Get a Clue: Television’s 10 Best Mystery and Detective Shows

Crime and detective stories have long been a part of television programming, with many of fiction’s most famous sleuths—Ellery Queen, Philip Marlowe, and Mickey Spillane, to name but a few—starring in their own small-screen shows. With such a rich and varied trove of viewing options, how can a mystery fan find the wheat among the chaff? Relax, I’ve made it easy for you: here are the ten best, most influential, and most original mystery and detective shows that have graced the small screen.

 

Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996)

Angela Lansbury has played a cocky Cockney maid, the cheery helpmate to a murderous London barber, and a singing teapot, but for millions of viewers [Like me! –Ed.] there is one role this legendary, award-winning actress was simply born to play: sweet, no-nonsense amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher. Surprisingly enough, Lansbury was not the show’s creators first choice to play widowed, retired English school teacher turned best-selling mystery novelist. That person was Jean Stapleton. However, when Stapleton declined the part, Lansbury was quickly hired, and the rest, as they say, was television history. With its cleverly constructed plots, no-nonsense protagonist, and delightfully quirky cast of secondary characters, who included some guest star appearances by some of Hollywood’s Golden Age greats, Murder She Wrote was an immediate commercial and critical hit, running for twelve years and 261 episodes. The sheer number of dead bodies that kept popping up around Jessica did give rise to the expression “the Cabot Cove syndrome,” but for fans of the show, this just meant there were even more murders for Jessica to cheerfully solve. When CBS switched Murder She Wrote from its long-standing Sunday slot to Thursday night in 1996 in an attempt to counterprogram against NBC’s more youth-oriented lineup lead by Friends, it was the beginning of the end. But Jessica was not someone who went down without a fight: in one of the show’s last episodes, “Murder Among Friends,” she investigated a death on the set of a fictional television show called “Buds,” about a group of six twenty-somethings sitting around drinking coffee and talking about their lives.

 

Perry Mason (1957-1966)

Erle Stanley Gardner’s fictional lawyer/detective Perry Mason had already appeared in a number of big screen treatments and a radio show when Gardner was approached about doing a television show featuring the sharp-eyed legal eagle. Having been disappointed by all of Mason’s previous portrayals, Gardner initially vetoed the idea. However, when Gail Patrick, the wife of his literary agent, proposed creating a show with input from Gardner himself, he warmed up to the idea. Casting for the show quickly proceeded, but finding someone to fill Perry’s shoes became the toughest challenge of all. Several names, including Fred MacMurray, were bandied about, but it wasn’t until Raymond Burr went on a crash diet and lost sixty pounds that Gardner believed he had found his Mason.  The television series ran for 271 episodes, many of the plots of which were based on Gardner’s own books. In the first half of each show, a crime is committed. In the second half, Mason, his ever-reliable secretary Della Street, and his right-hand man detective Paul Drake, solve the crime and reveal the real murderer in a spectacular display of courtroom pyrotechnics—much to the dismay of Mason’s long-suffering professional foil, District Attorney Hamilton Burger.

 

The Rockford Files (1974-1980)

From its played-to-perfection protagonist to its unforgettable cast of secondary characters to its catchy theme song to its clever use of an answering machine in the show’s opener, The Rockford Files had everything it needed to become a cult classic among mystery fans. The Rockford Files was initially conceived as a way of repeating James Garner’s success in the television show Maverick in a modern-day setting, and the show’s creators succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Los Angeles-based gumshoe Jim Rockford was nothing like the impossibly cool television private eyes like Peter Gunn who preceded him, and that is what makes him so marvelously entertaining. Having served time in prison for a wrongful conviction, Rockford ekes out a living as a private investigation, living in a dilapidated mobile home in a parking lot adjacent to a Malibu beach. Rockford would rather use his wits than his Colt 45 (which he regularly keeps stored in his kitchen in a cookie jar or coffee can) to solve his cases, and the show’s writers honored this philosophy by coming up with an endless number of inventive cases that allow Rockford to use his brains rather than his brawn to bring perpetrators to justice. Brimming with affable sense of charm and a wonderfully wry sense of humor, The Rockford Files  is still one of the best television detective shows ever created.

