Mystery! (aka “Masterpiece Mystery”)

(1980–)

Mystery! is a long-running American television anthology series, produced by WGBH Boston for PBS, featuring predominately British mystery stories, usually literary adaptations. When the show, intended as a spin-off of the popular PBS show Masterpiece Theatre, made its debut in 1980, however, nobody suspected 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 the 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 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, have managed to slip through the cracks.

May I submit for your consideration:

MYSTERY! (1980-2006)

  • 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.
  • The Racing Game (1980)
    Dick Francis’ one-handed former jockey turned racetrack P.I. Sid Halley was memorably brought to the small screen with the aid of one-handed actor Michael Gwilym.
  • Partners in Crime (1984-86)
    Agatha Christie’s private eye couple, Tommy and Tuppence, will never be considered “gritty,”but this one has its fans. I’m just not one of them.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-96)
    This is where we got Jeremy Brett.
  • Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1990-2013)
    This is where we got David Suchet.
  • Die Kinder (1991)
    This little seen, almost forgotten P.I. drama is Mystery‘s dark little noir gem, and deserves a re-airing.
  • Chandler and Company (1996)
    Imagine if your Mom  and your aunt decided to become private eyes…
  • Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (1997-2003)
    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.
  • An Unsuitable Job For a Woman (1999-2000)
    P.D. James reportedly was so taken aback by this crowd-pleasing take on her private eye Cordelia Gray that she said she’d never write another book with her.

MASTERPIECE MYSTERY! (2008 –)

Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.

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