Monday, March 31, 2014

Top Ten Mystery Series

Theology and mystery have always interacted in Christianity. Whenever a finite examines the infinite, mystery necessarily results. In the New Testament, "mystery" means something once hidden that is now revealed. We use the term mystery in genre to mean much the same thing, a criminal unknown at the beginning of the story is revealed by the end. Thus, it follows that we theologians are drawn to that genre.

In that vein, I present my top ten mystery series. After all, I have been trying to arrest people's attention and cause comment without success on theological issues. Perhaps you will challenge my list. These are collections of stories that share a common element, mainly the person engaged in solving these mysteries.

Before I get to the ten, I want to add a few honorable mentions. They may not be 11-14, but they indicate some special element I appreciate.


This character created by Georges Simenon works within the French police force. My favorite adaptation of the stories starred the superb Sir Michael Gambon.  Really, I think that's all that need be said to sell it. A mystery starring Sir Michael Gambon. Done.


One of the things I look for in any story is heart. Monk applied this in a number of ways. At the heart, Monk's lost wife at the beginning of the series brings pathos to an otherwise abrasive personality. His relationships with his assistants as struggling single mothers create a connected element of pathos.

Due South

While more of an adventure than mystery often, Due South was my family's teenage cool. The relationship between the straight-laced Canadian Mounty Benton Fraser (the man with two last names), and the hard-bitten Chicago cop Raymon Vecchio remains one of the best exemplars of the buddy cop genre on TV. Among my broth
ers and I, it formed the code question through which every perspective mate was judged, "New Ray or old?"

Remington Steele

Before the days of DVD, my family amassed virtually the entire run of Remington Steele on VHS recorded from its syndicated, censored broadcast on CBN. He was one of my vocational goals as a teenager. I wanted to be Mr. Steele. It would have been on my list if more rational considerations had not intruded. Even so, part of me will always be Steele.

Now for the Top Ten:

10. Marple

I will probably get the most grief for the low rank for a beloved character created by perhaps the greatest mystery writer of the twentieth century. Joan Hickson, Helen Hayes, Margret Rutherford, Angela Landsbury (shudder), Geraldine McEwan, and Julia McKenzie have all played Miss Jane Marple, the knitting old maid who intrudes into every mysterious event in the sleepy English countryside. No one can deny the power of Agatha Christie's great non-detective detective, but her stories never resonated with me. What puts her on the list probably comes from the second series done by McEwan, especially "Sleeping Murder" starring the under appreciated Sophia Myles and Paul McGann.

9. Perry Mason

Another clear great that may seem too low on the list. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be both Remington Steele and Perry Mason or a mixture of the two. Mason was the lawyer any teen would want to be, locking up the bad guys and freeing the wrongfully accused. His stories were exciting and dramatic. Raymond Burr was Perry Mason. Even though I read many of the books, he was always the image in my imagination. The reason such a great series falls so low on my list is its unreality. Once you go to law school or have any involvement in the legal system, you realize how fake Mason is. Still, it remains the idealization of the practice of law.

8. Nero Wolfe

In 2000, the late Maury Chaykin and the talented Timothy Hutton brought Rex Stout's pulp fiction to life again. They transported us back to the 1940's and the height of the noir novel. Without the trappings of noir, but with a colorful over-saturated palette, the comedy of Stout came out above the darkness of the time. For 21 stories, they gave us that comic noir unknown for almost half a century. Sin, pride, and conflict drove the stars apart and brought a premature end to what could have been a thriving franchise.

7. The Thin Man

The only one on this list appearing on the big screen. William Powell and Myrna Loy brought to life Dashiell Hammett's novel. Five more outings filled out the series. The stories were traditional noir fare with the humor of Nick and Nora. You cannot watch these without joy. The second outing includes Jimmy Stewart, with one of my favorite film dialogues.
Nick: (mumbles)
Nora: "What are you saying?"
Nick: "I'm trying to get all the bad words out of my system."
Without a doubt a timeless classic.

6. Luther

I watched this because of the name. It has nothing to do with the great reformer. It is a rather clever tortured-soul detective show in the vein of Wallander. Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson make a better pair than the extremely talented Kenneth Branagh; even with the gifted Tom Hiddleston, David Warner, and Sarah Smart. Luther deals with a strange, often conflicted morality. Luther's bravery and personal integrity drives the show. The best example of the tortured detective.

5. Campion

Peter Davidson appears in All Creatures Great and Small, Dr. Who, Campion, and The Last Detective. Campion demonstrates Davidson at his height. With Brian Glover, Campion and Lugg go from strength to strength. Five years after Dr. Who, Davidson emerges in the first stories as Dr. Who and Tristan Farnon in character, but by the second set of stories, he has found Campion's own voice. The stories adapted from Margery Allingham remain engaging and challenging. The theme will stick in your head for days.

