Too Cool for TV: The Detectives that Time Forgot

Check out Julia Keller's five favorite forgotten TV detectives, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of her latest Bell Elkins novel, Bone on Bone!

Life’s hard. People can be nasty jerks.

Get over it.

That’s the philosophy—as blunt as an uppercut, as bracing as a bourbon and branch for breakfast—shared by a quintet of fictional gumshoes I like to call the Great (But Pretty Much Forgotten) TV Detectives. Those cool, canny investigators who ruled the mean streets of series television in the 1960s and ’70s.

They drove Ford Fairlanes and smoked cigarettes. They called bartenders by their first names. They wore slacks and loafers and sports coats. Sometimes they fell in love—but it never worked out in the long run because love’s for suckers, right? Right. They were prone to raising an eyebrow when somebody said something silly, hypocritical, or suspicious. They had a weakness for kids and stray dogs and old people. Their cases were solved in one-hour increments, back in TV’s Stone Age when there were only three TV networks (oh, the unthinkably cruel torture!).

And they put today’s TV detectives—those hand-wringing, oversensitive wimps in Law & Order: SVU, for instance, or those wisecracking, pretty-boy retreads in Hawaii Five-O—to shame.

Be honest. If you found yourself in a life-or-death fight with a bunch of knife-wielding hooligans in a dark alley at midnight, who would you rather have in your corner: that flaxen-tressed punk from the re-tooled MacGyver—or Joe Mannix?

I think you see my point.

Like me, maybe you didn’t get to see these shows the first time around. Maybe you were too young or hadn’t even been born yet or were too busy or whatever. But thanks to the magic of nostalgia-themed cable networks, anybody can watch them now. So go do it, willya? Before I have to clock you one.

Here are my top five Forgotten TV Detective Shows, ranked in order of what I call the Cool Quotient:

Peter Gunn (1958-61)

Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn.

The coolest of the cool. So cool, in fact, that if you tried to change the channel in the middle of an episode, your fingers got freezer burn. Craig Stevens starred as a sleek private eye who wrapped up cases and beat up bad guys while inducing nary a wrinkle in his expensive suit. The jazz score—heavy on the snare drums—kept things lively. It was the musical equivalent of caffeine.

Harry O (1974-76)

David Janssen as Harry O.

The brooding loner played by David Janssen made an art form out of being a curmudgeon. He had a bad back and a bad attitude. The former came from an on-the-job injury; the attitude came from life. The show lightened up a bit halfway through its first season, but Janssen’s baggy, world-weary, seen-it-all face, with those haunted, hollowed-out eyes, still offered a bitter, irrefutably bleak commentary on whatever befell him. He made a fetish out of depression, and it suited him well.

Mannix (1967-75)

Mike Connors as Joe Mannix.

He ran. He jumped. He punched. He fired guns. He drove fast cars. He smoked cigarettes. And Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) did it all without ever having to re-comb his amazing hair. That hair was a black block of lacquered beauty. The show had a great theme song too, composed by Lalo Schifrin, who also came up with the classic Mission: Impossible theme.

Honey West (1965-66)

Anne Francis as Honey West with her ocelot, Bruce.

Anne Francis played the sexy, clever detective with a pet ocelot and a yen for getting into tight scrapes—and even tighter clothes. She was witty and slightly ditzy, like a cross between Dorothy Parker and Parker Posey.

Cannon (1971-76)

William Conrad as Frank Cannon.

William Conrad, who played the plus-sized detective Frank Cannon, had a voice that even God probably coveted: It was just that stentorian and important-sounding. (Remember Rocky and Bullwinkle? Conrad was the narrator.) The series was only so-so, but Conrad was gruffly appealing; he endured cracks about his girth with a good-natured acknowledgment that, yeah, okay, he enjoyed a nice meal now and again. So what’s the big deal?

Runners-up: That puckish private eye Jim Rockford (James Garner) in The Rockford Files (1974-80) and that wasp-waisted scalawag James West (Robert Conrad) in The Wild Wild West (1965-69). To be honest, the only reason Rockford—as smooth as single-malt Scotch, as handsome as George Clooney but about nine times as smart—didn’t make the top five is that he’s not at all forgotten.

So if you like your crime stories simple and pithy and your detectives elegant and unflappable and your dialogue earnest instead of snarky, then hop in the best time machine currently in existence—cable TV—and pay an office call on Joe, Harry, Pete, Honey, or Frank. If you’ve got a problem, they’ll solve it. If you’re in a fix, they’ll get you out of it. If you’re in a funk, they’ll cheer you up.

Just don’t ask to borrow the Ford Fairlane or try to weasel out of the retainer. They’re nice—but they’re not that nice.

