A Fan's Guide to the Top Classic Mystery Series

Desperate for a classic mystery series? We got you.
Odin Odin (77)
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It has been said that every story is, ultimately, a mystery in disguise. Our love of discovery is one of the fundamental things that all humans share—the sense of exploring the unknown, uncovering secrets along the way. But the actual genre of “mystery” is something extra special.

Mysteries generally follow a set formula, and the classic mysteries on this list are all part of that proud tradition. These are not the gritty “true crime influenced” modern dramas, replete with excessive violence and an atmosphere of depressing moodiness. But, neither are these classics simplistic or easily-solved! Classic mystery formulas offer the promise of a resolution to the viewer, but take delight in confounding the viewers expectations of how that resolution will take place. The great authors of the golden age, like Agatha Christie, were masters of this artform, able to weave complex character studies into dastardly-clever plots, hooking the reader from start to finish.

This list includes a wide range of superb series from six decades of television history, including everything from British staples to American cop-classics. I’m willing to bet that even the hard-core mystery fans out there might not have something fresh to discover here.

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Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955)

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Alfred Hitchcock Presents is an anthology series from that master of the macabre himself: Alfred Hitchcock. Now, anthology series have become all the rage of late, but this one takes the cake, presenting an eclectic mystery experience that runs the entire gamut of strange, twisted, and suspenseful tales.

Hot take

Alfred Hitchcock Presents is delightful in so many ways, but my favorite part has got to be the fact that two different monologue introductions were filmed for every episode. One for Americans and one for British audiences. In the American introduction, Hitchcock would appear and made fun of sponsors and popular advertisements. In the British introduction, Hitchcock would instead lampoon… all of America and Americans in general. Kinda great.

Perry Mason (1957)
Perry Mason (1957)

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Perry Mason was originally a character in the detective fiction of Erle Stanley Gardner, and many episodes of the series were based on Gardner’s stories! Concentrating on Perry Mason, criminal-defense lawyer in L.A., the series concentrates on innocent clients of Mason’s who have been charged — often with murder — and it’s up to Mason to get them off the hook by figuring out who really did it.

Hot take

A superb classic of the legal drama genre, this one really can’t be missed. An hour-long legal drama, it was Hollywood's first weekly one-hour series filmed for television!

The Saint (1962)
The Saint (1962)

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The Saint features 1950s heart-throb Sir Roger Moore as Simon Templar, based on the novels by Leslie Charteris. Templar is a criminal’s criminal, an anti-hero who fights crime in his own way, often brining about his desired solution through a combination of charisma and sheer wit.

Hot take

The series isn’t as dark as the original pulp novels were, but it manages to pack a punch all the same. It definitely relies on Moore’s personal charisma to carry the plot, but some of the writing is clever, and it makes for a great classic watch.

Columbo (1971)
Columbo (1971)

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Columbo is a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department who comes from humble blue-collar roots. With his distinctive rumpled air, Columbo gets overlooked by many, but he never overlooks the little things.

Hot take

Columbo is one of the biggest names in American crime television, and not just because the titular character’s personality is unforgettable. The series features a huge range of incredible actors and actresses from the era and is honestly worth watching just for those cameos. This series is a bit different than some that audiences might be used to due to it’s inverted format: the killer is seen at the beginning of the episode and the fun is watching Columbo figure it all out.

The Rockford Files (1974)
The Rockford Files (1974)

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The Rockford Files concentrates on the exploits of private investigator and ex-con Jim Rockford, who works “cold cases” to avoid entanglements with the police and who just barely manages to afford his dilapidated mobile home on the fees from his too-infrequent cases.

Hot take

Created by Roy Huggins, who also created the hit Western Maverick, this show was basically intended to recreate the magic of Maverick within a modern setting and, for the most part, it succeeding, rising to number 39 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.

Ellery Queen (1975)
Ellery Queen (1975)

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Ellery Queen is based on the character created by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, a New York author and amateur detective. While writing his latest book, Ellery works to solve cases, eventually gathering all the suspected parties together in one place to expound the clues and point the final finger!

Hot take

Set just after World War II, the aesthetic is gorgeously classic, and the writing challenges the audience to be the first to solve the plot. I love a good mystery that makes it possible for readers or viewers to figure things out first, and Ellery Queen does that superbly. Fans of Castle starring Nathan Fillion will no-doubt quickly recognize that series roots right here as well.

