Mystery! (aka “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Masterpiece Mystery”)

Public Broadcast, Private Eyes

Lord knows, the American public broadcasting network wasn’t exactly known for its tough, gritty fare.

Nope, its flagship crime anthology series MYSTERY! (and Masterpiece Theatre from which it sprang) have been mostly aimed at American Anglophiles of a certain class, and as such it’s been largely domestics and cozies, featuring assorted Lord Muckymucks, Inspector Flacid Chin-Jones, plucky amateur sleuths and enough feisy spinsters to fill up a convent. Plus, of course, lots of quaint villages and an ocean of tea served in fine china.

But every now and then, a private detective did slip in…

Produced by WGBH Boston for PBS, featuring predominately British mystery stories, usually literary adaptations, Mystery! was intended as a simple spin-off of the popular PBS show Masterpiece Theatre. But nobody suspected, when it made its debut in 1980, that it would have such an influence on crime and mystery fiction.

Helped along by affable hosts who would introduce each episode (including Gene Shalit, Vincent Price and Diana Riggs), the show ran for twenty-eight seasons, and introduced American viewers (and nosy Canadians, peeking from across the border) to a whole new world of wonderful sleuths, from wisecracking, wine-soaked attorneys to gimpy former jockeys hanging around racetracks.

Not that Mystery! show ended its run after almost three decades — by then it had became a television powerhouse. Such was the demand in the U.S. for “sophisticated” crime drama, that it ceased to simply be an importer of British reruns — PBS itself became a producer of made-in-the-U.K. crime dramas, and even, due to increasing pressure, even some American material, most notably several adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s books. Still, the vast majority of programming remains British literary adaptations co-produced with UK-based production companies.

In 2008, after several years of funding difficulties (a major sponsor dropped out), the show dusted itself off, and simply went back to where it had started. It combined with Masterpiece Theatre under the umbrella title Masterpiece, as Masterpiece Mystery!, alongside Masterpiece Classic and Masterpiece Contemporary.

And while it’s easy to mock some of the shows and American Anglophile viewers’ obsessions with drippy, pompous police inspectors; nosy, tea-slurping amateur sleuths and a wide array of spectacular mustaches, a few truly great and occasionally even gritty detective dramas, featuring cynical private eyes, caustic defense attorneys and the like, managed to slip through the cracks.

May I submit for your consideration:

MYSTERY! (1980-2006)

  • The Racing Game
    (1980-81, PBS)
    Featuring Sid Halley
    Based on Odds Against by Dick Francis
    Six episodes
    Aired during the first two seasons of MYSTERY!, these six episodes, revolved around former champion steeplechase jockey Sid Halley and his struggle to reinvent himself as a racetrack investigator after a career-ending injury. Alternately dark, gritty, occasionally surprisingly nasty but always compelling, it seemed like a sign of things to come.
  • Rumpole of the Bailey (1980)
    It’s easy to dismiss this as light fluff, what with all the mugging for the cameras and the wise-ass cracks of Rumploe, who has all the grace of an unmade bed, but the comedy hides some truly razor-sharp commentary on British notions of class, morality and justice.
  • Partners in Crime
    (1984-87, PBS)
    Featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford
    Based on the novel and stories by Agatha Christie
    Ten episodes
    A handsomely mounted but essentially fluffy period piece featuring a husband-and-wife team of “professional” investigators, Tommy and Tuppence, who look into crimes among the wealthy and elite of 1920s society. This one has its fans, but I’m just not one of them. About as gritty as blanche mange.
  • Sherlock Holmes
    (aka “The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries”)
    (1985-93, PBS)
    Featuring Sherlock Holmes
    Based on the novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    Countless episodes
    For many, Jeremy Brett IS Sherlock Holmes. Me? I found this perennial PBS favourite too studied, too mannered, and, especially as the series progressed, far too impressed with itself, which lead to too much scenery chewing and dubious method acting.
  • The Singing Detective
    (1986, PBS)
    Featuring Philip E. Marlow
    Written by Dennis Potter
    Potter’s six-part tour-de-force, a singing, dancing extravaganza featuring pain-wracked detective writer Philip E. Marlow, possibly on his last go round, stuck in a hospital bed, suffering from psoriatic arthropathy, writers block, and his own thoughts. An oddly compelling and watchable nightmare.
  • Die Kinder
    (1990, PBS)
    Featuring Lomax
    Created by Paula Milne
    Six episodes
    Perhaps the darkest thing MYSTERY! ever aired, this six-parter followed the exploits of burned out ex-pat American private eye Lomax as he tries to track down the children of a London woman whose husband has taken them back to his home in Hamburg, Germany, where he once had links to a terrorist group. This little seen, almost forgotten P.I. drama is Mystery‘s dark little noir gem, and it deserves a re-airing.
  • Agatha Christie’s Poirot
    (1990–, PBS)
    Featuring Hercule Poirot
    Based on the novels and short stories by Agatha Christie
    Countless episodes
    Starring David Suchet in a career-defining star turn as Christie’s persnickety, fussy Belgian private detective. Hard-boiled? Get real. But often quite fun to watch…
  • Chandler & Co.
    (1996, PBS)
    Featuring Dee Chandler Tate & Elly Chandler
    Created by Paula Milne
    Four episodes
    Imagine if your Mom  and your aunt decided to become private eyes… Two middle-aged women, one recently divorced and one happily married but bored, decide to open a detective agency specializing in personal and marital cases. There’s a certain brooding darkness to their cases, and the emphasis on the emotional damage caused by “loved” ones add a welcome edge to what could have simply been a fluffy 90s-style feminist rant.
  • Hetty Wainthropp Investigates
    (1997-2003, PBS)
    Featuring Hercule Poirot
    Based on the novel Missing Persons by David Cook
    Twenty-eight episodes
    This old dick is a Jane. Proof, I guess, that simply being about a private eye doesn’t automatically make it hard-boiled. In this genuinely cozy series featuring an elderly private detective and her young assistant, the only boiling going on when somebody’s making tea. It didn’t run on all PBS channels, but it was picked up by many of them in the late nineties. Clever mysteries, hampered at times by a little too much schtick.
  • An Unsuitable Job For a Woman (1999-2000)
    P.D. James reportedly was so taken aback by the liberties  this crowd-pleasing took on her private eye Cordelia Gray that she said she’d never write another book with her. And she didn’t.
  • Sherlock
    (2011-12, PBS)
    Featuring Sherlock Holmes
    Based on the novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    Six episodes
    Cheeky, whip-smart adaptations of the canon, far more true in spirit and timbre than the ADD-approved Robert Downey Jr. action flick trainwrecks. And a lot more fun than the often overly fussy productions and carpet chewing of the Jeremy Brett series.
  • Case Histories
    (2011, BBC)
    Featuring Jackson Brodie
    Based on the novels by Kate Atkinson
    Six episodes
    Smart, defiantly literate and often surprisingly touching, Everyman private eye Brodie had empathy to spare for all the walking wounded who crossed his path. Compelling.


Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Please let me know who I’ve missed…

Leave a Reply