Like many mystery readers, I love mystery television shows. Although I found it a tough task to narrow them down, today I share my favorites. I think there is something for everyone on this list, from cozies to gritty police procedural to dark (sometimes really dark) suspense. Happy reading and watching!
Genre: Police Procedural
Adaptation/Original: Adapted from Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series
Setting: Mainland island of the Shetland Islands with not infrequent trips to the Scottish mainland and others of the Shetland Islands.
Premise of show (I say “of show” for all of these, because sometimes it is different from the source material.): Widowed police Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez solves murders and raises his daughter Cassie on the island of Mainland, one of the chain of islands off the coast of Scotland that comprise Shetland. He is ably assisted by Detective Constable Sandy Wilson and Detective Sergeant Alison (Tosh) McIntosh. The murders often intertwine with the rivalries and grudges of the community as well as social issues.
Why I Love It: Shetland is just so satisfying to watch. The scenery is breathtaking, the cinematography and editing atmospheric, the culture fascinating, and the characters have my heart. I love them all and just want happiness for them, dammit! The mysteries are twisty and rooted in the place and the characters.
The Brokenwood Mysteries
Genre: Police Procedural, Cozy
Setting: Brokenwood, NZ (fictional)
Premise of Show: Big city police detective Mike Shepherd comes to Brokenwood to help on a case. He likes it so much, he decides to take the empty Detective Senior Sergeant position, even though it’s a step down from his position in the Big Smoke (nickname for the city).
With a charming/annoying (depending on who you talk to) penchant for playing country music in his car and a kind, egalitarian attitude, Mike soon wins over his new colleagues Detective Constable Kristin Sims, DC Sam Breen (who left at the end of the last season I watched and was replaced by DC Daniel Chalmers), and especially medical examiner Dr. Gina Kadinsky. Brokenwood may be small, but its share of crime and quirky characters are not, creating a show that’s twisty, interesting, warm, and funny.
Why I Love It: The gorgeous setting of small town New Zealand and the glimpses of another culture delight, but the real draw here is the well-drawn characters and their relationships. The writing and acting are top-notch, as are the plots. This show features some seriously memorable murders as well as some compelling overarching storylines and character arcs. I particularly enjoy Kristin Sims with her confidence in her work and her identity. I confess to often being annoyed by Gina’s fixation on Mike and her treatment of Kristin. I wish Kristin would give her hell about it sometime. (I haven’t watched the new season yet, so maybe I will get my wish.)
Murder She Wrote
Genre: Cozy, Amateur Sleuth
Adaptation/Original: Original (Although there is a long-running book series inspired by the TV series and written by “Jessica Fletcher” and different co-writers, as well as a new book series where Jessica’s great-niece Bea takes over the sleuthing in Cabot Cove. It’s good so far!)
Setting: Cabot Cove, Maine (fictional)
Premise of Show: Widowed and retired high school English teacher Jessica Fletcher tries her hand at mystery novel writing and becomes a huge success. The series follows her life in the small town of Cabot Cove, Maine, as she writes murder mysteries and solves them in real life. Although Jessica does travel quite a bit and solves murders then as well, the extremely high number of murders in Cabot Cove for such a small place spawned the term “Cabot Cove Syndrome,” as well as joking (I think.) theories that Jessica carried out all the murders.
Why I Love It: I grew up watching it with my grandmother, who loved mysteries and I think was pleased to see a woman her age starring in a successful show about such an independent, active character. Also, Angela Lansbury (RIP) was an excellent actress and a wonderful person. The mysteries are solid and interesting, and I find the character of Jessica inspiring as well. I also like the cozy feel of Cabot Cove. (But not the murder rate. Yikes.) Oh, and the theme song is a classic.
Genre: Police Procedural
Adaptation/Original: Original, but an American remake called Gracepoint exists.
Setting: Broadchurch (fictional town), Dorset (real), Southwest Coastal England
Premise of Show: In the English town of Broadchurch, an eleven-year-old boy named Danny Latimer is found dead on the beach. One of the two detectives, DS Ellie Miller, played by the always amazing Olivia Colman, is a friend of the family and immediately recognizes the boy. A new DI Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant (Also always amazing. He reprised the role in the American version.), runs the case, ruffling local feathers a bit. But his brilliance and care for the case soon win over Ellie and the family of the victim.
The series ran for three seasons. The second deals with the aftermath of the unveiling of Danny’s murderer and the third with a new case, but with the same local characters still there.
Why I Love It: It took me a very long time to watch Broadchurch, despite being aware of its brilliance and popularity. I have a hard time dealing with child murder. I lost a child myself, so watching parents deal with that can be triggering sometimes. But I became a bit more hardened due to watching many crime shows and listening to many a crime podcast, so I finally went for it.
Of course, I was blown away and addicted. The beautiful bleakness of the scenery, the searing emotion of the storyline, and the stellar performances by the actors (including Jodie Whittaker, the future first female Dr. Who, a show David Tennant also starred in) blend into a captivating, heartbreaking work of art. Hard as it can be for me to watch at times, I also appreciate seeing bereaved parents represented in popular media living their lives after the immediate aftermath.
Genre: Dark Thriller/Suspense, Police Procedural
Setting: London (except season 3, which is mostly set in Northern Ireland)
Premise of Show: Former police detective Marcella Backland is approached by a new detective from her former workplace about a case. He thinks it ties in with a case she worked on and hopes to pick her brain.
She helps him and even ends up going back to work. But her brain is, unfortunately, not in good shape. As in Broadchurch, Marcella lost a child and ever since, she has repeatedly experienced blackouts during which she supposedly acts violently, but retains no memory of it after. Her relationship with her husband and surviving children became strained as a result. And I think it’s obvious why this condition is problematic for a police detective. But there is much more to ALL of this story than Marcella and many of the other characters suspect.