Read an excerpt from Julia Keller’s Bone on Bone, then check out Amber Keller’s review!

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Bone on Bone by Julia Keller!

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  1. Sandy Blood

    Don’t forget Thomas Magnum!

  2. Daniel M

    sounds like a fun one

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  4. Susanne Troop

    Sounds great!

  5. Sandra

    Harry O was my favorite! He sure didn’t look or act like anybody’s hero, but he always saved the day. It’s like if Columbo and Rockford had a baby…

  6. Carolyn

    Looks like a great book! While Jim Rockford (James Garner) in The Rockford Files didn’t make the top five, I’m glad he was included as a runner-up.

  7. Gwen Ellington

    Even the title sounds exciting!

  8. Stephanie L Nelson

    This looks great! I’ve been really wanting to read this book!

  9. Beth T.

    What a fun list. What I remember about watching Harry O as a little girl was his blazers, which I thought were like the ones my dad wore to work. The other day I was watching a rerun of “Leverage” in which the characters went to a “Murder Mystery” party, dressed as famous detectives, and encountered someone dressed as Mannix; he pointed to the very wide tie he was wearing as a hint. Funny what people notice and think is the “most important thing”.

  10. pat murphy

    Love a good mystery .

  11. Michele McAlister

    Ohhh…What about Robert Urich as either Dan Tana in Vegas! or Spenser for Hire!!
    Bone on Bone looks like a great book!

  12. Elena Y.

    This book sounds a great mystery! Would love to have the chance to read it =)

  13. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  14. Michael Carter

    Yes, please count me in for this sweepstakes.

  15. Kathy

    Can’t wait to read it.

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  17. Lori P

    Except for Peter Gunn, I watched all of these. Sometimes it was because there wasn’t much else on TV (way back then), but I grew to follow them avidly.

  18. Karen Mikusak

    Sounds great! Would love to win.

  19. Jean Barber

    Oh, I’d love to read this one right now!

  20. April

    Wonderful and captivating. I grew up watching these unforgettable characters who embody real detectives from the old days.

  21. ellie

    Fabulous and memorable. Would enjoy greatly.

  22. carloshmarlo

    Peter Gunn has the coolest theme music of all time. Have a listen: . Thanks for the chance to win!!!

  23. Esther Whatley

    Hard to resist a book with such a great title.

  24. susan beamon

    I haven’t forgotten them. I’d add Mr drake from Perry Mason as even more forgotten.

  25. Vivian Taylor

    Great list of TV detectives. Love the Bell Elkins series (and it’s not just a WV thing although I’m a fellow West Virginian).

  26. John Smith

    I’m going to look up that 1980s reworking of the “Peter Gunn” theme! That was so cool!

  27. Laurent L

    I’ve never seen any of these. I’ll have to track down some episodes.

  28. Janet Gould

    Great list. I remember them all.

  29. RD

    Sounds like a great read!

  30. L

    Some of my favorite detectives! Look forward to reading your book!

  31. Darlene Slocum

    Just think-they did it without cell phones! Jake and the Fat Man. Good times.

  32. DebP

    Sounds good. TV detective shows also had the best musical themes.

  33. Susan Morris

    Nice to see someone do well that was born in my home state of West Virginia! Looking forward to reading your latest book. I have to say that I am old enough to remember each of these detective shows. Loved them!

  34. Karen Terry

    I like all of her TV detectives.

  35. Dianna Young

    Love detective/ mysteries. And a chance to win!

  36. Sally Schmidt

    Yes, those were the best shows. Nothing to compare now.

  37. jane

    I have not read this author before but I would like to now.

  38. Barbara Bates

    Love the old-school detectives!

  39. Andrew Beck

    Glad to see Honey West on this list. The old TV detectives were a different sort from today’s anguished, haunted detectives–they had keen intelligence, sometimes really ironic wit and would get beat up with alarming frequency!

  40. teresa sopher

    What about Barnaby Jones????

  41. LabRat517

    You hit three of my favorites! I loved Cannon, Mannix, and I really loved Harry O. I haven’t seen the other two yet but you’ve got me on a quest now. Maybe Netflix will take a hint and start adding some of these classics. I would love a good binge of all three.

  42. Mary Carter

    I love books!

  43. Jane Schwarz

    I do remember all of them, that’s what a detective, private or otherwise, needs to be. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of “Bone on Bone”.


    Love your selection of free books!

  45. Continue erectie

    What’s up, this weekend is good designed for me, for the reason that this moment i
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  46. M Thompson

    There are golden oldies tv stations in Arizona (land of the white haired retirees) & one station shows Rockford quite often. Love watching James Garner. The book sounds like an interesting read.

  47. Patrick McInish

    Chandler and Company, Pie in the sky and City of Angels

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