Before Jessica Fletcher: early detective shows starring women

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Early detective shows produced at the dawn of television were ubiquitously centered on male detectives. In the 1950s, the shows had eponymous titles like ‘Casey, Crime Photographer’, ‘Charlie Wilde, Private Detective’, and ‘Craig Kenney, Criminologist’. But it took a while for female detectives to reach the same level or representation on TV.

By 1984, the world saw the premiere of the highly successful Murder, She Wrote starring Angela Lansbury (which is a dominant topic of this blog). The show resonated with viewers so much that by the end of its run in 1996, it was one of the longest running crime drama in the history of television (on par with Hawaii Five-O). Since then, there have been many other female-centric detective shows. But it wasn’t the first show to feature a female detective.

Below, I highlight 12 American TV shows that preceded Murder, She Wrote in not only featuring a female detective, but in which the female detectives were really the only central characters, as evidenced by the fact that each show is actually named after them. Crucially, I have left out shows where a female detective and a male detective get equal billing (apologies to fans of McMillan and Wife, Hart to Hart, and others).

Honey West

The first series that meets these criteria is Honey West, a half-hour show that ran for 30 episodes between September 1965 and April 1966, which centered on the adventures of a sexy, hard-boiled, James Bond-esque private investigator.

Honey West as a character had her start in a series of novels by G. G. Fickling, the pseudonym used by husband and wife team Gloria and Forrest E. “Skip” Fickling. The character, played by Anne Francis, made its first on-screen appearance in a Season 2 episode of Burke’s Law in April 1965. Anne Francis reprised her role as Honey West in the eponymous spin-off shortly thereafter.

Fans of Murder, She Wrote may be interested to know that the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link (two of the creators of Murder, She Wrote) penned 3 of the total 30 episodes of Honey West.

All 30 episodes of this ground-breaking series have been released as part of a complete DVD collection.

The Snoop Sisters

It was a while before another female lead detective show appeared on the screens. The Snoop Sisters, starring Mildred Natwick and Helen Hayes, were very different from Honey West. The two played Gwendolyn Snoop Nicholson and Ernesta Snoop, the elderly aunts of a police detective. Gwendolyn was a widow, poetess, and typist; Ernesta was a spinster and mystery writer.

The show has its start in a pilot movie that first aired in December 1972 (originally titled “The Snoop Sisters” but later retitled “The Female Instinct”). However, some could argue that it had its start even before that with the 1971 TV movie ‘Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate’ (also starring Natwick and Hayes), or indeed any of the Miss Marple movies.

The regular series is comprised of four movies (in addition to the pilot), which aired between December 1973 and March 1974 as part of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie wheel (on weekly rotation with Banacek, Tanafly, and Farraday and Company).

The show was released as a DVD complete collection (which includes the pilot movie).

Police Woman

Once The Snoop Sisters got the ball rolling, several other TV series starring female detectives premiered shortly thereafter. The most well-known and enduring of those was Police Woman starring Angie Dickinson.

Police Woman premiered on September 13th, 1974 and focused on the cases of Sgt. “Pepper” Anderson, an undercover cop working for the fictional Criminal Conspiracy Unit for the Los Angeles Police Department. In total, 91 episodes spanning four seasons were produced.

All four seasons of the show have been released on DVD.

Get Christie Love!

Yet another TV series to feature an undercover female police detective was Get Christie Love! The series was set in New York City and starred Teresa Graves as the titular character, often using the catchphrase “You’re under arrest, Sugah!” whenever she apprehended a criminal.

Get Christie Love! had its start as an ABC ‘Movie of the Week’ that aired in January 1974. The movie was an adaptation of the novel The Ledger by Dorothy Uhnak, and proved popular enough to be spun off as a TV show the following fall. The first regular episode of the TV series premiered on September 11th, 1974. Thus, while many people think that Police Woman was the first hour-long television drama starring a woman (see People magazine cover story November 1978), the reality is that Get Christie Love! beat it to the punch by two days. However, unlike Police Woman, Get Christie Love! lasted only a single season and a total of 23 episodes were ever made.

