Top 20 Greatest Film\Television Detectives of All Time.
The brilliant, determined and highly entertaining sleuths from amateur to professional has been a staple in fiction for over a century. With various books, noir films in the 40's, crime shows from the 60’s to modern day and array of mystery films over the decades catering to these men and women of brilliant observational and deductive reasoning skills, there are hundreds that have graced the big and small screen to list, but for this article we’re only doing the top twenty of my favorite television and movie detectives that I feel are the most entertaining, the most sharp and cunning, the best at what they do in their worlds and who I would hire to get me out of a jam or clear me of a murder I didn’t commit in a heartbeat. What makes these twenty sleuths so special is that unlike most ordinary cops or private detectives these detectives all think outside the box, refuse to ignore their guts even when everyone else thinks the case is closed and have an uncanny ability to solve some the most complex and near perfect murders or other well thought out criminal plots that no one else in their worlds can. These are my own personal choices, mind you, so keep that in mind if you don’t see a detective of your choice.
20. Misty Knight.
Misty is one bad mamma jamma! A tough Harlem cop who is more committed and involved in the good and safety of her city than anyone else on Luke Cage, Misty is a force to be reckoned with. At crime scenes she can literally picture what occurred through her own “Misty vision” which helps her nail the bad guys every time. Luke couldn’t do what he does without her as his special police connection and unofficial partner. And when she unfortunately lost her arm it only made her more dangerous to the criminal element.
19. David Addison and Maddie Hayes.
David and Maddie run Blue Moon Detective Agency together and of course as complete opposites can’t agree on how to run it, in fact, they can’t seem to agree on anything:
But when they actually put their differences aside and work together they’re quite a team and always manage to somehow save the day and crack the case:
They’re also aided by a killer theme song sung by the late great Al Jarreau:
18. Theo Kojak.
Smooth, cool, tough, suave, big, sharp and loves a good lollipop, Theo Kojak is a fine example as the Lieutenant of the New York City Police Department’s finest. A detective as highly intelligent as he is a force to reckon with in fist to cuffs. But what also makes Kojak a brilliant detective is his way of dealing with people: reading them, understanding their drive and also able to handle himself with them no matter how intense or dangerous they may be. “Who loves ya, baby?”
17. Jessica Jones.
As sharp as she is grouchy, as observant as she is sarcastic. Jessica Jones may not be someone you’d want to spend a long period of time with but you’d want to hire her to solve your case in a heartbeat. Other than her obvious super strength being a factor, her powers of observation and obsessive need to finish what she starts are what makes a great detective.
From 1985 to 1988 the late great Robert Urich played Spenser, the iconic character from mystery writer Robert B. Parker’s series of detective books in ABC’s Spenser For Hire. Spenser is quite a marvel being a quadruple threat as a former Boston cop, a former boxer, a Vietnam war veteran and a private detective. Oh, did I forget to mention that he also cooks gourmet meals and can recite poetry from the greats with reckless abandon? Spenser’s quite the Renaissance man and all of his skills make him one of the greatest detectives you’d want on your side. But, he couldn’t do it without his good buddy and occasional partner, Hawk played by Avery Brooks of Deep Space Nine fame.
15. Jonathan and Jennifer Hart.
I think the theme song basically explains everything about these two brilliant millionaire amateur sleuths:
Jonathan and Jennifer often found themselves caught in the middle of various murder schemes, kidnappings, poisonings, brainwashings etc. every week but somehow this handsome couple always manages to not only get out of these situations but somehow these two socialites with no police training whatsoever were able to solve the cases that the police couldn’t with the assistance of their loyal servant Max and sharp as a tack dog Freeway. It’s also refreshing to see two sleuths so deeply in love. Some couples go on exotic vacations for romance, this couple get their romantic foreplay in solving murders and narrowly escaping death every week.
14. Virgil Tibbs.
The great Sidney Portier played many iconic roles but the role of Homicide detective Virgil Tibbs in 1967’s In The Heat of The Night has got to be at the top of the list. Virgil is from Philadelphia but gets caught up in a murder mystery in Sparta, Mississippi and endures all sorts of racism but he doesn’t let that stop him. Virgil is as intelligent as he is tough and no nonsense, and is a pit bull when it comes to finding out the truth. He does it all with style and finesse and a killer wardrobe. Without him the Sparta police would’ve never caught the killer, although they’re reluctant to admit it.
13. Thomas Sullivan Magnum.
Tom Selleck’s Magnum isn’t just a mustache wearing, ferrari driving, detroit tigers hat wearing, hawaiian shirt wearing pretty boy who catches every woman’s fancy. He’s one of the smoothest, sharpest and downright devoted PIs you could ever hope to have on your side. Magnum listens to his gut and it’s with the help of his gut, keen instincts, knack for ingenuity and improvisation, and assistance by his many friends, especially TC, Rick and Higgins that he manages to solve all the cases that would other wise go unsolved in Hawaii.
12. Paul Drake.
Perry Mason’s right hand man and the founder and boss of the Drake Detective Agency, Bill Hopper’s Private Investigator and ladies man is as cool as they come and just as badass.
Unfortunately William Hopper passed away in 1973, years before the Perry Mason revival movies in 1985 that spanned for ten years. But his son Paul Drake Jr. played by Barbara Hale’s (Della Street) real life son William Katt known to many as The Greatest American Hero, filled the void the best he could and later William Moses’ Ken Malansky did a solid job filling in but at the end of the day there’s only one Paul Drake and only Bill Hopper could play the dapper and fun loving private eye.