 

Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013)

When David Suchet first undertook the role of Agatha’s Christie’s iconic sleuth Hercule Poirot in 1989, he quickly became the most-watched detective on public television. No one before Suchet (and there had been many attempts, including memorable efforts by Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov) or since (sorry, Kenneth Branagh) has ever completely captured the role of Poirot quite like him, who would go onto spend almost 25 years of his professional life playing the fictional sleuth. As a method actor, Suchet immersed himself in everything Christie ever wrote about the fussy Belgian detective, and resulting in a played-to-perfection homage that perfectly encapsulated the deductive brilliance, as well as the occasionally irritating mannerisms of this immortal sleuth show after show. Put this together with a stellar cast of secondary characters (including the memorable Pauline Moran as Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon and Hugh Jackson as Poirot’s affable sidekick Captain Hastings), and beautifully rendered settings ranging from elegant Art Deco London apartments to lushly recreated 1950s and 1960s aristocratic English country homes, and you have the makings for a superior mystery series of which even Dame Christie herself would most certainly approve.

 

Columbo (1971-2003)

Who could ever forget rumpled police detective Columbo’s unforgettable catch phrase? (“Just one more question,” in case you did forget it.) On the surface, Columbo (played to perfection by Peter Falk) seems like a perpetually bumbling, totally clueless investigator, which is exactly what Columbo—and his creators—want suspects to think. Because underneath his trademark wrinkled trench coat, penchant for cigars, and seemingly scattered investigative approach, lurked the razor-sharp mind of a true detective. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link originally created the character of Columbo for an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show in 1961, which led to a stage play, and again in a 1968 a television movie with Falk. Three years later, NBC convinced Levinson and Link to bring Columbo to television on a regular basis as part of their “Mystery Wheel” format. Each episode of the show was written as an inverted mystery: viewers knew exactly who the murderer is in the opening of the episode, and the suspense comes from watching Columbo discover a way to prove how the killer did it and bring him or her to justice. The show was an immediate hit with viewers and ran for seven seasons before being cancelled by NBC. The show was then picked up ABC a decade later, where it ran for more than a decade in the form of special mystery “movies.”

 

Monk (2002-2009)

Drama. Comedy. Dramedy. Call Monk whatever you may want, but the end result is one of television’s most inventive mystery shows. Former San Francisco police detective Adrian Monk (played with exactly the right measure of endearing warmth and exasperating irritation by Tony Shalhoub) is kicked off the force when he falls apart emotionally and mentally after his wife Trudy dies in a car bombing. With the help of his assistants Sharona Fleming and then Natalie Teeger, Monk manages to pull himself together just enough to function as a private detective and a consultant to the SF Police Department. Monk’s world record number of fears—312 including milk and ladybugs—and his ever-present OCD actually work to his favor when it comes to solving crimes, since he can’t rest until he restores order to a messy crime scene by determining exactly what is missing or what is not right. For eight seasons and 125 uniquely quirky episodes, Monk solved a wide array of crimes, leaving readers eagerly awaiting the moment in the show when Monk would issue his catch phrase, “here’s what happened,” and explain how he solved the case.

