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A Complex Murder Mystery, 'Traces,' Comes to BritBox
January 5, 2021  | By David Hinckley

If you can live with a major coincidence in the setup, the British drama Traces grows into a nicely tense murder mystery.

Traces, which becomes available in the States Tuesday through the streaming service BritBox, digs into a cold case using, primarily, the prism of a forensics department.

While that's not a new approach, it enables its story – which is reminiscent, at times, of other recent TV mystery thrillers like Broadchurch – to unfold from a fresh angle.

Emma Hedges (Molly Windsor, top), a native of Dundee, Scotland, moved away as a child and has been living in Manchester for the past 17 years. She's now trained as a forensic lab technician and has returned to Dundee to take an assistant's position under the renowned Dr. Sarah Gordon (Laura Fraser).

As a mandatory part of her training, Emma watches a video tutorial in which Dr. Gordon sets up an imaginary investigation of a body found in a shallow grave.

The video details all the evidence that forensic scientists must be aware of at such a scene, meaning both the body and any material found around it, like the soil.

It's routine stuff in the forensics biz and will be familiar to anyone who has watched shows like Forensic Files or CSI.

Only Emma sees something different.

It seems Emma's mother disappeared, in Dundee, 18 years ago. Her body was eventually found in a shallow grave, and while the police had suspects, no one was ever charged.

A distraught Emma races over to see Dr. Gordon and declares that perhaps this video training film might not be as imaginary and theoretical as advertised.

Dr. Gordon assures her this is not the case, that the scenario is entirely staged, and the skull in the grave is a museum specimen from the 1940s.

Emma isn't sold. She starts visiting people she knew in Dundee, including her father, stepfather, aunt, and uncle, as well as family friends, and begins hearing new little details about her mother.

She was 7 when her mother died and 8 when the family left Dundee, so naturally, the family had shielded her from many of the more gruesome particulars, both about the murder and her mother's broader life. Like how she had left Emma's father and gotten together with the stepfather.

In the ensuing 18 years, Emma apparently did not maintain regular contact with the Dundee crowd. Now some of them are delighted she's back in town and in touch. Others, not so much.

This setup consumes most of the first episode of Traces. It runs for five more, during which Emma's initial curiosity questions lead to darker and more dangerous places.

Meanwhile, Emma continues working with Dr. Gordon's team, which is focused on a real-life case in which someone set a crowded nightclub on fire, and several people died.

We spend a lot of time in the forensics lab seeing what small charred pieces of cardboard or metal can tell a scientist about the scenario under which that tragedy took place.

Their work eventually dovetails with some of Emma's own quest, not surprisingly, and the show's focus on the forensic aspect of criminal investigation is artfully executed. It never slows down the action or compromises the building tension.

There are more than traces of an entertaining television program here.

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