After the success of Columbo, television executives wanted more, because crime did pay. So a slew of police, detective and crime mystery shows got the green light. Some shows made it, most did not.
Police shows were rolled out like Kojak, Streets of San Francisco, Police Story, Police Woman, Starsky & Hutch, Toma, Ironside, Mod Squad, McMillan & Wife, McCloud, Hec Ramsey, Dan August, Get Christie Love and Baretta. Each tried a new angle on the traditional cop show.
Lawyers and private detectives were plentiful in crime-solving shows like Mannix, The Rockford Files, Harry O, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Bronk, Griff, Lanigan’s Rabbi, Amy Prentiss, and Hawkins. The genre was stretched even more to include insurance investigators like Longstreet and Banacek, and even a medical examiner, Quincy, M.E.
Created by Richard Levinson and William Link, who also developed Columbo and Murder She Wrote, they adapted the famous pulp fictional mystery writer character into a weekly series.
Set in 1946, the series was true to the era in characters and style. Ellery was always working on a book when his widowed father, a New York City police inspector was called out on a murder. Naturally, Ellery tags along with his father and got involved in solving the case. Jim Hutton played Ellery, a bachelor and a bit of a square, lives with his father, played by character actor David Wayne. Ellery tended to try his father’s patience, so their dialogue was spirited.
Unlike Columbo, you do not get the see the crime happen, only the process to solve it. When Ellery has enough clues to solve the mystery, he will break the wall and speak directly to the audience. He asks if you, the viewer, have solved the crime with all of the information provided.
Ellery often has competition in cases by other “sleuths”. Ken Swofford played reporter Frank Flanagan, a loud-mouth who will do anything for a scoop. John Hillerman played Simon Brimmer, another detective, who had a radio show and looked to take credit for solving Ellery’s cases.
Peter S. Fisher, who wrote for Columbo and co-created Murder, She Wrote, worked on the series as a writer. Ellery Queen lasted just one season, 23 episodes, but every one had first-class script and each episode had three or four recognizable names in the cast. The same format would be used for Murder, She Wrote which lasted considerably longer. For example, “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party”, the cast included Julie Sommars, Edward Andrews, Jim Backus, Rhonda Fleming and Larry Hagman.
The Snoop Sisters
Not to be outdone, amateur sleuths got into the game. This was long before Jessica Fletcher. In 1973, Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick starred as The Snoop Sisters. One of the sisters was a mystery writer and they frequently ended up involved in solving a crime.
The sisters had a supportive, but sometimes competitive relationship. As two elderly ladies they could parlay their kindly old lady persona into getting information from people, but it sometimes put them in jeopardy.
The Snoop Sisters began as a movie of the week and earned favorable ratings to become a series as part of the rotating NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie group of shows.
Lou Antonio co-starred as a helper to the sisters. Antonio went on to become a major television director.
As part of the Wednesday mystery wheel, the series only aired four times, plus the original movie of the week. When you think of Murder, She Wrote, remember the Snoop sisters got there first.
Hayes and Natwick are delightful together. Airing only every month or so is hard to build an audience, and sadly, this show never developed traction.
If you like something other than car chases, fights and gun play, and if you enjoy Agatha Christie type mysteries, these shows are alternatives. The episodes of both series are available in DVD.