Although the original pilot movie is available to stream and to purchase on DVD, the remainder of the show is difficult to find.

Amy Prentiss

Amy Prentiss was another short-lived series that premiered in 1974. The series starred Jessica Walter as the titular character–the premise being that she is the first female chief of detectives for the San Francisco Police Department.

The series itself was a spin-off of Ironside (starring Raymond Burr), and had its pilot air in May 1974 as a special two-part season finale of that show. The first regular episode of Amy Prentiss aired as part of the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie wheel in December 1974, together with Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife. However, the show was cancelled in February 1975 after only 3 episodes.

Unfortunately, the series was never released on DVD and remains difficult to find at present.

Kate McShane

Yet another short-lived detective series featuring a woman premiered on September 10th, 1975. Kate McShane starred Anne Meara as the titular character, and was the first series to feature a female lawyer in the lead role. Kate McShane is an Irish American and investigates her cases with the help of her ex-cop father and her Jesuit Priest brother.

Only 11 episodes of the series were ever produced, and two of these never made it to air. The series was cancelled in November 1975, just a couple months after it premiered.

While the series was never released on DVD, I was able to find a digital copy of the pilot episode and upload it to my YouTube channel for fans of TV detectives to watch. You can watch the embedded video below, or click on the button below the video to take you to the YouTube site.

Charlie’s Angels

Although only one of the five series that premiered in the early 1970s survived beyond the first season, network execs hadn’t given up on detective series featuring women entirely. Instead, they picked up on the success of Police Woman and multiplied it by three in the form of Charlie’s Angels.

Charlie’s Angels follows investigations conducted by three women–former police officers who were dissatisfied with their low-stakes assigned jobs at the police force and were subsequently recruited to work as private investigators for the Charles Townsend Agency (i.e. “Charlie”).

The series premiered on September 22nd, 1976 and had a fairly successful run until its eventual cancellation in June 1981. In total, 115 episodes spanning 5 seasons were produced.

The series is available on DVD and to stream via Amazon Prime Video and Tubi.

Nancy Drew

Attempts to produce shows featuring women were few and far between after the mid-1970s. Those that did end up being produced relied on tried-and-true characters to promote their premises. One example of this was a series of episodes featuring the enduringly popular girl detective, Nancy Drew. The character appeared as part of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, which premiered in January 1977, and was played first by Pamela Sue Martin and later by Janet Louise Johnson.

Although at first glance it may seem like The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries doesn’t fit my original criteria (i.e. the female detective must have unique billing), I’ve included it in this list because (at least for the first season) the show behaved more like a TV “wheel” with Hardy Boys episodes alternating with Nancy Drew episodes every other week. However, it must be noted that by Season 2, there were much fewer Nancy Drew episodes produced in comparison to The Hardy Boys episodes, and by Season 3 the Nancy Drew character was dropped entirely.

In total, there were 7 Nancy Drew episodes produced for the first season, with 3 more uniquely Nancy Drew episodes airing in Season 2 in addition to 8 cross-over episodes.

All three seasons of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries have been released on DVD, although (as I previously mentioned) only the first two seasons feature Nancy Drew.

Mrs. Columbo/Kate Loves a Mystery

Another obvious attempt to piggy-back off already successful characters was Mrs. Columbo starring Kate Mulgrew. The show premiered in February 1979, less than a year after Columbo first went off the air after its original run, and it was originally advertised as a spin-off featuring Lieutenant Columbo’s wife–who tries to balance raising a daughter (essentially alone since Lt. Columbo was nowhere to be seen) while working as an investigative journalist.

The show didn’t really resonate with fans, some of whom were upset at the contrived link to Columbo. After the first short 5-episode season the producers tried to remedy the problem by changing her name from Kate Columbo to Kate Callahan, and changing the title of the show to Kate Loves a Mystery for the subsequent season. (The first couple of episodes of Season 2 were also alternatively advertised as Kate the Detective.) However, these changes did not seem to be enough, and the show was ultimately cancelled after producing just 8 more episodes for Season 2 with the final episode airing in March 1980.

