Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
B.J. And The Bear (Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images); Baywatch (Photo:All American TV, Inc./Hulton Archive/Getty Images); and Murder, She Wrote (Photo: CBS/Getty Images)

Murder, they wrote/swam/hauled: 12 professions that translate to TV crime-fighting

B.J. And The Bear (Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images); Baywatch (Photo:All American TV, Inc./Hulton Archive/Getty Images); and Murder, She Wrote (Photo: CBS/Getty Images)
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse

On Sunday, March 11, ABC raises the curtain on Deception, a new crime drama in which Jack Cutmore-Scott plays Cameron Black, a world-class illusionist who’s drafted into an FBI consulting gig after scandal derails his career. Hailing from former Chuck writer Chris Fedak and magician David Kwong, the show is a smilingly lightheaded bit of escapist fun, and the latest addition to a television fraternity that gets about as much respect as an actual magician: procedurals in which a character’s skills in one unrelated profession translate—as if by magic!—into crime-solving expertise. In its demands on the willing suspension of disbelief and disregard for real-world standards of investigation, it’s a type of programming that’s easily mocked—and sometimes rightfully so. But it’s also one with deep literary roots—Who is Murder, She Wrote’s writing sleuth Jessica Fletcher if not Agatha Christie and Miss Marple all rolled up into one person?—and a long TV history that runs through some of the medium’s most innovative shows. So, yes, give Deception grief for watering down and inverting the Now You See Me films for primetime. Just don’t forget that Cameron Black’s log-line illusions were once good enough for the likes of John Cassavetes, Maddie Hayes, and David Addison Jr., too.

1. Author

Reinvention is the heartbeat of Murder, She Wrote: Following the death of her husband, New England educator Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) adopted the nom de plume “J.B.” to become a bestselling author of detective fiction. That subject matter, along with her standing in the community and old-fashioned rectitude, led to a second second calling, unraveling murder mysteries as attentively and diligently as she wove them. Though, being intimately acquainted with a killer’s mind-set and adjacent to so, so many homicides, theories abound as to the bike-riding pride of Cabot Cove and her potential involvement in the crimes.

Murder, She Wrote rode that formula to 12 seasons of consistent finishes near the top of the Nielsens, give or take the couple of years in which a fatigued Lansbury stepped back her commitment to the series, and some of Jessica’s acquaintances from law enforcement, private investigation, and British intelligence took the investigative lead. Nearly 20 years later, a pair of comedically inclined series drafted off of Murder, She Wrote’s premise, but started with fatigued protagonists: In Castle and Bored To Death, writers of differing fortunes look to crime-solving as a distraction from their work. For Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion)—who has sales to match Jessica and an attitude to go with one of her haughtier suspects—killing off his most popular character in a fit of pique leads not to Misery-style consequences, but to a consulting job with the NYPD and made-for-shipping friction with Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). For Bored To Death’s Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman), the life of a PI is a welcome break from unsold novels and assignments from an eccentric magazine editor played by Ted Danson—though the love connection it eventually leads him to is a little stickier. [Erik Adams]

2. Psychic

This is actually an easy pivot, as there’s already some precedent for the use of psychics by law enforcement. But if you already have some supernatural ability, why not just solve the cases on your own? If you’re the Ghost Whisperer, you’re a sixth-generation medium who owns an antiques shop, so you do it pro bono. But sometimes, these powers come at a much higher personal cost—on The Dead Zone, a coma led to Johnny Smith’s (Anthony Michael Hall) ability to tap into the mythical unused or “dead” part of his brain. There are a couple of caveats: Unlike “Hollywood Medium” Tyler Henry, you can’t always summon a ghost or a vision at will, which is bound to affect your caseload. Also, freaking out because you see into someone’s future every time you shake hands is bound to affect your social life. [Danette Chavez]

3. Sham psychic

In the battle between authentic and fake psychics, the poseurs have a clear advantage. They coast on the bona fides of the real deal and link up with police precincts without suffering from any painful flashbacks from someone else’s life. But, they do have to produce results, otherwise they won’t be able to keep buying the pineapples and whatever fruit the fake psychic turned legit investigator enjoyed on CBS’ glossy Psych knockoff, The Mentalist. Luckily, Psych’s Shawn Spencer has an eidetic memory, extraordinary observational skills, and police training courtesy of his dad, which all come in handy. The Mentalist’s Patrick Jane, meanwhile, has a similar set of very particular skills, but assists a completely different law enforcement group. On their respective shows, Shawn and Patrick solve cases by making very educated guesses and recalling things that slip the minds of most murderers. It’s a career move so obvious that we watched it play out twice on TV. [Danette Chavez]

