Why do we find murder mysteries so uniquely relaxing? This is one of the age-old questions about human nature, up there with ‘what is consciousness?’ and ‘why do we keep eating mouldy cheese and fish eggs like it’s a good thing?’ Because, despite the grief and blood and mountains of paperwork that a gruesome murder causes, we simply can’t get enough of curling up on the sofa with a mug of tea and a cosy crime drama to keep us blissfully entertained all the way through to bedtime.
This isn’t a new thing, either: while modern series like Death in Paradise and Shakespeare and Hathaway are the current champions of cosy crime TV, back in the eighties and nineties classics like Murder She Wrote and Hetty Wainthropp Investigates taught us how it’s done. So whether you’re after the latest in the cosy crime genre or some more nostalgic viewing, here are the best of the best, from the UK, USA and Australia:
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
Transporting us back to 1920s Melbourne, the Australian Miss Fisher series is based on Kerry Greenwood’s historical mystery novels, and centres on the sassy, fast-living black-bobbed private detective Phryne Fisher (played by Essie Davis, The Babadook), who goes around annoying all the male detectives by being a woman. Fisher doesn’t let a silly little thing like a corpse get in the way of her constant flirting with the dishy Constable Hugh Collins, at one point seductively asking him “would you like to take a look at the body with me?” to which he suggestively replies “Is that an invitation?” while some poor soul is lying there freshly murdered. It’s cheeky, glamorous escapism and also has some excellent appearances from the legendary Miriam Margolyes (Call The Midwife), who plays Miss Fisher’s long-suffering aunt.
Where to watch: Acorn (US, UK and AUS), NOW (UK), Netflix (AUS)
In the original novel series, Agatha Raisin is a cantankerous old bat, but she’s softened and perked up in the 2016 TV series thanks to Ashley Jensen’s altogether more scatty-yet-sexy portrayal of the eponymous amateur sleuth. Agatha Raisin is a hotshot PR guru who decides to jack it all in and move to a sleepy Cotswolds village – a sleepy Cotswolds village that also happens to be cock-full of murders. She finds herself reluctantly embroiled in it all at first, with her former colleague Roy (Mathew Horne, Gavin and Stacey) egging her on from the sidelines, but she quickly gets a taste for crime-solving. The impressive cast also features Katy Wix (Ghosts), Marcia Warren (The Crown) and Robert Bathurst (Cold Feet), so we’re in comfortingly safe hands here.
Where to watch: Acorn (US and AUS), NOW (UK)
Rosemary and Thyme
Just four words is all it takes to explain why you should watch Rosemary and Thyme – and they are “Felicity Kendal” and “Pam Ferris”. Whoever managed to pair up these two national treasures and get them to star as amateur gardening detectives Rosemary Boxer and Laura Thyme deserves the Nobel Prize for Cosy Crime, because this is the epitome of the genre. They quite literally dig up clues to some very adorable PG murders, and use their ‘sweet old ladies’ act to extract secrets and confessions from the suspects. It’s filled with wicked wit and prize begonias, and deservedly raked in up to eight million viewers when the three series aired on ITV from 2003.
Where to watch: BritBox (US and AUS), ITVX (UK)
The Doctor Blake Mysteries
Get your Moody Detective Bingo cards out: police surgeon Dr Lucien Blake (aka eighties Neighbours star Craig McLachlan) is a full house – and he’s not even a detective. He’s haunted by the war (the series is set in the late 1950s). He’s living in his late father’s shadow. He’s got a drinking problem. He’s dishy in a sort of troubled way because of traumatic secrets from his past. And – like Emilia Fox as pathologist Nikki Alexander in Silent Witness – he inexplicably solves the crimes even though that’s not his job. There’s five series of this Aussie gem, which also stars Nadine Garner and Joel Tobeck (Sons of Anarchy), and the vintage cars and hairdos only add to the charm.
Where to watch: BritBox (US), NOW (UK)
Daytime dramas really shouldn’t be this good, but the BBC spoils us with Father Brown, which is understandably about to go into its 11th series. Set in the 1950s and based on G K Chesterton’s short stories, Father Brown stars The Fast Show’s Mark Williams (aka Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter films) as the scruffy-but-lovable, crime-solving priest, alongside his trusty “Girl Friday” Bridgette (Sorcha Cusack, A Discovery of Witches), and other tried-and-trusted acting pedigree like Tom Chambers (Holby City), Emer Kenny (EastEnders) and enough recognisable faces that you’ll need to keep IMDb close to hand. It’s campy, fun and with just enough peril to keep you entertained while still remaining a warm hug in detective drama form.