The show was never released on DVD in the US, although a French DVD set was released and can be purchased by those who have an appropriate regional DVD player. Additionally, several episodes were included as bonus features on DVD releases of Columbo. I have also created a playlist of Mrs. Columbo episodes on YouTube.

Dear Detective

Just one month after Kate Columbo hit the TV screens, another show featuring a detective named Kate premiered. Dear Detective was a show starring Brenda Vaccaro as Kate Hudson, a police detective and a single mother. (Interestingly, Brenda Vaccaro was one of the original choices to play Kate Columbo but ended up playing a different investigator/mom/Kate.)

The show began as an adaptation of the 1977 French film ‘Tendre Poulet’ (a.k.a. ‘Dear Inspector’). The pilot first aired in March 1979 and only three more episodes aired before the show was cancelled the following month.

Unfortunately, this is another one of those “lost” TV shows. Although it appears that the original pilot movies was released on VHS some years ago, it is now difficult to find it or any of the regular episodes.

Cagney & Lacey

When Charlie’s Angels (at the time the longest-running female-starring detective show) went off the air in 1981, the gap it left behind was quickly filled with another set of police-trained detectives. Cagney & Lacey followed the cases of Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey, two female New York City policewomen who get promoted to work as detectives in a male-dominated department. Cagney was the ambitious single, while Lacey was the family-oriented mother. Thus, the show could appeal to a variety of audiences.

The series had its start as a pilot movie that first aired in October 1981. During its regular run from March 1982 until May 1988, the show was also almost cancelled twice, but ultimately 125 episodes spanning 7 seasons were produced. The show also underwent some cast changes: while Mary Beth Lacey was always placed by Tyne Daley, the role of Christine Cagney was first played by Loretta Swit in the pilot, then by Meg Foster in season 1, before settling on Sharon Gless for the rest of the series.

The complete series has been released on DVD and is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

Cassie & Co.

The final show on this list is Cassie & Co., which premiered in January 1982. Cassie & Co. brought back Angie Dickinson from Police Woman and put her in the role of a resourceful private investigator. The “Co” in Cassie & Co. refers to her secretary Meryl (an ex-con), her muscle Benny (a part-time gym instructor), and her ex-husband Mike (who works for the D.A.’s office).

However, this show too suffered to find its audience and was cancelled in August 1982 after just 13 episodes.

Like most other short-lived TV series, Cassie & Co. was never released on DVD and is otherwise difficult to track down.

[EDIT: July 31st 2021]

Decoy

Some of my blog readers have pointed out that my original list was missing the ground-breaking 1957-1958 series Decoy (also known as Decoy Police Woman). The “decoy” in this case was a police woman named Casey Jones, played by Beverly Garland, who was the only regular cast member. Casey Jones was often assigned to work undercover, and it is easy to see how Decoy influenced the series that came after it. Many of the premises for the early TV shows listed above focused on cases where female police officers were required to go undercover. This was the major premise of Police Woman and Get Christie Love!, and undercover work was also a major plot point in Amy Prentiss, Charlie’s Angels, and Cagney & Lacey.

Some of the episodes of the show have now fallen into the public domain, so you may be able to track them down by doing a simple internet search. Otherwise, all 39 episodes of the show are available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Tubi.


Do you remember watching any of the shows above? Which were your favorites?

And were there any other shows prior to 1984 that I missed adding to the list above?

Let me know in the comments!

2 comments

  1. Excellent write-up! Although, you left out the most groundbreaking lady detective show of all: DECOY (1958-59), which ran for one season of 39 episodes, and starred the wonderful Beverly Garland as undercover cop Casey Jones. Shows such as POLICE WOMAN that came afterward are heavily in its debt. You can stream a few episodes on YouTube but I’d highly recommend picking up the complete DVD set of this excellent show. Actually, I’d love to read an article about it by you — love to get your thoughts on it! Hopefully you’ll check it out and give it a review sometime!

    Like

    1. Thanks for the suggestion! I’m continuously discovering more about shows from the 50s and 60s, and hadn’t heard of Decoy until now. I’ll be sure to check it out, and also add it to my lists 🙂

      Like

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