 

Foyle’s War (2002-

With so many violent and despicable evil deeds being undertaken on such a large scale during World War II, it is easy to forget that murder and other crimes were still being committed on a much smaller scale. That is the brilliant premise of Foyle’s War, set both during and after. The show stars Michael Kitchen, who plays Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle. When the war breaks out, Foyle wants to transfer to the War Office (Foyle is a World War I veteran), but his superiors insist he can best serve the government by remaining where he is in Hastings. What he discovers is that solving crimes on the microcosmic scale of life in England is just as important as successfully winning the war on a macro level. Given the series setting, it isn’t surprising that many of the crimes Foyle investigates have some connection to the war, like espionage or the black-market trade. To Foyle’s War’s considerable credit, the show’s morally ambiguous plots gives readers a realistic picture of life on the home front, as well as showcasing people at both their best and worst during wartime. With its smartly conceived scripts and letter-perfect cast performances, Foyle’s War adroitly walks the line between compelling historical drama and engaging crime fiction.

 

Sherlock (2010- )

It takes a certain level of chutzpah to ring your own changes on one of the mystery genre’s most beloved sleuths, but the creators of Sherlock have managed to come up with a brilliant new Sherlock Holmes that is both clever homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original creation as well as a truly novel take on the mystery genre’s most iconic detective. In this ingenious reboot of the classic, Sherlock Holmes (in a tour-de-force performance by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a consulting detective in modern day London. After advertising for a flatmate, Holmes winds up with Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) as both his new domestic partner and investigative assistant. The series manages to retain all the classic characters and elements of the original stories but then deftly translates all of them into the 21st century through such touches as giving Holmes his own webpage and having Dr. Watson blog about his adventures.

 

Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999)

Based on David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, this realistically gritty, sometimes graphic, always compelling series followed the professional adventures of the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit. What sets this series apart from other police procedural television shows that preceded? Actors, directors, writers and producers all deeply committed to creating a show that stayed as true as possible to the way in which police work is handled in the real world. They accomplished this in a number of ways, from the show’s direct filming techniques showing crime scenes from multiple angles, to plots that often had the detectives working on a number of open-ended cases—some of which, just as in real life police work, were never resolved. For seven seasons, this award-winning show provided viewers with an authentic, never-to-be-forgotten glimpse into the complex, conflicted world of an inner-city police department.

 

Moonlighting (1985-1989)

When Glenn Gordon Caron initially came up with the idea of Moonlighting, he envisioned it as a romance, but the network wanted a detective show. Thus, in a “you’ve got peanut butter in my chocolate; no, you’ve got chocolate in my peanut butter” kind of way, emerged a wildly original mix of comedy, drama, passion, and detection. The show revolves around Madelyn “Maddie” Spencer, a once-famous model now facing bankruptcy, whose only remaining asset is a down-at-the-heels detective agency run by David Addison (played with a marvelous sense of rough-around-the-edges charm by Bruce Willis). Addison convinces Maddie to keep the agency—now rebranded as the Blue Moon Detective Agency in an attempt to cash in on her former fame as the Blue Moon shampoo girl—with him as her partner. The very definition of “quirky,” Moonlighting was never afraid to take chances with its plotlines or its characters. The show frequently broke through the “fourth wall” to address viewers directly, and it often made fun of its own troubles (including the ongoing battle with the network over the cost of filming the show, and that fact that the show was almost always late with a new episode). From it’s famous, noir-inspired “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” episode (which featured the legendary Orson Welles in his last acting appearance) to “Atomic Shakespeare,” the show’s take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, viewers were never exactly sure what they would get from week to week. And that, in a nutshell, is the show’s enduring legacy.

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About the Author:

The Romance Writers of America 2002 Librarian of the Year, Charles has been reviewing romances for Booklist since 1999 and is the author of Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance. After working for the Scottsdale Public Library System for 30 years, Charles retired and went to work for Scottsdale's independent bookstore the Poisoned Pen, where he still gets to push books but has to deal with far fewer computer questions.

1 Comment on "Get a Clue: Television’s 10 Best Mystery and Detective Shows"

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  1. mjtsimons@hotmail.com' Marilyn Simons says:

    I would put in a vote for “77 Sunset Strip”–clever cases solved by three rotating detectives with touches of class and humor. Some standout episodes such as “The Attic” written by Roger Smith (detective Jeff Spencer).

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