Starsky and Hutch (1975)
Starsky and Hutch (1975)

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Starsky and Hutch is the story of two Californian detectives, David Michael Starsky, and Kenneth Richard "Hutch" Hutchinson who patrol the fictional “Bay City” watching one-another’s backs and going toe to toe with the criminals whenever possible.

Hot take

Fans of modern series like Supernatural will be able to see how this series, way back int he 1970s, preempted an attempt to drive a stake through the heart of America’s terrible problems of masculinity by having Starsky and Hutch show physical affection for one another (unheard of in popular culture at the time for two straight men to do), as well as distinct emotions.

Quincy, M.E. (1976)
Quincy, M.E. (1976)

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Quincy, M.E. is a medical mystery drama centered on a medical examiner Dr. Quincy who is almost always at-odds with the police when it comes to solving crimes. But, thanks to Quincy’s diligence and incredible array of medical knowledge, he always comes out on top, showing up the LAPD and solving the crime.

Hot take

One cool facet of the show was that it was an early attempt to explore serious social issues through the lens of a dramatic TV mystery. Generally mainstream, I wouldn’t say that the show was especially revelatory in many areas (and appears quite backwards in many cases from a modern view) but it’s a neat example of the crossover of art and reality.

Rumpole of the Bailey (1978)
Rumpole of the Bailey (1978)

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Rumpole of the Bailey is about Horace Rumpole, an elderly London barrister who always defends the underdog, often against incredible odds. The older he gets, the gruffer he gets, but no matter what, he keeps fighting the good fight.

Hot take

It’s great to see a character in a courtroom drama mystery who doesn’t actually side with the police, and who frequently ends up fighting against the entrenched dogmas and innate social biases. We don’t get enough characters like this, and Rumpole is one of the best.

Mrs. Columbo (1979)
Mrs. Columbo (1979)

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Mrs. Columbo takes its cue from one of the gags in Columbo—you never see Columbo’s wife, even though she’s referred to plenty of times! Well, this series concentrates on the famous detective’s astounding wife who solves crimes as a news reporter while raising her daughter.

Hot take

The series didn’t fare well for a number of reasons, not the least of which were missteps regarding the age of the main character in relation to the character of Columbo. The lack of direct ties to that original series hampered this tie-in from taking off, and it flopped after only 13 episodes. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own merits! Kate Mulgrew is superb in this role, and there’s a certain charm that I wish the producers had been smart enough to exploit successfully into more seasons.

Father Brown (1974)
Father Brown (1974)

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Father Brown is based on G.K. Chesterton’s novels of the same name. The character Father Brown is a Roman Catholic priest who solves crimes using intuition and his keen grasp of human nature.

Hot take

There is a newer version of Father Brown starring Mark Brown (who played Mr. Weasley in Harry Potter. However, despite a solid cast, the writing of this modern series was too frenetic and content toward a gritty and vapid vibe that didn’t do the character justice. This version captures Chesterton’s novels much better and is a treat to watch.

Adam Dalgliesh (1983)
Adam Dalgliesh (1983)

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Adam Dalgliesh is the creation of P. D. James, the name chosen to commemorate her English teacher at Cambridge High School. Dalgliesh, an Inspector with New Scotland Yard who also writes poetry, teams up with various people as he undertakes the exploitation of chilling crimes.

Hot take

Technically, these are television movies, but the continuity of the first ten novel adaptations is maintained in the same way it would be for a TV series, with Roy Marsden as Dalgliesh in each one. It’s a great classic drama mystery, one of the best around.

Taggart (1983)
Taggart (1983)

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Taggart concentrates on Detective Chief Inspector Jim Taggart and a number of other detectives in the Glasgow area. The series had a realistic, gritty tone, but blended domestic story arcs of the main character with the criminal arc deftly, providing a steady continuity through a wide variety of character relationships as the series progressed.

Hot take

One of the UK's longest-running television dramas, the series outlasted even the titular character’s original actor.

Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1983)
Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1983)

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Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime follows the adventures of Tommy and Tuppence in the post WWI era of the United Kingdom, a couple of friends who, for want of employment, end up becoming accidental investigators for a number of increasingly serious and fascinating crimes.