Police cases intertwine with revelations about Marcella’s trauma and mental condition over three seasons.
Why I Love It: Anna Friel as Marcella and the character of Marcella herself for one. Marcella is tough, fragile, ferocious, passionate, and whip-smart. She’s terrified of what’s happening to her and loathes herself, but keeps trying to be there for her kids and do her job well.
Also, this show is bonkers in the best way. It is not for the faint of heart. It can be violent and heartrending and characters make very questionable choices. The third season in particular is just C-R-A-Z-Y. But the show is always fast-paced, compelling, well-written, well-acted, and unafraid to take risks. This show eats risk for breakfast. I could not take my eyes off of it and I loved every minute.
Sherlock (Known informally as the BBC Sherlock.)
Genre: Modern Adaptation, Private Investigator/Detective
Adaptation/Original: Adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Setting: Mostly London
Premise of Show: Sherlock Holmes lives in 21st-century London, assisted by Watson, who is a doctor and veteran of the Afghanistan War. Both the police and citizens come to him with cases. On the face of it, just like the original. Except completely different. Sherlock, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, has flash, style, and more than a hint of neurodivergence. Martin Freeman’s Watson is intelligent and compassionate, but also calls Sherlock on his BS. And they have modern technology at their disposal.
Why I Love It: The entire show has flash and style. It’s not just limited to the star. The visual representation of Sherlock’s mental processes, the music, Sherlock’s wardrobe, the cinematography, and the storylines (Some of them adapted from Sherlock stories.) all dazzle. But it would be all show and no substance without the acting and writing. I’ve already mentioned Cumberbatch and Freeman, but I would be horribly remiss if I left out Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. He is a revelation of shadowy evil that turns as showy as Sherlock in person, whether he’s wearing the Crown Jewels or threatening Sherlock in an aquatic center.
The one quibble I have with the show is its treatment of female characters. (I don’t even want to get into their interpretation of Irene Adler.) But the mortician Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) and Watson’s wife Mary Morstan (played by Freeman’s real-life partner at the time Amanda Abbington) do an excellent job with the material given them. A truly modern update would have treated them better. But this show is so excellent that I don’t want to end on a down note. It is well worth your time.
Genre: Police Procedural
Adaptation/Original: Adaptation of Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series
Setting: Northumberland, in the northeast region of England
Premise of Show: Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope (played by the marvelous Brenda Blethyn) is the idiosyncratic daughter of an idiosyncratic single father with some emotional issues and childhood trauma she avoids by burying herself in her work. (While still living in her childhood home.) She can be gruff, but she is devoted to her team, particularly Joe Ashworth, her favorite to partner with on cases. People often underestimate her at first sight due to her age, gender, and the fact that she is overweight. But they quickly learn how wrong they are. She’s brilliant and dogged and she always gets the job done.
Why I Love It: Vera and the plot lines. The plots are engrossing and intricate. Vera is unique. I love when she’s bull-headed and uncompromising. I love when she realizes she needs to compromise and show more kindness. She is never anything but her ever-evolving, flawed, and at times, vulnerable self.
Genre: Cozy, Amateur Sleuth
Adaptation/Original: Adaptation of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series
Setting: Village of Carsely (fictional) in the Cotswolds (real)
Premise of Show: PR maven Agatha Raisin decides to abandon London for the Cotswolds. She finds a charming home, quirky friends (the vicar’s wife, her house cleaner, the local police detective, and two local men who vie for her). She also finds murder. Of course. She discovers a knack for solving cases (and almost getting killed).
Why I Love It: The characters, the gorgeous setting, and the unique murders. Agatha, as played by the wonderful Ashley Benson, is strong, intelligent, independent, outspoken, and a fierce dresser with a fierce car. She is, in a word, formidable. But she is also kind and loyal and would do anything for her band of friends, who would do the same for her. It’s funny, a bit gruesome, witty, and just a pleasure to watch with the classic English mystery settings. (Village, country home, inns, the vicarage, etc.) I also love Benson’s Scottish accent. It is strong enough to underscore her personality, but mild enough that she is understandable to the rest of the world.
Genre: Cozy, Police Procedural
Adaptation/Original: Adaptation of Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby novels
Setting: English county of Midsomer (fictional)
Premise: DCI Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy solve murders in Midsomer county, which is comprised of several villages. The villages look peaceful and picturesque, but dark doings permeate them. Some of the detectives’ personal lives are explored, especially when they intersect with a case.
Why I Love It: There is a reason this show has run for 22 seasons. (Season 23 is finished and will debut in the US and Canada in December 2022.) From its maudlin, wailing, yet mischievous theme song, to the acting, the plot lines, and the setting, this is the quintessential English cozy mystery show. The mysteries aren’t super exciting, but they are interesting and not always easy to figure out. The cast has changed a few times (Thankfully, it became more diverse since controversial comments made in 2011 by former producer Brian True-May.), but the show remains reliable and just comforting and satisfying to watch.
Oh, and a certain writer named Anthony Horowitz, who is now a very big deal in the mystery world and whose novel Magpie Murders was turned into an excellent show recently, co-created the show and wrote episodes. (Horowitz’s novels appeared in this column in the Famous Authors as Sleuths installment and Part One of the Sherlock adaptations.)
Now pick a show and start binging! Let me know what you watch.
Sara Farmer lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, three kids, and two cats. When she’s not chasing kids and cats, she reads and writes mysteries. You can find her at www.kittymomma.com and on Twitter @avonlea79.