11. John Shaft.
Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? SHAFT that’s who. Richard Roundtree’s debut in 1971 as the iconic black dynamo private detective John Shaft made him a superstar and also created a whole new genre in cinema: Blaxplotation. Shaft helped elevate African American cinema and was the first real black heroic figure to hit the mainstream. He was also one helluva detective. Being a mix of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, there wasn’t a case Shaft couldn’t solve or a butt he couldn’t kick. We also got to see Shaft again in 1973’s sequel Shaft in Africa. We also got one of the most iconic movie themes and songs in history out of it:
In 1972 Issac Hayes won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Theme from Shaft”.
10. Easy Rollins.
Denzel Washington’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rollins was just a regular guy who just so happened to get caught up in a missing person turned attempted murder case that he did not want but needed the money due to lack of work.
But in the process he found out that he was actually quite good at this detective thing and showed that a regular black man could strive as a top notch sleuth in 1940’s Los Angeles.
9. Alex Cross.
Based on author James Patterson’s murder mystery novels, in both 1997’s Kiss The Girls and 2001’s Along Came a Spider, Alex Cross is a guy you don’t want after you. A Forensic Psychologist with a gun and a Sherlockian skill for deductive reasoning makes him any killer’s nightmare. Morgan Freeman was made for this role and makes you believe that Alex Cross is really out there chasing bad guys and locking ’em up so you can sleep a little easier. Alex Cross is his name and outsmarting highly intelligent criminals is his game.
8. Nick and Nora Charles.
The precursor to Jonathan and Jennifer Hart were Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man Movies from the 1930’s and 1940’s based on best selling mystery writer Dashiell Hammet’s detective novels. The Charles’ make a perfect sleuthing team with Nick being the on and off again private gumshoe being the professional of the operation and Nora bringing the style, class and flair. There’s not a murder that these two couldn’t solve, and all this before fancy DNA evidence, computers and forensic tech.
7. Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster.
A duo as classic as Holmes and Watson, Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, (Fake) Psychic Detective Shawn Spencer and his dependable, faithful partner Burton Guster aka “Gus” aka “Clementine Woolysocks” aka “Magic Head”… (the list goes on) are Santa Barbara’s greatest detective team. They’ve solved over a hundred cases for the SBPD including two more in the movies, and have helped put away some of the sharpest and most dangerous criminals the city has to offer. Shawn Spencer, especially is a wicked kind of genius whose keen observational and deductive reasoning skills not only help him solve the case but also helps him keep up his charade without anyone being able to prove that he isn’t really psychic.
6. Adrian Monk.
The great defective detective is the best of the best in San Fransisco and pretty much anywhere in his world. Monk’s over the top obsessive compulsive disorder actually allows him to notices details, sometimes the tiniest thing that no one else does, connect dots that no one else could connect and think so outside the box of any normal person that he can solve the unthinkable which often derails the perfect murder some super smart bad guy came up with:
It’s a jungle out there and nobody knows that better than the ultra paranoid and phobic Adrian Monk:
5. Perry Mason and Ben Matlock (Tie)
This one is definitely a tie between two of the most iconic television lawyers in television history but also two of the very best detectives as well, who could rival if not beat most actual detectives at their own game. Neither one has ever lost more than one case and even then it was more a victory for them than the client that was actually guilty. If I were falsely accused of murder and set up perfectly i’d want Perry or Ben out there solving the case then getting me off in court.
4. Jessica Fletcher.
Known for always being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Jessica Fletcher, famed mystery writer and amateur detective always manages to get the murder solved with the help of her remarkable wit, legendary powers of deduction and observation and just being a woman you don’t want to mess with. She may look like your sweet grandma but underneath the sweet smile is a sleuthing machine who will catch you every single time so I’d stay clear from committing a murder and setting up Jessica or someone she knows because you might as well confess now and save everybody’s time.
3. Lt. Columbo.
When you hear the ill fated words “Just one more thing” it’s a wrap! Columbo’s got you right where he wants you. Appearing like a sloppy homeless man disarms his prey who aren’t prepared for the cunning, wickedly smart and relentlessly persistent Lieutenant Columbo.
Peter Falk’s Columbo in many ways has influenced fictional detectives since his inception and the detective genre is much better for it.
2. Jim Rockford.
Jim Rockford is a truly unique detective. He prefers to fish rather than get in a fist fight, lives in a trailer on the beach, charges two hundred dollars a day plus expenses to his clients not wavering for anything and will quit a case when it’s getting a bit too dangerous in a drop of a hat. Jim’s just a regular, good natured, easy going guy who just happened to have got stuck in the PI gig and actually excels at it. What makes Rockford one of the greatest detectives of all time is his way of using his wits to get out of a dangerous situation or a fight with guys bigger than him:
But that doesn’t mean Jim can’t throw down in a fight. He’s a real brawler when needed:
There is no television or film detective then or now that can talk their way or think their way out of a really tight spot better than Jim Rockford. He is who I would hire in a heartbeat if I needed a top PI. Though I guess I better make sure I have gotten my paycheck that week. But Jimbo’s worth every penny because besides being a cool guy to hang around, he’s one of the most honest and trustworthy detectives and frankly one of the best.
- Sherlock Holmes.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Iconic creation has been adapted in every decade and has essentially defined the fictional detective. All the iterations of Holmes and their loyal Watsons have been imitated, derived from and immortalized in the mystery genre. I have a few of my favorites including:
and The Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in 2009 and 2011.
Holmes’ influence can’t be easily summed up so I’ll let the pros do it for me:
If you’re as big a mystery\detective fan as I am I hope you enjoyed this list. ’Til next time, folks!