4. Morse

What can one say about Colin Dexter's Morse? One might be tempted to relegate him to the sub-genre of the tortured-soul detective a la Luther and Wallander. Indeed, the final episode might induce such a conclusion. To do so misses the depth of Morse. Every episode challenges the watcher to consider a surprisingly deep philosophical or ethical question. My father and brother raved over this show for years before I took the plunge and waded through the series. The relationship between Morse and Lewis allows Morse's moroseness to take you to dark places without fear of losing yourself before the humanity and normality of Lewis draw you back. The late John Thaw and Kevin Whately give every episode their best.

If all this cannot convince you, just listen to that hauntingly beautify theme again. The depth of the Morse minor key of the beginning dissolves into the triumphant anthem of trumpet in the middle before descending back into the minor key briefly before ending in the rhythmic communication. Dash-dash, dash-dash-dash, dot-dash-dot, dot-dot-dot, dot. Such an apt mark, the show communicates in an indirect way, like a code.

3. Poirot 

If Christie fans would tar and feather me for my treatment of Marple, they either excuse me by celebrating my position for Poirot, or crucify me once again. Poirot was the twentieth century's Monk. He is the oddity, contrasted against the normality of Hastings or Japp. While the books are dear, one person has done more to advance Poirot to the top three, David Suchet. Beginning in 1989 and prospected to next year, Suchet has made it his life's goal to produce TV adaptations of every Poirot story in existence. He has embodied the character. Combine one of the greatest mystery writer with an extremely talented actor, and you have a recipe for greatness. Throw in a dash of genius adapters, and you have a stock from which even greater stories can appear. If you have a talented writer standing on the shoulders of giants, what can emerge? Nothing better than the modern unknown gem that is...

2. Foyle

I have called it the greatest mystery TV show ever, and I will stand by that characterization even though the series only makes it to number two. (You will understand why once we get to number one, if you haven't already guessed) In order to understand its greatness, you must first know the background.

Foyle's War is written by Anthony Horowitz, the dramatizer of 11 stories for Poirot. In 2000, with the impending end of Morse, ITV's ratings beast, ITV looked at 300 submissions and picked one about a detective during WWII.

Nothing fails in Foyle's War from the first four seasons. The writing is exceptional. Part of what annoys me about most mystery stories is the failure of the story to give you all the facts. The best mystery will provide you with all the clues to identify the culprit before the final act. The challenge is to do it without making it so obvious that a slug could solve it. Foyle does that so well, that you come to the end and still are surprised.

Not only is the writing excellent, backdrop of WWII adds flavor to the story. Each story grows out of the writer's deep research. It is not a story carelessly pasted onto the surface of the historical setting. The story settles into the warp and woof of the setting. You lose the ability to determine the difference between what is historical and what is fiction.

Michael Kitchen accepted the titular role and started to excise lines. He argued that most of those lines could be communicated with a look. He was right. The laconic Foyle plays so well against the drama. By remaining silent, Foyle lets the drama already present play. Add Honeysuckle Weeks and the horribly underused Anthony Howell, and the cast could not get better. The chemistry works without interruption.

I have called it the best mystery show ever. I have suggested it possibly could be the best TV ever. Episodes like "A Lesson in Murder" justify my opinion. Add to the mix David Tennant (Dr. Who) and Sophia Myles (Dr. Who and Maple), the question of conscientious objectors, and the state secret of casket building and you have a majestic drama-mystery, perhaps the greatest TV ever.

Number one cannot beat it, but greatness is not solely measured in TV performances, but also in other ways. Thus, the greatest mystery series cannot be anything other than...

1. Sherlock Holmes

In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle changed the world when he introduced the first private consulting detective. With deductive reasoning that beggared belief, Holmes and Watson embarked on adventure after adventure changing the face of literature. In the age where nothing was beyond man's ability to deduct, fantastic and what at other times would be considered magical events were brought under Holmes' deductive microscope to bring into reason.

Adaptation after adaptation have arisen in popular culture. From Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr., many have played the greatest detective of all time. Currently two adaptations takes this monolithic character into the twenty-first century. Between Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock wins by a mile, thanks to its innovative writing at the hands of current Dr. Who show runners, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat.

Despite this modern love, Sherlock Holmes will ever be Jeremy Brett. From 1984, Brett epitomized Holmes for a decade. Producing over 40 stories, no other face or characterization so perfectly brought to life the Victorian detective.

Still, my dedication to Holmes remains firmly attached to the written page. Nothing has ever surpassed it in quality or variety. No other option presently available could ever surmount the grandfather of all mystery.

These are my Top Ten. Now, O tempora, O mores, O Internet open thy mouth and tell me how I err.

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