Where to watch: BritBox (US and AUS), NOW and BBC iPlayer (UK)
Sister Boniface Mysteries
This Father Brown spin-off, which is also set in the fifties, stars comedian Lorna Watson as the gutsy and resourceful Sister Boniface, who – not content with being just a nun – also dabbles in forensic science for the local constabulary. Like most village detective series, there’s an alarming number of murders for such a quiet rural area, but Sister Boniface isn’t perturbed. Watson stars alongside Max Brown (Nolly) as the local DI, and it’s similarly quirky and entertaining as the original Father Brown (Williams himself also pops up in one episode). There are two series so far and a third on the way.
Where to watch: BritBox (US and AUS), UKTV Play (UK)
Hetty Wainthropp Investigates
Fresh from earning herself “national treasure” status as Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances, Patricia Routledge earned herself another regular spot on the 1990s TV schedule as the unflappable amateur sleuth Hetty Wainthropp. She brings her textbook wit and flawless delivery to the role, and her detecting skills are generally put to the test on altogether more original crimes than murder: for instance, locating a missing bird watcher, thwarting some smugglers in a Yorkshire fishing village, or finding out why finalists in a local singing competition are mysteriously losing their voices. Her sidekick is Lord of the Rings star Dominic Monaghan. There are sadly just four series of this delicious nineties gem, but they’re well worth revisiting.
Where to watch: BritBox (US and UK)
Agatha Christie’s eagle-eyed crime-solving spinster Miss Marple has been brought to life on screen many times, but nowhere so extensively as the six series of Marple on ITV in the noughties. It also featured two superb actresses in the lead role: first, Geraldine McEwan, and when she retired, Julia McKenzie (Gold Digger). All the classic Marple stories are covered in their pleasingly formulaic way – The Body in the Library, 4.50 From Paddington – but the series also takes some sizeable liberties with the source material, inserting Marple into Christie stories that never originally featured her, like Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? This episode is also a perfect example of Marple’s remarkable casting calibre, including Richard Briers (The Good Life), Rik Mayall (Bottom), Mark Williams (Father Brown, above), and a young Georgia Tennant (Staged) and Freddie Fox (White House Farm). The six series are worth watching for the celeb-spotting alone.
Where to watch: ITVX (UK), BritBox (US), Acorn (AUS)
Shakespeare and Hathaway
It’s the perfect formula: take two well-loved actors – Mark Benton (Waterloo Road) and Jo Joyner (EastEnders) – give them silly names (Frank Hathaway and Luella Shakespeare, respectively), and make them into lovably-daft-but-somehow-effective private detectives gadding about Stratford-Upon-Avon (aka Bard country) with a comedic, if sometimes cliched, script. The result is genuinely very entertaining, lighter than air, with plenty of Shakespeare lines crowbarred in for good measure. There are four series, including a Christmas special, and we’re keeping fingers crossed for an as-yet-unconfirmed series five.
Where to watch: BritBox (US and AUS), NOW and BBC iPlayer (UK)
The Madame Blanc Mysteries
If you like the sound of Shakespeare and Hathaway, then The Madame Blanc Mysteries should also be firmly on your radar: it, too, combines crime and comedy in a deliciously daft script, and has the added bonus of being set in picturesque southern France. Sally Lindsay (Coronation Street) stars as Jean White, an antiques dealer who becomes an amateur mystery-solver after a tragic accident kills her husband, sending her down to France to unravel the truth about his death, among other strange happenings. Her sidekick is the equally comedic Steve Edge (Phoenix Nights) as taxi driver Dom, and the series also benefits from excellent names like Sue Holderness (Only Fools and Horses) as the eccentric local “lady of the château”, Robin Askwith (Benidorm) as her husband, and even has comedic guest roles for entertainers like Les Dennis and Paul Chuckle. Channel 5 has broadcast two series of The Madame Blanc Mysteries so far, and a third is in the works.