Hot take

The series doesn’t give Tuppence as much command and impish power as she has in the books, which is a damn shame (as much as I like Tommy, he’s basically an idiot, while Tuppence is supposed to be the real genius — even if she’s far too brash). The series tones her down, makes her smaller than she was, and the loss of some of her spunk is a clear reason why the series didn’t go on to have the recognition it should have.

Still, it’s filled with such great writing and otherwise sticks to the books pretty well. It’s very much a problem of the director.

Murder, She Wrote (1984)
Murder, She Wrote (1984)

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Murder, She Wrote features Jessica Fletcher, mystery writer and amateur sleuth who never goes for the obvious suspect in a case, and therefore always comes out ahead of the official investigators. Starring the incomparable Angela Lansbury, the series remains a worldwide hit even after nearly two decades of being off the air.

Hot take

The period where J. Michael Straczynski co-produced and wrote for the series (season eight) is probably the best of its run, seeing the character of Jessica Fletcher moving from her sleepy Maine hometown to the Big Apple itself, where her character took on more definition and real-world drive.

Miss Marple (1984)
Miss Marple (1984)

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Miss Marple is based on the series of the same name by Agatha Christie, and is one of her best-known and most-cerebrated characters. The inscrutable gleam in the elderly Miss Marple’s eye as she sits, quietly, overlooked by everyone yet overlooking nothing herself, is simply divine. People say things around sweet old ladies they wouldn’t say anywhere else, and Miss Marple uses that to her advantage, solving everything from murders to heists with a keen eye and vast repertoire of knowledge in the human condition.

Hot take

I really love these mysteries, and have read many of them as well as watched them. Given that, it is this Miss Marple, played by Joan Hickson who best captures the feeling of the original character. Newer adaptations of the series exist, but they are inferior in tone, rushed, and try too hard to be “hip” and gritty. This version gets things just right.

Sherlock Holmes (1984)
Sherlock Holmes (1984)

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Sherlock Holmes is the definitive adaptation of the classic mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The eponymous hero and his dear friend Dr. Watson explore all the seediest sides of British life, and discover the nefarious plots woven by that dark foil to Holmes’ genius: Professor Moriarty.

Hot take

No, seriously, this is the best

version around. Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes in a way that I’ve never seen another actor embody the role. Even in the latest episodes, when Brett’s health started to fail him, he carried the character with a poise and power that commands the eye. There are older adaptations that I love (like the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce versions) and later adaptations that I ashore (like Sherlock*), but this will forever be the jewel in the crown of all attempt to bring Sherlock Holmes to the small screen.

Matlock (1986)
Matlock (1986)

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Matlock is played by early-TV superstar and comedian Andy Griffith, and focuses on the legal exploits of Ben Matlock, criminal defense attorney. He’s a folksy, gruff, but caring man, who, along with his private investigator, secretary, and sometimes one of his daughters (who are also in on the legal profession), manages to always get his client off proved innocent in the end.

Hot take

Andy Griffith is what makes this series different from the others. It is, after all, not an original premise. But Andy’s charm and down-to-earth charm make it a worthwhile and bingable show.

Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989)
Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989)

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Agatha Christie's Poirot is probably the esteemed mystery writer’s greatest creation, the finicky little Belgian private detective and ex-police chief who relies on his “little grey cells” and his unwavering eye for detail to solve his cases—sometimes even without leaving his armchair. Poirot is a singular detective, vastly different from any other. He is not a brash, bold, striding type; not the type to dash into trouble with fist and a cudgel; he is a quiet man who relies on his incredible powers of deduction and observation to solve the crime in front of him.

Hot take

Look, there are other adaptations of this character and they all suck. David Suchet is the one, the only, the perfect Poirot. Too many screen actors fail to follow the method route, and they lose something because of their lackluster approach. David Suchet was actually recommended for the role by Christie’s surviving family, and, a traditional method actor, her prepared by reading every single bit of available writing about Poirot in order to fully grasp the essence of the character.

Inspector Morse (1989)
Inspector Morse (1989)

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Inspector Morse is a crotchety and utterly relatable character, which is where the charm of the series comes in. His life does not unfold like a well-rehearsed play; things frequently go wrong and he does not always know who committed the crime well beforehand (as do more stereotypical detective characters). It’s through a combination of his fantastic memory, his love of puzzles, and his instincts for the overlooked that makes him so good in the end.