4. The clergy

If it weren’t for confidentiality privilege, there’d be no one on heaven or Earth as good at drawing out a confession as a member of the priesthood. But that hasn’t put a stop to the litany of cozy mysteries that counts Sidney Chambers, Fathers Brown and Dowling, and Sister Stephanie among its adherents, a sect of holy men and women following their vows to commit righteous acts to the furthest logical conclusion. Chambers (James Norton), the vicar of Grantchester, is the most complex of these clerical shamuses, a World War II vet who nurses whiskey and class-defying feelings for his childhood love, Amanda (Morven Christie), between assisting in the cases overseen by Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). This good priest/bad cop unit speaks to the reason so many authors have gone to this particular fictional font: Chambers and his colleagues are uniquely situated to know and communicate with their communities, either because the people trust them so innately, or, like streetwise Father Dowling Mysteries sidekick Sister Stephanie (Tracy Nelson), they are one of the people. As evidenced in Lanigan’s Rabbi—a short-lived spoke on the NBC Mystery Movie wheel—it’s a concept that cuts across faiths; the Peacock even once tried to do it in reverse, casting George Kennedy in the title role of Sarge, about a San Diego cop who trades his badge for a collar while continuing to advise his colleagues at the precinct. [Erik Adams]

5. Botanist and/or gardener

And why shouldn’t botanists and gardeners get their own detective show, huh? After all, they’re detail-oriented, unafraid of getting their hands dirty, and constantly immersed in the sex-and-death filled world of the local greenhouse. (Reminder: If you’re looking at a plant, it’s probably either dead or fucking.) The titular Rosemary & Thyme—one’s a former cop with an interest in home gardening! The other’s a university botanist done wrong by the scuzzy men in her life!—were a little less hard-boiled, admittedly, spending three seasons just trying to have a quiet weekend in the garden without someone getting turned into plant food around them. No such luck, though; a sample plot description includes lines like, “While restoring a churchyard for an upcoming fayre for a local vicar, the pair are shocked to come across the body of a local man next to an ancient yew tree where they are working,” suggesting that most of their victims might have simply overdosed on pure, uncut Britishness. On the plus side, when your detectives—played with a cheerful gentleness, undiminished by the mounting body count around them, by Pam Ferris and Felicity Kendal—spend all their time in the garden, at least you’re never far from a shovel to help you clear away the mess. [William Hughes]

6. Accountant

Ask any accountant and they will tell you that they are truly the “detectives” of the financial world—really going on and on about it, just happy to have someone to talk to. That was the reasoning behind the short-lived, but fondly remembered Andy Barker, P.I., which found Andy Richter playing a straitlaced CPA who inherits a private investigator’s old office space, along with his clients. Barker’s embrace of detective work—reluctant at first, then increasingly enthusiastic—mostly stems from his own moral righteousness, but he soon finds that the accountant’s meticulous eye for detail and endless patience for the piecemeal, often tedious nature of gathering information also suits the PI lifestyle. Even if, ultimately, he would much rather be sifting through Form 1040s (finance’s own femme-fatale-with-incredible-gams). [Sean O’Neal]

7. Lifeguard

As the most unflinching depiction of the beach ever committed to the screen, Baywatch faithfully captured all the various job hazards and responsibilities of being a lifeguard: Saving people from drowning. Saving people from shark attacks. Saving people from earthquakes. Saving people from not having sex with lifeguards. And of course, solving crimes. The swimsuit-clad Sherlocks of the syndicated ’90s jiggle-fest regularly found themselves mixing it up with drug lords and serial killers in between more boilerplate soap-opera shenanigans, eventually leading to a spin-off, Baywatch Nights, that found David Hasselhoff’s Mitch Buchannon officially leaving lifeguarding to co-found a beachfront detective agency—one that soon branched out into busting ghosts and other paranormal threats. It’s a natural evolution from giving CPR to analyzing clues; after all, at least 90 percent of detective work involves breathing. [Sean O’Neal]

