The Low Countries are sometimes overlooked in the world of crime fiction, but that is changing fast. The Belgian TV shows Salamander and The Out-Laws have made their way onto UK screens in recent years, and the Dutch programmes Framed and The Swingers have brought two very different types of crime drama to international audiences. In May, Channel 4 and its crime-in-translation online service Walter Presents are airing the gripping organised crime thriller Black Widow, and it’s worth tuning in.
The show is a bit like a Dutch version of The Sopranos, but has a strong female lead in the form of Carmen van Walraven. When series 1 begins, she’s married to Frans, who owns a marina somewhere near Amsterdam. Along with his friend Steef and Carmen’s brother Irwan, he’s happily using the set-up for a little import-export, mainly of marijuana. But Irwan has bigger ideas, and puts the business at risk by stealing a large quantity of cocaine – hidden in tulip boxes – from a gang run by someone called Schiller.
Just as Frans is drawn deeper into the mayhem of organised crime, his 10-year-old son is thrown out of school for threatening another pupil with a gun. That’s the last straw for Carmen and she gives her husband an ultimatum – either Frans gives up the criminal life, or she’ll leave him. However, as any crime fiction lover knows, gangsters like Frans can’t just walk away. Soon, Carmen is on her own, with three kids to raise, police detective Leeflang breathing down her neck, and Frans’s business to sort out. More than that, she doesn’t know who killed her husband or why, but she wants to find out and she wants vengeance.
Originally entitled Penoza, five seasons of the programme have aired in The Netherlands since 2010. It is similar in tone and style to French and British crime dramas, and there isn’t quite the heavy, moody atmosphere associated with Scandinavian shows. The drama is dialled up, and the challenges faced by Frans and his gang, and then Carmen after he is shot, make for compelling viewing. There’s a bizarre wedding in episode one, which ends in a fight, and things are slightly off-kilter in places. Although the children are shielded from their family’s criminal side, there’s always the feeling that something isn’t quite right… Flashbacks to her past reveal that none of this is new to Carmen, because her father is neck deep in the mob as well.
The acting is impressive, particularly Monic Hendrickx in the lead role. Where they managed to find such shifty-eyed Dutch actors to play Frans’s gangster colleagues is anybody’s guess, and Hajo Bruins plays the suitably slimy Detective Inspector Jim Leeflang. Slicked back curly hair. Great stuff. As the series unfolds, Carmen is drawn into the criminal world her husband and his gang operated in. Torture, blackmail, kidnapping, murder… where will it stop? Will she find a way out, as she wanted in the beginning?
The eight episodes of Black Widow series 1 begin on Wednesday 24 May on Channel 4, and the entire box sets of series 1 and 2 will be available to view free on All4, care of Walter Presents. Click here to watch.