Get this: Three detectives are run out of their hometowns and find themselves stepping on each other’s toes in Westport, California. A wealthy local businessman uncovers the secrets that drove them from their own cities and, for mysterious reasons, blackmails them into working together. The Trace Agency is born.
What is it? A historical television drama set in a fictional city during the 1930s that draws on classic detective fiction to pit different styles of private eye against each other.
Showrunners’ Strategy? The writers should familiarize themselves with the history of the period, with classic hard-boiled fiction, and with the character notes and the secrets that drew them into the agency. From there, they should simply write…
Normally, I post a synopsis of seasons or episodes, but this concept is more mood- and character-driven. Obviously the first season would focus on the circumstances that lead to the creation of the Trace Agency, and the following seasons would reveal each detective’s dirty little secrets, but beyond that it’s the writing team’s creativity that would drive it forward. So, here are the character sketches:
James “Jimmy” Crane is a wise-cracking private dick from New Bristol, a bustling port city in New England. He is handsome and in his early 40s, a veteran of the Great War who loves to match wits over Barbados rum, Cuban cigars, and a game of poker. But, never for money. His ethical code is strict, which sometimes puts him at odds with the others.
Dirk Malley is a tough from River City in the Midwest. He is tall and broad, and dishes out his own brutal form of justice, usually with his fists. During Prohibition in his 20s, he was an enforcer for bootleggers on the Mississippi, and he still holds a grudge against the Feds. This vendetta causes quite a bit of trouble for the agency.
Arius DuBois is a classically educated detective from Thebes, a city in the Old South. He’s the youngest of the three, and is articulate, clever, and refined. He hates that his hometown is pronounced “THEE-bus.” His knowledge of multiple languages, upper-class ways, and the law often makes him the envy of his unwilling partners.
Nicolás “El Lazo” Castillo is a casino owner and key Westport figure who pulls strings in City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and the police department. His secret knowledge about the three detectives is kept hidden from the audience at first, only slowly revealed as his intricate web of plots is uncovered by them in their struggle to free themselves from their forced partnership.
Dawn Castillo is El Lazo’s wife and a prominent Westport socialite whose influence extends well beyond her husband’s. Her family is old money, while Castillo is a self-made man, a constant source of tension between them. Nevertheless, she is dedicated to him and deeply impressed by his uncanny business acumen. Dawn is intensely interested in husband’s obsession with the Trace Agency detectives, and often interferes in their cases.
Miriam Ensign is a reporter for the Westport Trade Journal newspaper. She is bold and progressive, and committed to uncovering the past of the three detectives, their mysterious tie to Nicolás Castillo, and how they somehow avoid consequences when they overstep the law.
Nigel Shaw is a British detective who rejects Castillo’s blackmail, which is that he had a homosexual relationship in England with his assistant. Once Castillo outs him, nobody in Westport seems to care. He is snide and witty, and occasionally imposes himself on the Trace Agency’s cases to provide a final clue. His education impresses DuBois, his wit engages Crane, and his fighting skill earns the grudging respect of Malley. But they all despise his classism and detachment.
Edward Zhen is a Chinese-American detective from northern California who visits Westport now and then to help the three detectives.
Bernice “Neesy” Eckerman is an actress in her late 40s whose stage and screen name is Ella Gold. Her social connections in Westport and the southern California film industry often figure into the detectives’ cases.
Juan Castillo is El Lazo’s son by a previous marriage. His mother died under mysterious circumstances. (Writing prompt!) He is a libertine, living large on his father’s riches, and his chaotic behavior is a source of consternation for both his father and step-mother.
Victoria Castillo is the 19-year-old daughter of Nicolás and Dawn. Although not as turbulent as her older brother, her capers often force the three detectives to save her from herself.
Joey Hale is a small-time crook with big-time aspirations and strong ties to Westport’s waterfront. He sometimes acts as an informant for the detectives.
Samantha Ballantine is a real estate agent whose intimate knowledge of Westport’s properties occasionally bring her into the detectives’ cases.
Chief Danny Irons is the head of the Westport police department, deep in the pockets of Castillo.
Detective Bill Shane is a cop for the Westport police department whose loyalties are torn between the chief of police and doing right by the city.
(For the writing team)
James Crane had to leave New Bristol after he became sexually involved with a client’s wife, only to discover that she was trying to murder his client (her husband) in order not to split his assets in the divorce he was filing. This is the source of his strict ethical code not to get involved with women attached to the agency’s cases, and never to take a divorce case.
Dirk Malley is revealed to have fled River City when his old bootlegger boss murders his boyfriend, making him a mirror for Nigel Shaw. This explains his brutal attitude toward crimes that disrupt relationships, a touch of ironic romanticism that his partners always found out of character.
Arius DuBois was driven from Thebes when it was learned that his paternal grandfather was black. When this is finally revealed, the Crane and Malley are confused why, outside the Old South, he would be so concerned about Castillo revealing this. His uncharacteristically blunt response is: “Because I thought it might be a good idea to bounce my ideas off of other detectives who didn’t think like I do. And because Fuck Castillo.”