Prime Time Suspects (Crime & Mystery Television):
An Introduction, by Tise Vahimagi

    It must have been sometime around ten years ago that I discovered Rosemary Herbert’s excellent encyclopaedic work The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing (Oxford University Press, 1999), loaded with a myriad of cross-references and ‘see also’ footnotes. For me, this book opened numerous avenues of further exploration within genre literature as well as being something of a mini education in various genre elements and associations.


    With a child-like sense of wonder, perhaps, it also induced me to visualise a television Crime & Mystery genre version. An exploration of the TV genre shaped in the book’s fascinating cross-reference format and structure. Instead of author entries, overviews of genre TV series.

    I went on to spend months compiling an outline and a book proposal. During this time I indulged in an almost fanatical research programme (rather prematurely) which, ultimately, resulted in several large cartons of documentation. But it also enriched my life with marathon viewings (via VHS/DVD) of previously unseen genre series.

    When the book proposal and chapter outline were complete, I pursued various possible media publishers. However, I soon discovered that these ‘media’ publishers (at least the London-based ones) seemed to barely have a grip on aspects of cinema history. That Television — genre television, at that — was considered not even a footnote in the grand scheme of things exploitable.


    Fortunately, Steve has very graciously allowed me to put some of this research and enthusiasm to use as an occasional series of observations on popular cycles and phases in the history of the TV Crime & Mystery genre.

    I intend to call it Prime Time Suspects (Crime & Mystery Television). For this on-line format I have revised (and greatly shortened) the draft of my original Introduction:

    It is a dangerous — and perhaps insane — undertaking to attempt to compress into a series of installments the history of a television genre as prolific and for the most part as rewarding as the Crime & Mystery. A genre that has enjoyed viewer popularity for over 60 years.


    The only thing that may be possible here is something of a bird’s eye view of the various TV forms and phases. My interest here will be to share a discussion of the series and programmes in this history, both in their relationship to their sources (literature, of course, as well as radio and cinema) along with the general evolution of the medium and its developing culture.

    There was a time when the approach to genre television tended to be structuralist, often dismissive. For instance, Tom Ryan, writing in Sight & Sound in 1976, noted that “Kojak, Columbo, Police Woman, Joe Forrester, S.W.A.T., Streets of San Francisco, and the others are seen to merge into each other, distinguishable only in terms of the different stars in each of the series.”

    Rather uncomfortably, this crude opinion sounds somewhat like the once held, blinkered view of the “Hollywood production factory” of cinema — until it was noticed (originally by French Cahiers critics, later exemplified by Andrew Sarris) that there were significant differences within the genres.


    One of the earliest writers to observe and evaluate aspects of television was Jack Edmund Nolan in his pioneering TV column in the pages of Films in Review magazine (running from around the mid 1960s).

    Nolan was perhaps the first to apply Sarris’ auteur theory to television, observing and analysing the small-screen work of directors ranging from Stuart Heisler to Sam Wanamaker (and, in one instance, even considered Roger Moore’s directorial excursions during production of The Saint series, ITV 1962-69).

    There can be no doubt that, taken in bulk, the genre series which concern us regularly tend to perpetrate distortions and omissions which have proved extremely galling to this writer’s critical generation. My contention, ultimately, is that many of the short-run, lesser-known series can be richer in nuance, in tension, in character and intricacy of plot, than they have been given credit for in the past.


    For instance, Ralph Meeker’s laconic military police investigator in Not for Hire (syndicated, 1959) and Roddy McMillan’s Glasgow private eye in The View from Daniel Pike (BBC, 1971-73) are more than equal to the acclaimed NCIS (CBS, 2003- ) and Baretta (ABC, 1975-78), respectively.

    It may be easy enough to summarize an epoch by selecting the most distinguished series, and concentrating thereon. But the manifest conveniences of this process have confirmed one of the principal distortions of TV criticism. The impression is conveyed that run-of-the-mill series never say anything, that vivid or insightful remarks or situations are a monopoly of a few prestigious individuals (the Stephen Bochco or Lynda La Plante productions, for example).

    Ranging from world-wide counter-espionage to the mean streets of the private investigator, the television law keeper is impelled by an almost idealistic world-view and a belief in justice, a commitment to order, and, at times, a sense of chivalry. The quest for justice underlies all of these activities; the plots follow a pattern of murder, corruption, and the establishment of a governing system to solve a puzzle and to return a sense of order to its citizens.


    Even though the genre has a strong tradition of unique conventions and the programmes themselves have been popular from the early days of broadcast television (the mid 1930s) to the present, a lack of attention may be the result of a certain confusion over precisely what comprises the TV genre. It has been described so narrowly as to include the police detective procedural exclusively, and so broadly as to encompass virtually any TV series featuring a crime.

    I would like to think that the occasional chapters that follow will take steps toward what may be an original definition of TV Crime & Mystery, emphasising the importance of the formal TV crime puzzle and its attendant characterisations and codes of behaviour.


    The TV genre includes not only police detectives but also similar related crime and mystery forms, such as adventurers, spies and investigative science experts. One of my central aims will be to demonstrate just how rich and rewarding these programmes can be in their own sub-divisions. I concluded eventually that only a mapping of the various sub-genres existing within the larger field could provide the overview I was looking for.

    Future installments will have me looking at, for example, the late 1950s Private Eye cycle (Peter Gunn, 77 Sunset Strip, etc.), the Prohibition Era Mob (The Untouchables, The Lawless Years, etc.), the New Age of Agatha Christie (UK television period 1980 to 1992), among many other genre cycles and forms.

       — Tise Vahimagi is currently the TV Database Editor for the British Film Institute.