day she arrives at the office to discover Pryde's despondent suicide and the agency -- now down to her and Mrs. Sparshot, secretary -- is hers.
This is background, for Episode 1 (based on the novel by the deservedly celebrated British crime writer P.D. James) virtually begins with Pryde's death. Gray is young, beautiful, smart and poised. She is lonely; Mrs. Sparshot (Annette Crosbie) is elevated to assistant and confidante. She is companionless; one of her troubling problems is that she draws too close to the attractive men involved in her cases.
Creegan of "Touching Evil" has the beginnings of a similar problem. His marriage is in ruins, and anyway his only romantic obsession is the job itself. His detective partner, Susan Taylor, is a little too attractive for comfort and an off-job tension hums between them. So absorbed is Creegan in stamping out evil, he doesn't act on any subliminal offers from Taylor.
Everyone in Creegan's unit is a little out there. Even if the cases weren't bedeviling, the pressure-cooker atmosphere does a job on these people. The most ordinary exchanges are laden with hidden meaning. The filmmakers invest a lot in this. There's more than a hint of secular religion in their work, furthered by a tendency to film unit conclaves in cathedral gloom sliced by shafts of light falling from above, as though Rembrandt had convened them.
Of course they have a lot on their plate. The first case is kidnapping of three young boys, linked to one in Germany where the victims were found dead. Right away a suspect is identified. Few doubts hang around over his guilt, but the frustrating problem is that they can't gather enough evidence to proceed against him. Meanwhile the kids are missing. By the end Creegan is a shade nuts.
A theme is established that runs through all three episodes. A second case involves a serial killer in hospital ending lives of the hopelessly infirm that goes beyond mercy killing into a metaphysical realm. And the third is an anonymous Web site operator persuading susceptible teen-age kids to carry out murders. In all cases Creegan and company come to identify the evil perpetrators, but they never reach a court of justice.
The detectives become furiously entangled beyond where court proceedings ought to begin, the point being that getting to close to evil for prolonged periods has its downside. "Touching Evil" makes certain that we are sympathetic with the right side in this old and familiar dilemma.
Something like it goes on in Cordelia Gray's adventures. She becomes entangled in odd ways. In Episode 1 she inherits a Bernie Pryde case to look into the circumstances around a university dropout's suicide by hanging. The investigation is initiated by the father, not out of paternal suffering or grief but out of self-interest. His science lab is in line for a big grant from a politically correct donor, and he's worried his son's suicide will somehow compromise the promised money.
Strange, but this cold fish and Creegan's child kidnapper are played by the same actor. That's Ian McDiarmid doing coldblooded scientists, bio-somethings, in both films, different narrative details. Green and Baxendale are equally handsome/beautiful. The camera loves them and we know why. But McDiarmid is something else. His presence clearly says these British films know what they are about. The supporting casts around Creegan and Gray are very strong, and who must be the strongest if you're going to ask us to buy into the tales? Why, the villain, of course.
McDiarmid isn't a foaming-at-the-mouth bad guy. The opposite, really. And that's good. The idea behind it is Auden's about the "banality of evil." How much more deeply disturbing is evil residing in the ordinary than in the lunatic that can be explained away.
McDiarmid has this impressive head of white hair you associate with a great scientist, senior senator or UN ambassador. His high forehead, like the side of a building, rises over a large thin nose, and together with a naturally skeptical expression, this gives him an air of intellectual superiority. There's something about it, too, that suggests the wrong end of a line of Roman emperors, which may be what the directors thought they saw when casting a degenerate scientist.
McDiarmid is plausible to such a high degree that he adds gravity and realism to the proceedings. He satisfies completely what in boxing is conventional wisdom. The opposition creates great champions. He's just what Creegan and Gray need.