Hot take

It’s the little things about Morse that makes the character so interesting: his love of classical music and poetry, his personal depression, his middle-class sensibilities (which are often used as foils for his interactions in the show).

Father Dowling Mysteries (1989)
Father Dowling Mysteries (1989)

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Father Dowling Mysteries focuses on Father Dowling, a Catholic priest in Chicago who solves various mysteries and crimes, including murders and abductions, while assisted by Sister Stephanie a streetwise nun. It’s clearly inspired by Father Brown, and not as deep as that series, but still a good way to scratch the itch if you’ve already binged all of Father Brown and need something new.

Hot take

The show is more simplistic than Father Brown from which it heavily cribs, but it does get some things right, and Father Dowling is likable enough character (especially in concert with Sister Stephanie) to make this a fun series.

Twin Peaks (1990)
Twin Peaks (1990)

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Twin Peaks is one of the most profoundly strange and eerie series in existence, a mystery that weaves in elements of darkly twisted magical realism with the many-layered criminal underbelly of a small Northwestern town.

Hot take

Watching Twin Peaks is absolutely a mind trip, and it’s intelligent and well-crafted enough that you’re going to have to work a little harder as the viewer to sink in, but I guarantee you that it’s worth the effort.

Maigret (1992)
Maigret (1992)

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Maigret an intuitive and sharply intelligent Parisian Chief Inspector is never seen without his pipe, and broad-shouldered, gruff mannerisms bely the keen wit with which he surveys the world.

Hot take

This adaptation of the classic Parisian mystery series is probably the best, capturing the sense of style and tone that makes it shine.

A Touch of Frost (1992)
A Touch of Frost (1992)

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A Touch of Frost is the story of Detective Inspector William Edward "Jack" Frost, who frequently clashes with his superiors, but whose dedication and decades of experience allow him to see the links in a crime where nobody else can.

Hot take

It is absolutely a made-for-TV production, with a solid TV-quality from the 1990s vibe. That said, it’s also a lot of fun, and is definitely worth binging.

Cracker (1993)
Cracker (1993)

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Cracker stars actor Robbie Coltrane (who played Hagrid in the Harry Potter films) who is a “cracker”, a criminal psychologist, named Dr Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald who works with the Greater Manchester Police to solve crimes.

Hot take

Fits is a full-on antihero character, and fans of Dr. House from House will find much to love in Coltrane’s obese and alcoholic psychologist character.

Cadfael (1994)
Cadfael (1994)

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Cadfael is a monk in the middle ages with a distinctive set of skills: the mind and learning of a first-rate detective. In a world of superstition and flawed humans, Cadfael’s keen intelligence probes ever for the truth.

Hot take

I really love this show, as stylized and slow as it might appear to modern viewers. It does have a theatrical quality to it, but every scene with Derek Jacobi is an absolute treat, and the mysteries are a fascinating departure from the normal run-of-the-mill modern whodunits.

Pie in the Sky (1994)
Pie in the Sky (1994)

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Pie in the Sky is about Henry Crabbe, a semi-retired policeman who wants nothing more than to be fully retired. But, thanks to his quite unscrupulous boss (whose reputation has been riding on Crabbe’s hard work for years) Crabbe ends up essentially blackmailed to keep working undercover, even as he tries to settle into the life he wants: head chef at his wife’s restaurant.

Hot take

We don’t get anywhere near enough comedy mysteries, and this series is one of my absolute favorites. Not only is Richard Griffiths superb, but the premise is great, the writing is top-notch, and the whole series comes together like an excellent pie.

Hamish Macbeth (1995)
Hamish Macbeth (1995)

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Hamish Macbeth is the star of this particular show. A small town policeman in the Scottish highlands, Hamish is at once protector and erstwhile roguish son of his community, someone who understands the people he’s responsible for, even as he tries to act in ways that uphold the long arm of the law. But things in the highlands can be complicated and strange, and the borders between myth and reality, superstition and magic, are more permeable there than many might understand… or believe.

Hot take

Honestly, one of my all-time favorite series. Not only is Robert Carlyle just fantastic in this role, but the whole cast is brilliant, the setting is gorgeous, the writing is trippy and fantastic, and nothing (I mean nothing) about this series is going to go the way you expect when you start in.

Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (1996)
Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (1996)

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Hetty Wainthropp Investigates is a mystery series where the protagonist is one retiree housewife who realizes that she needs to follow her passion for solving puzzles—both for her own mental wellbeing and the good of her pocketbook. With her long-suffering husband and streetwise sidekick, she manages to bring her own brand of sleuthing to bear, learning the finer details of her new career on the job, and finding unique solutions along the way.

Hot take

If you know Patricia Routledge only from her role in Keeping Up Appearances as “Mrs. Bucket”, then be prepared for something totally different and yet strikingly similar: her role in society in this series is much the same, but Routledge’s acting chops give her sleuth character a unique charm and keenness that really works. Things in this series don’t always turn out for the best, either, but neither does it bask it grit and depressing endings—there’s a lot of gray in the show, and it handles that line well.

Midsomer Murders (1997)
Midsomer Murders (1997)

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Midsomer Murders lives up to its title. The fictional county in England boasts an absolutely insane crime index, with multiple homicides occurring each episode, while Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby works the clues and doggedly pursues the criminal—always with one or another somewhat bumbling apprentice officers at his side.

Hot take

A really great mystery series—though later seasons changed too much and went downhill. The first 13 seasons were great, though, and that makes for a seriously good bingeworthy series. There’s a nice helping of black humor in each episode, which helps the show pop out of the usual dramatic mold.

Foyle's War (2002)
Foyle's War (2002)

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Foyle's War takes place primarily during World War Two and the work of Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (played by Michael Kitchen) who works diligently to uncover criminal plots that have taken advantage of the chaos of the war. With his driver, Samantha "Sam" Stewart (played by Honeysuckle Weeks), Foyle doggedly pursues clues, even when they lead to the highest places in the military command.

Hot take

A tense, aesthetic drama, the series gains much by concentrating on the tense WWII period. There’s an eye for detail in the show, and Kitchen’s Foyle is the sort of quiet, methodical character that is easy to love.

Life on Mars (2006)
Life on Mars (2006)

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Life on Mars is definitely pushing the definition of “classic,” I know, but it’s just so dang good that it needs to be on this list. With a bit of a science-fictiony theme living in the background, the series is primarily a mystery show. The main character, Sam Tyler, is a police officer in modern-day Britain who finds himself awaking in the 1970s after a car crash appears to somehow transport him back in time. Still in the police, just forty years earlier than his own life, Sam ends up using his modern sensibilities to solve crimes — though the biggest mystery is his own.

Hot take

A really superb series, with great acting and a delightful premise. The “sci-fi” is super light here, and mainly exists to provide a great setting from which to launch both humor and interesting mystery plots, but that larger dissonance of the time-travel element makes things extra fun.

Period pieces come in all flavors, from comedies to dramas, with something for everyone.
Odin Odin (77)
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Period pieces, historical series, call them what you will: this sort of show is a window into another time and place, a lifestyle and mode of existence foreign to those of us who live in a modernized society. Some of these series are madcap comedies that use the past as a way to self-reflexively examine the future (a technique Shakespeare himself used frequently in his plays). Others, are dramatic portrayals of life seen through the eyes of a tight cast of well-developed characters. Some are action epics built around wars past, tangential to the reality of the time period in question but brimming with the aesthetic of the age. For inclusion in this particular collection, I went for sheer range; my goal is to bring you a little offering from the widest possible range of historical television fiction. Some, like Pride and Prejudice are high examples of series that tried to bring a strong sense of realism to the screen (the 1995 miniseries, unlike the atrocious 2005 film version, actually cares about accurate costumes, social conventions, and character portrayals — all of which add to the brilliance and subtlety of the humor and social maneuvering). Others, like Blackadder are ridiculous explosive comedies that have far more in common with fantasy than with historical accuracy, yet in their way reflect assumptions about history that are intriguing. But other series I included, like I, Claudius live in a fascinating space between the worlds of fact and fiction (Claudius was a real Roman emperor, but Robert Graves’ novel was a fictionalized autobiography, and yet Graves used historical accounts to create the novel — the show brings this mixture of real history and drama together well, creating some exceedingly dark plotlines — pun intended — long before Game of Thrones appeared on the scene). Whatever your proclivity, I think you’ll find something here that’s fun and new, and maybe when you’ve gotten hooked on one you’ll want to see what the others are like as well.