Where to watch: Acorn
Murder, They Hope
A bit of a hidden gem, Murder, They Hope started life as a trio of TV films on Gold, each with Christie-inspired names that had been given a northern twist, like Murder on the Blackpool Express and Dial M for Middlesbrough. The stars are two comedy powerhouses, Johnny Vegas (Benidorm) and Sian Gibson (Car Share), who start out running a failing coach business, and then – after solving a series of mysterious (and unlikely) happenings on their coach trips, like a suspicious death of an OAP and an ill-fated cruise – become full-time PIs. The initial films include the great Una Stubbs’ final performance, and the subsequent two series of Murder, They Hope are a veritable who’s-who of comedy greats, like Lee Mack (Not Going Out), Sarah Hadland (Miranda), and Jason Manford (Ordinary Lies). Silly, but great fun.
Where to watch: BritBox (US), NOW (UK)
Death In Paradise
When moody, hapless detectives need to learn a thing or two about themselves, they seem to get shipped out to a posting in the French Caribbean – well, according to Death in Paradise, anyway. First, it was Ben Miller (Bridgerton) who arrived on the fictional island of Saint Marie to investigate the murder of a British police officer, then it was Kris Marshall (who is definitely not Doctor Who), then Ardal O’Hanlon (My Hero) and the most recent recruit is Ralf Little (The Royle Family). Their fellow police colleagues are a lovable bunch including Danny John-Jules (Red Dwarf), Don Warrington (New Street Law) and Sara Martins. It’s formulaic in the extreme, shamelessly uses the gorgeous scenery as a major part of its appeal, and the comedy is on the light and fluffy side, but it’s also hugely popular for all of the above reasons, and endlessly comforting to watch. There are 12 seasons to enjoy, with at least two more confirmed.
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer and Sky (UK), BritBox (US and AUS)
The first series of this Death in Paradise spin-off swaps the Caribbean for the Devonshire coast, where Kris Marshall (aka DI Humphrey Goodman) has relocated to the small hometown of his partner Martha (Sally Bretton, Not Going Out). It’s got a fresher feel than Death in Paradise, with the rural police force a lively, haphazard bunch comprising the gutsy DS Williams (Zahra Ahmadi, The Bay), golden-retriever-in-human-form PC Hartford (Derry Girls’ Dylan Llewellyn) and eccentric office support Margo (Felicity Montagu, Alan Partridge). Although it’s generally light-hearted, there are some unexpectedly poignant moments in Humphrey and Martha’s relationship, which only adds to the show’s potential. Series two is already in production.
Where to watch: BBC iPlayer (UK), BritBox (US), Binge (AUS)
Murder, She Wrote
The much-missed Angela Lansbury is the original cosy crime queen as amateur detective and inexplicably successful novelist Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, which ran for 12 seasons between 1984 and 1996. Wherever she goes, not only do people seem to drop like flies in mysterious circumstances, the police don’t have a clue what they’re doing, so it’s up to Jessica Fletcher to get to the bottom of whodunnit. As for guest stars, it’s almost quicker to list who hasn’t been in Murder, She Wrote – esteemed alumni to watch out for include George Clooney, Lesley Nielsen, Courteney Cox and a very young Neil Patrick Harris and Joaquin Phoenix. A true classic of the genre.
Where to watch: Peacock (US, and UK for Sky subscribers), Foxtel (AUS), weekdays from 5pm on Great TV (UK)
Cagney and Lacey
Thanks to this show, there’s one mystery we haven’t got to solve: namely, the mystery of which TV series has the greatest intro music of all time (it’s even parodied in any detective-themed episodes of Hey Duggee). Once you’ve got past this absolute banger, you’re in for a rollercoaster ride of 1980s New York crime-fighting, with the winning detective combination of Sharon Gless (Queer as Folk) as Christine Cagney and Tyne Daly (Judging Amy) as Mary Beth Lacey always on the case. There are guns, hairdos, misogyny, oodles and wit and yet more hairdos. The show ran for seven glorious years in the eighties, and in every one of these years either Daly or Gless won Best Leading Actress at the Emmys, and with good reason.
Where to watch: Stream on Roku (US), and available to buy on Apple TV and Prime Video (UK)