Most of us probably know Hallmark as the greeting card people, but if your cable TV lineup extends beyond the basic selections you may have noticed that somewhere higher up there in the channel range is a creature known as the Hallmark Movie Channel. While Hallmark’s not going to give Hollywood a run for their money anytime soon, they do generate quite a few original movies, including nearly 250 Hallmark Hall of Fame titles alone over the course of several decades.
Among Hallmark’s output of original films are a number of series that might be of interest to mystery fans. They include Jane Doe (starring Lea Thompson), which chronicles the adventures of a soccer mom type, who also happens to work for something known as the Central Security Agency. There is also McBride, which stars John Larroquette as a crime-solving lawyer. And the Jesse Stone movies, although not made for or by Hallmark, air frequently there and chronicle the adventures of the popular Robert B. Parker character.
If you’re keen on something with more of a cozy (for lack of a better word) feel, then two other Hallmark movie series are worth a look. You could try Mystery Woman, starring Kelli Martin and Clarence Williams III as owner and employee at a mystery bookstore, no less, who happen upon various nefarious acts in the course of their everyday lives. Or give Murder 101 a shot, starring Dick Van Dyke as a criminology professor who works to solve crimes with his real-life son Barry Van Dyke, who plays an ex-cop who’s gone into the P.I. biz.
Like most of the other movies mentioned here, Mystery Woman is no longer in production, but still airs periodically on Hallmark. Eleven installments of the series were made between 2003 and 2007. The tone is decidedly cozyish here, as Martin’s character Samantha Kinsey, who has inherited the bookstore from her late uncle, falls into various uncomfortable situations with a frequency that Miss Marple and assorted and sundry other amateur detectives could certainly relate to.
For anyone from my generation Williams is probably best known for his role as Linc, the decidedly hip cop in the TV show, The Mod Squad (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Linc’s impressively massive Afro). In all but the first installment Williams plays the part of Philby, a soft-spoken type who serves as a sort of father figure to Samantha. But all is not what it may seem. Philby’s shadowy past as some sort of government operative is never explained in detail but it comes in handy quite often as the pair solve assorted and sundry crimes. Also in the regular cast, Cassie Hillman, an assistant DA and Samantha’s friend, and the eternally harried and grumpy police chief Connors, who doesn’t go much for amateur detectives messing about in his territory.
Among the crimes the pair tackle, the murder of a prominent writer attending a small-scale mystery convention, of sorts, at the bookstore; a murder of a promoter who’s been working with a squabbling folk trio who were once big and are now attempting a comeback; and the suspicious death of a guest at an upscale spa where part-time photographer Samantha has been doing some work.
In Murder 101, perennial TV favorite Dick Van Dyke teams up with son Barry again—as they did in Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001). This time around Van Dyke the elder plays Dr. Jonathan Maxwell, an amiable criminologist and college professor with an uncanny penchant for happening across real-life crimes outside of the classroom. Son Barry’s character falls more into the standard TV P.I. mode, with his tougher edge, flashy sports car and pronounced fondness for (dare I even speak the word?) dames.
Other Van Dyke family members make appearances in various films in the series. Barry’s sons Shane and Carey appearing in The Locked Room Mystery, bringing the grand total of Van Dykes to four. Arguably one of the more entertaining of the four Murder 101 entries, this one takes New Age culture for a theme, as a popular and rather messianic guru type is found shot to death in a meditation chamber that’s been locked from the inside. When the door is broken down the other inhabitants are found to be in such a deep trance that even a gun firing blanks elicits no response.
Of course, if that’s not enough TV mystery goodness for you, keep in mind that Hallmark Movie Channel is also the home base for reruns of Matlock, with Andy Griffith and Murder, She Wrote, starting Angela Lansbury.