As well as showcasing the quintessential Spinster Detective, the Miss Marple adaptations have plenty to say about England's shifting class structures in the decades after World War II and women's changing roles. It's all played out in microcosm in the fictional village of St Mary Mead.
From the village bobby on his bicycle to elaborate games of cops and robbers in mid-20th century America, detective fiction often harks back to the past. From a feminist perspective, this is a can of worms.
Presenting an unthreatening facade to the world, older women detectives usually conceal razor-sharp investigative skills and intelligence. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is one of the classic examples of these subversive characters.
AMC's The Killing, which recently concluded its first season and has been renewed for a second, is as close to Twin Peaks as 21st century television gets. Set in Seattle, homicide detective Sarah Linden investigates the murder of a teenage girl. That's it - a single murder investigation carried out over 13 hours of television, filled with red herrings, unfolding motives and dead ends. It introduces us to a strong, career-driven female detective. And the critics (to begin with) loved it: Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden has just been nominated for an Emmy. Amid its other nominations, we have director Patty Jenkins, the only woman contender for outstanding director of a drama series.
But for all this, it pales in comparison to the Danish series it is closely based on, Forbrydelsen (The Crime). The star of the show, Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl), is one of the most interesting detective characters for years, female or male, and with all due respect to Enos and Linden, Lund is in a league of her own.
Castle is a guilty pleasure for me. I once watched four episodes of the show in a night because it's well-written, witty, and fun—and has some "strong" female characters front and center—so I want to be able to say, just go and watch it right now, don't even bother reading the rest of the post.
But my inner feminist critic has some issues with the show.
All good characters have a complex back story. But what is it with giving female TV detectives a particularly awful past?
By no means is every female investigator on television shown to be "damaged," but I think there are enough to make up an anecdotal trend. This "damage" is usually crucial in explaining why the character became a detective in the first place and why they are so intent on doing their job.
Are there any explicitly feminist crime TV shows? Prime Suspect, which ran on UK television channel ITV from 1991 to 2006, is surely a contender, starring Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, a female detective breaking into a male-dominated world. It dealt explicitly with issues such as institutional sexism and racism in London's Metropolitan Police force.
It's being remade for US television, with Maria Bello taking on the role of Tennison.
Columbo was the late, great Peter Falk's most well-known role. We knew him by his rumpled mackintosh, his preternatural ability to hone in on the killer within seconds, and his catchphrase, "Just one more thing...." And, of course, the shadowy figure of Mrs. Columbo.