Traces–Forensic science solves a cold case in smart Scotland crime series

Review by C.J. Bunce

In an age where television shows continue to be stretched into a bloated ten episodes, it’s refreshing to to find a six-episode series without the filler.  One of those is the Scottish crime series Traces, a tightly, cleverly written story following a team of college forensic professors, scientists, and anthropologists and their work with the local Dundee, Scotland detective branch to solve crimes.  The first season is a fictional account centered on the case of a woman who went missing during the real-life Tall Ships festival in Dundee in August 2001, whose body was later found in a shallow grave.  The plot closely follows some of the more realistic and mysterious bits of any number of episodes of the true crime series Forensic Files, while working in some well-developed characters–enough to make for a compelling ongoing series.  Fans of television from Great Britain are also near guaranteed to find several familiar faces from some of your favorite genre films and TV series along the way.

Similar in format to the two Bletchley Circle series, this story centers on the work of SIFA, the Scottish Institute of Forensic Science, headed up by straight arrow Professor Sarah Gordon, played by Laura Fraser (A Knight’s Tale, Doctor Who, Breaking Bad) and the razor sharp (and frequently quirky) Professor Kathy Torrance, played by Jennifer Spence (Supernatural, Continuum, Stargate, Tru Calling) leading the way in analyzing traces of evidence to solve the unsolved, from learning the source of a local illegal drug distributor to assisting the local police on the latest suspected arson.  The key protagonist is a new recruit, twenty-something-year-old professional scientist Emma Hedges, whose past is inseparable from her career choice. Emma, played by Molly Windsor (Cheat, The Runaways) is an ambitious forensic scientist who has returned to Dundee for the new job, and to get to the bottom of what happened to her mother when she was a young girl.

As we accompany Emma on the first days at her job, we also follow along as she takes an online course created by the two professors to help her gain further experience in examining a crime scene and share with others the value of what SIFA does.  In one of the series’ few requisite but key coincidences, she quickly discovers the hypothetical crime scene was based on the discovery of her murdered mother.  The course doubles as a clever educational tool for the audience.

Michael Nardone (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Dune, Shetland, In Plain Sight) plays level-headed, real-life-as-you-get detective (and good cop) D.I. Neil McKinven.  His barely-there relationship with Professor Gordon is a high point of the series.  Martin Compston (Monarch of the Glen, Ripper Street, Line of Duty) is Daniel, a local man tied to a fire who Emma meets at a night club.  Phil McKee (Killing Eve, Brave, Band of Brothers) plays Emma’s stepdad, a suspect, and Vincent Regan (Snow White and the Huntsman, Poldark, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) plays Daniel’s father.  And Neve McIntosh (Shetland, Case Histories, Sea of Souls, Doctor Who’s Madame Vastra) plays Emma’s aunt.

Sharp-eyed viewers may even solve the crime early thanks to a stealthily planted item of clothing (that even the characters miss), and anyone up on their bone anatomy identification may get there early, too.

The best news is that Windsor, Fraser, and Spence will be back.  A second season is expected to premiere in the UK in 2021.

Count Traces near the top of the class in the pool of great short-form British/Irish/Scottish/UK police procedurals and mysteries.  It’s more intriguing than many of the highly reviewed series in the genre reviewed at borg over the years, including the recent The Salisbury Poisonings, Dublin Murders, QuirkeRoadkill, The Silence, The Five, The Missing, Thirteen, The ABC Murders, Broadchurch, and Collateral This series is more on par with the excellent Requiem, State of Play, The Woman in White, Lightfields, and Marchlands, one of those shows where you can hardly wait for the next episode, like those great ongoing series Shetland, Case Histories, Sea of Souls, and Hinterland, and it’s certain to get viewers back for a second season–easily.

Consider this a highly recommended series, aimed at the adult audience because of sexual themes.  Originally released on BBC One and the Alibi channel in the UK in 2019, Traces is streaming now in the U.S. here on BritBox via Amazon Prime.

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