Numerous courtroom dramas have appeared on U.S. television. A few of these dramas exemplify the so-called “classical mystery” subgenre of detective fiction (Berger 1992, Riggs 1996). Also known as “whodunnits,” classical mysteries have conventions that distinguish them from other types of detective fiction, like hard-boiled detective stories and procedurals (Reiner 150). Certain courtroom dramas have the conventional elements of classical mystery tales. These dramas include Perry Mason, both the original series (CBS, 1957-1966) and the television movies (NBC, 1985-1995), Matlock (NBC, 1986-1992, ABC, 1992-1995), and McBride (Hallmark Channel, 2005-2008).
Like most classical mystery stories, the installments of the above courtroom dramas focus on a crime. In classical mysteries, an individual commits a criminal offense, particularly a murder. This act leads a detective or “sleuth” to investigate the case in hopes of finding the culprit. Using various personal traits, such as reason, observational powers, and an impeccable memory, the sleuth deduces the criminal’s identity (Reiner 150). Oftentimes, the culprit is a character originally represented as the most unlikely to have committed the crime. Perry Mason, Matlock, and McBride all exemplify what Cawelti might call the “pattern of action” of classical mysteries (Cawelti 81-91). The protagonists are all defense attorneys who represent people wrongfully accused of crimes. As part of their defenses, these attorneys must investigate the crimes to find the real culprits. Eventually, these sleuthing lawyers solve the crimes using the traits listed above. The programs even include “surprising” solutions in which the most unexpected character is revealed as the criminal.
Finally, like most classical mysteries, the three programs promote active involvement of their audiences. Specifically, producers wish to encourage viewers to try to figure out the solutions to the mysteries before the fictional lawyers reveal them in the climaxes. For example, Perry Mason’s producers treated each mystery as a ‘game show’ viewers would play by attempting to deduce the criminal’s identity (Sullivan and Robertson 14). Matlock’s producers once allowed viewers to select an ending for a specific episode. The above courtroom dramas, therefore, indicate the presence of the classical mystery subgenre on U.S. television.