8. Truck driver/Chimpanzee

You see a lot of things when you’re crisscrossing America’s highways and byways from behind the wheel of a semi, your trusty pet chimpanzee by your side. With all that accrued street wisdom, it only makes sense that someone—usually an attractive young woman—will see you pulling into a honky-tonk parking lot, then say to themselves, “That truck-driving stranger and his hat-wearing ape buddy are surely the only ones who can help me with my problems.” This was the airtight premise of the 1979-1981 series B.J. And The Bear, anyway, which found Billie Joe “B.J.” McKay (future My Two Dads star Greg Evigan) and chimpanzee Bear (a chimpanzee) helping myriad comely lasses out of jams. In navigating his way around various local underworlds, B.J. utilizes the tactical training he picked up as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, along with all the innate charm and shrewd social graces of the trucker. And Bear throws things. Crime doesn’t stand a chance against this kind of combined skill set, unless it somehow proves to be more complicated than that. [Sean O’Neal]

9. Jazz pianist

While he was finishing the second cut of his directorial debut, Shadows, John Cassavetes was also hot-footing between Greenwich Village haunts in the guise of Johnny Staccato, a hard-boiled private eye with one proven method for blowing off steam: tickling the ivories down at a basement joint called Waldo’s. Staccato’s passion was jazz, but he did the PI thing to pay the bills; his standing gig at Waldo’s gives him an edge with cases and information that might otherwise go overlooked by the authorities—if his clients were even the type to go to the authorities in the first pace. The series’ star internalized that squares-versus-beats conflict: “Cassavetes projects so much nervous energy,” J. Hoberman wrote in a 2005 retrospective, “that virtually every show has his character divided against himself.” In an instance of life imitating art, Cassavetes largely did Johnny Staccato for the money that allowed him to make his movies his way, a bankroll that brought Shadows to completion and formed a nest egg for future independent efforts. (Though Too Late Blues, a studio picture about another uncompromising musician, wasn’t too far behind.) [Erik Adams]

10. Hockey player

More than half of players in the National Hockey League hit the ice for fewer than 100 games in their career, so they’re probably always mulling a second occupation. Private Eyes’ Matt Shade hung around longer than most, plugging his way through the minor leagues, brushing shoulder pads with the greats, and finally, scouting new talent. That third phase of his hockey career is what opens doors for him as a private eye—apparently, being able to recognize a beautician (that’s a hockey term for you no-stickers) can also help you nab a murderer, arsonist, etc. And being a handsome former jock played by Jason Priestley means you get a gorgeous partner played by Cindy Sampson, who grew up in the gumshoe business. [Danette Chavez]

11. Modeling

During its mercurial run on ABC, Moonlighting brought an unparalleled level of medium-bending, screwball sophistication to second-career sleuthing. It was all wrapped up in the motormouthed team creator Glenn Gordon Caron chose to pick up the clues: Charming scoundrel David Addison Jr. (Bruce Willis) and whip-smart former model Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd). Through some intense accounting malfeasance, Maddie found herself managing the private investigation firm she’d previously purchased as a tax write-off, which she rechristened the Blue Moon Detective Agency in honor of the shampoo campaign that made her famous. But modeling, like so many aspects of Moonlighting’s approach to whodunit tradition, is a red herring, a biographical detail accounting for the professionalism and the worldliness necessary for creating sparks when it rubbed up against Addison’s reckless earthiness. It was also an early sign of the wrecking ball Moonlighting took to the fourth wall: Shepherd, star of ’70s cinema and the onetime face of Cover Girl, returning to the spotlight by playing a model turned detective who only became a detective after she herself had faded from the public eye. [Erik Adams]

12. Tycoon

In 1934, Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man proved that you needn’t lose all your money in order to enjoy the glamorous life of the private dick: Marry well like Nick Charles, and interrogations, evidence-gathering, and deduction can be adjacent to your existence of lavish carousing. I Dream Of Jeannie creator Sidney Sheldon gave the late ’70s and early ’80s their very own Nick and Nora in the form of Jonathan (Robert Wagner) and Jennifer Hart (Stefanie Powers), the power couple at the center of Hart To Hart. He’s the CEO of multinational Hart Industries, she’s a reporter, and together they don’t so much seek out mystery as mystery seeks them, whether it comes in guns a-blazing while Jennifer has her hair done at a ritzy salon, or it kidnaps their butler in a case of mistaken identity in the middle of a magic show. For the show to work, the Harts have to work, since their business holdings make them the target of so many nefarious plots; compare that with their contemporary in the adjacent Aaron Spelling production Matt Houston, which cast Lee Horsley as an oilman who wings around Los Angeles in a private helicopter solving crimes because overseeing drilling operations off the West Coast leaves him with so much time on his hands. [Erik Adams]

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