Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Watching the Detectives

Detective and mystery fiction has been part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. I recently tallied my 45 published stories according to genre and found that I’ve had more mysteries published than any other type of story. While detective movies and literature have been very important to me, I’m pretty sure it all started with television. After all, movies, until quite recently, were either encountered incidentally when they happened to be shown on TV, or had to be seen in theaters or rented. And books had to be sought out at stores or libraries. But television has a constant presence in the household and my first exposure to detective fiction probably came from me joining my father in watching various reruns from his youth or whatever was running on Mystery! when I was in the age range when being exposed to new ideas had the greatest impact on my developing imagination.
So today I’m endeavoring to choose my ten favorite television depictions of detectives and put them in order from least to favorite. I love all ten of these shows and many more, but I can only choose ten (with one instance of cheating a bit, which you’ll see as you go up the list), so let it be noted that exclusion is not to be seen as disrespect toward any small-screen sleuth who does not appear in the countdown.  
One more thing to note: the fine actors in spots 10 and 9 are at the bottom of the list because their shows are still running and so can’t properly be compared to the other eight, which are completed bodies of work. Perhaps, if I update this list several years from now, the order will be altered in some ways.
So here we go. My ten favorite TV detectives, from 10 to 1.

10. Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

 I was prepared to hate Sherlock. When I heard the BBC was doing an updated version of Sherlock Holmes, I was against it. My favorite fictional character belongs in the Victorian and immediately post-Victorian eras. The entire mystique of the canon fits that period so well. The world has changed so much since then and we have so many new methods of crime-solving at our disposal here in the 21st century. I was convinced they wouldn’t get it right. And I was wrong. The essence is there! Holmes, Watson, and the usual cast of characters are all represented in modernized versions and the spirit of Doyle’s work lives on. I’ve enjoyed every episode so far, though some are better than others, and I look forward to the next series.

9. Idris Elba as Luther
 Since 2010, Idris Elba has portrayed Detective Chief Inspector John Luther in 3 series of episodes. Elba’s intense performance has made him one of my favorite current actors and made Luther a TV cop I look forward to seeing in what I hope are many future episodes.

8. Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes
In 1954, 39 half-hour episodes of a Sherlock Holmes TV series aired. I call this “Holmes Lite,” as they were short, sweet little mysteries, perfect for quick distractions when one is in the mood for a Holmes fix that’s not too heavy or intense. Simply put, these stories are fun. Howard plays Holmes well, and his co-star, Howard Marion Crawford, plays a Watson who is somewhat of a cross between the brave, able doctor of Doyle’s canon and the comedic sidekick of the Basil Rathbone films.   

7. Robbie Coltrane in Cracker
A detective doesn’t have to be a police officer or private investigator as long as he or she works to get to the bottom of mysteries. Robbie Coltrane gave a great performance as Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a psychologist who assists the Greater Manchester Police in this 1993-1996 series. An obese, chain-smoking, drinking, gambling, sarcastic, yet brilliant man, Coltrane’s character was a pleasure to watch.    

6. Derek Jacobi as Cadfael
A medieval monk solving mysteries is a wonderful contradiction, as the clergy usually has the job of encouraging faith and belief in things we can’t see or hear, while a good detective must always rely on evidence and facts. This mixture of two opposing ideas is what made Brother Cadfael so interesting. The character originally appeared in stories by Ellis Peters (the nom de plume of Edith Pargeter) and was adapted for TV between 1994 and 1998. 

5. Inspector Morse and his spinoffs
Okay, this is the part where I cheat. The Inspector Morse TV series ran from 1987 to 2000 and starred John Thaw as author Colin Dexter’s opera-loving, crossword-solving police detective. His partner was Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis, played by Kevin Whately. From 2009 to the present, Lewis, now an inspector, has had his own series, simply called Lewis, in which he is assisted by the young Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). In addition to that, there is also another currently running spinoff series, Endeavour (Morse’s rarely mentioned first name), which features Morse as a young detective (played by Shaun Evans) in 1960s Oxford. I enjoy all three series and consider them parts of a whole, so I see no reason not to include them all on this list. 

4. Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett 
Hawaii Five-O had an incredible run from 1968 to 1980, making it (I think, but I’m too lazy to look it up right now, the longest running weekly police drama before Law & Order). It’s been the butt of jokes for years, due to the blindingly garish fashions of the 70s, the catch phrase “Book ‘em, Danno,” which is actually not spoken very often at all in the series, and Jack Lord’s thick, seemingly immovable hair. People can make whatever comments they want, but it’s hard to deny that the show was a huge success, and it’s easy to see why. The stories were always compelling crime dramas with great guest stars, clever mysteries, and good action scenes. Like some of the 60s and 70s’ best shows (like Star Trek and Bonanza) Hawaii Five-O features story styles that could switch episode to episode from drama to semi-comedy to espionage-based noir worthy of the early Bond movies. Jack Lord’s no-nonsense McGarrett was the series’ star and the glue that held the show together. 

3. Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
Holmes is my favorite fictional character in the entire world. He’s been played by many fine actors on film, many of them quite good. But Jeremy Brett, in his 41 Holmes adaptations, from 1984 to 1994, was the most faithful to the character as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These are nearly perfect versions taken directly from the source material. Brett’s performance is magnificent, as are those of his two Watsons, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke. It was when I happened to walk into the living room of the house I grew up in to find my father watching the Holmes episode “The Devil’s Foot” when I was 11 years old, that I became hooked on Holmes and soon sought out the original stories. 27 years later, I’ve had six of my own Holmes stories published, with 2 more on the way, and, I hope, many more yet to be written. I have Jeremy Brett to thank for all that! Many people who know me well might expect Brett’s Holmes to be first on this list, but it’s third, because, as I said a moment ago, Jeremy Brett was, perhaps, the best, but he was not the only great Holmes. The top 2 spots had to go to actors who are now the only men I can accept as the detectives they so brilliantly portrayed.

2. Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo
Columbo was a unique character among TV detectives, with his stories being not whodunits, but, as someone once pointed out, how-catch-ems, meaning that we, the viewers, knew from the opening scenes who had committed the murder, and, probably, so did our title character, a disheveled little man who latched onto his suspects like an annoying tick, not letting go until he’d just-one-more-thinged them to the point of gathering enough evidence to put them away. These were brilliant stories starring one of the greatest actors ever to grace the silver or small screens. I probably saw Columbo even earlier than my first exposure to Sherlock Holmes, and I still admire the series and Falk’s work to this day. One of my favorite conversations I’ve ever had involved discussing the brilliance of Pete Falk with Robert Culp, an actor who played a murderer on Columbo no less than 4 times. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Falk was Columbo, and if the occasional rumors of a rebooted, recast version ever turn out to be true, my head may literally explode, so somebody needs to keep a mop close by.

1. David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
How could the first spot on this list go to anyone else? Hercule Poirot is easily my second favorite literary detective, after Holmes, and most adaptations previous to 1989 had been less than faithful to the character Agatha Christie put on paper. David Suchet, over a span of nearly 25 years, starred in TV adaptations of almost every one of Christie’s Poirot novels or short stories, for a total of 70 episodes or TV movies. Suchet meticulously researched the role and perfected it in a way no previous actor had (and, I think, no one else ever will, for perfection cannot be improved). His Poirot is an extraordinary accomplishment, and watching an episode transports the viewer to a different time and place. The glorious opening theme music pulls us in and we’re spellbound until the conclusion of the mystery. I would go so far as to call Suchet’s little Belgian detective the finest adaptation of a literary character I have ever seen. Of course, I also have to mention the superb supporting cast of Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings, Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp, and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon, whose contributions to the stories and interactions with Poirot added to the show's many layers of charm. 

And that's the list. I'd like to extend my thanks to all the actors, writers, directors, and producers of these fine detective shows, as well as the original creators of the characters and the mysteries in which they found themselves entangled.    


  1. Not that you asked, but here's my favorite 10 TV detectives:
    Thomas Magnum
    Adrian Monk
    John Luther
    Joe Friday
    John Munch
    Dale Cooper
    Mike Hammer
    Ellery Queen
    Tony Baretta
    Mark Sloan

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