Crime Authors On Their Favorite TV Shows

I have never written a crime story that wasn’t influenced, in some small part, by The Shield. From the whip crack of the pilot right through the brutal finale, Shawn Ryan’s gang of LA cops was a veritable showcase of men and women who alternated seamlessly between charming and corrupt, who were complex and messy without ever fully sacrificing the audience’s sympathy and understanding of what made each of them tick. Ryan turned Michael Chiklis’ roly-poly Commish into the jacked and nasty Vic Mackey and gave us Walton Goggins, then a bit player with a hy-yuck accent, now a bona fide star with an Emmy nomination and an Oscar win. And I’ve never written a detective that wasn’t, in part, influenced by Jay Karnes’ awkward-but-brilliant Dutch Wagenbach, even giving him a shout-out in my debut novel, THE BIG REWIND.

For crime writers, TV can not only serve the purpose of helping us chill at the end of a long writing session, but can also inspire our work. Below, six authors reflect on their favorite detectives, cops and crime lords.

The Wire, hands down. not only does it feature the work of some of my favorite mystery novelists, like George Pelecanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane – it’s masterminded by David Simon, who wrote the book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets and was involved in that excellent show. It’s a fictional crime story that is both Shakespearean yet also feels like a documentary. The characters and stories feel lived in and honest, and the viewer isn’t given training wheels. You have to pay attention. And it does what crime fiction should do – tells a great, compelling story but also makes you think about the world around you. A masterpiece.


My favorite is Crime Story, the ’60s-era show produced by Michael Mann to run after Miami Vice, starring Dennis Farina. It rode in on the wave of Fifties nostalgia like a chopped and channeled Merc lead sled crushing Happy Days and Back to the Future beneath its whitewall tires. Farina plays Lt. Mike Torello, and it was rare to see any Italian names on TV back then other than mobsters and “The Big Ragu” on Laverne & Shirley, so that helped. He goes after the Chicago mob, led by kingpin Ray Luca, in a multi-season arc long before the current “golden age” of television claimed to invent such complex storylines. I watched it with my mother and grandmother, and was introduced to the ugly truth of police work, the complexity behind big takedowns of organized crime, and the human side of both policing and crime, all in one show. It influenced my writing by showing me the human frailty of our heroes and villains, and sometimes, how alike they are.


One of my all-time favorite cop shows is NYPD Blue, but I didn’t watch it when it originally aired, so I missed out on how transgressive and genre-shaking it was for its time. Even without that hook, it hit me hard. I was drawn in by how powerfully the characters are written: everyone is deeply flawed, yet they all have their moments of grace. That’s definitely something that stays with me while I write.


Hillstreet Blues was the show for me. It was a show that peeled away the veneer and put a spotlight on the chaos that could be big city policing. It also showed that cops came in all shades and flavors, that they could be incredibly brave one moment and incredibly petty the next. It also featured women as more than secondary characters. The women in the show were there to serve more than as foils for their husbands or boyfriends. I really liked that. And I loved that the story was continuous as opposed to episodic. It was wonderful not knowing whether characters would survive from one week to the next and I loved the dynamism of the characters. Could it be soap opera-ish? Yeah, sometimes. Over the top? Yeah, that, too. But I loved it just the same.


The Rockford Files is a study in charm. The easy-going charisma of James Garner provided just enough cover for the writers to sneak in a subversive take on the Private Eye. Our hero was an ex-con. He wasn’t tough, and was perfectly willing to run away from a fight. Getting paid was important to him, and the telephone message at the start of each episode would usually remind us of his financial problems. To this day, almost every book I’ve written has been pitched as, “it’s like The Rockford files, but…”

The second show is Justified. I’ve always approached writing as if I’m delivering a joke. Even when I’m telling a serious story. It’s all about the set-up and pay-off. Timing. Selling the premise in as short a time as possible, and then figuring out the right moment to deliver the punch. Justified approached crime fiction the same way. The show, to me, was always clearly a comedy. Each scene had a premise and punch. The dialogue sparked with humour, but the actors played it straight. With all of that in place, they only ever needed to turn the dial a few degrees one way or another, to control whether you laughed or cried.

MATTHEW QUINN MARTIN (NIGHTLIFE) There is something special about a the archetypical Stephen J. Cannell hero. He’s intimate, yet alien. He’s world weary, but his cynicism is equally marbled with a deep love and understanding of humanity. He’s quicker with words than with guns. His mouth gets him into as much trouble as it gets him out of. He’s constantly tripping over his own feet––usually on his way to help someone else out––but always manages to get back up. He’s there when you need him, and he’s the first to be forgotten when you don’t need him anymore. And, of course, it would take this long for me, myself, to realize just how indebted I am to Cannell’s creations…and how much of his DNA is embedded in my own work.

I was lucky enough to meet Cannell shortly before he died. We were both speaking at the same conference. We didn’t get to talk about writing, and I don’t think he even realized I was as writer. He’d left his hotel key card on the lectern we’d shared, and I made sure I got it back to him. He was thankful, but I reckon he thought I was one of the front desk clerks. Which, now that I think about it, is about a “Stephen J. Cannell moment” as you can get without ripping a page from your typewriter, tossing it into the air, and having it land in your own logo.


Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind (William Morrow 2016) which received a
starred review from Kirkus, as well as praise from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and USA Today. Her short fiction has been published in Beat To a Pulp, The Big Click, The Stoneslide Corrective, and the anthologies Mixed Up, Welcome Home and the Locus-nominated Hanzai Japan, where her story “Rough Night In Little Toke” was praised as a “polished gem” by the Japan Times.