Are these the best detectives in TV history?

This article contains affiliate links. We may earn a small commission on items purchased through this article, but that does not affect our editorial judgement.

The police procedural is one of the most well-worn TV genres, and yet the small-screen detectives just keep on coming - complete with their various drinking problems, short tempers and lack of social skills.

For good reason: crime mysteries make for some of the most compelling dramas, whether the cases are neatly resolved at the end of each episode, or spun out over season-long arcs, as popularised by Nordic Noir (and arguably invented by Twin Peaks).

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

While the question of 'whodunnit' might be the reason we keep tuning in from one week to the next, it's the complex character of the individual detective that keeps us hooked, series after series.

With detectives as popular as ever - from Kip Glaspie in Collateral to Broadchurch's Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller - we asked members of our Screen Babble Facebook group to tell us their favourites.

Luther star Idris Elba will be reprising his role (Photo: BBC)

The British favourites

Among the more recent British sleuths, Luther was a popular choice with three nominations, perhaps in anticipation of Idris Elba reprising his role as the tough DCI John Luther for series five.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Others in the group, such as Jez Garrett, paid tribute to the "wonderfully written" character of Catherine Caywood in Happy Valley (she's a sergeant as opposed to a detective, but we can loosen the definition), Donald Grant suggested "Rebus, as played by Ken Stott" and several singled out Jimmy Perez in Shetland.

Nick Long opted for Aurelio Zen from the 2011 BBC three-part drama - "brilliantly played by Rufus Sewell from the much missed Michael Dibdin’s wonderful novels" - while Alex Watson voted for Sherlock, "especially in the early episodes".

John Thaw as Inspector Morse and Kevin Whately as Sgt Lewis (Photo: ITV)

The suggestion of the young Morse in ITV's Endeavour prompted an interesting exchange between two members of the group:

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Greer Nicholson: "I love Endeavour, more than Morse or Lewis."

Jez Garrett: "Morse fact: Colin Dexter had it written into his will that no one else is ever allowed to play (senior) Morse, as John Thaw was so good. So Endeavour can only ever be the younger version."

Greer: "I enjoy the portrayal of a younger and less entrenched Morse. And I think the 1960s continuity is better, so I don't shout at the TV so often."

'Leather trousers' and eccentric Scandinavians

It's been the Nordic broadcasters who have reinvigorated the TV detective in recent years, thanks mainly to two strong female leads who will stop at nothing to solve their cases.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

David Walsh commented that The Killing's Sarah Lund is "eccentric, deeply-flawed, inscrutable, dedicated to the job even to the point of ruining relationships with all those around her, and her career - in short, the epitome of the TV detective trope."

Sofia Helin as Saga Norén in The Bridge (Photo: BBC)

Another popular choice was Saga Norén, the Porsche-driving, Malmö-based detective from The Bridge, who many viewers interpreted as having Asperger's syndrome. "The car, the leather trousers and just being her," says Nina Russell.

"Sarah Lund and Saga Norén. Love a good Scandinavian female lead!" adds Jo Mawer Donaldson.

However, while she appreciates Lund, Sarah Jeory argues that Jim Bergerac, played by John Nettles, trumps them all: "Jim was giving us eccentric brooding detective from a little understood culture (Jersey), long before Sarah Lund said 'Tak' for the jumpers."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

'Maverick cops' and 'brutal antiheroes'

American detectives also get a look-in, with praise bestowed upon Breaking Bad's Hank Shrader by Kev Wilby, True Detective's Rust Cohle by Finlay Greig ("deep, tragic and engrossing") and The Shield's Vic Mackey by Mark Dunford ("brutal and brilliant, hero and villain").

Special Agent Dale Cooper also gets one vote, even if he barely appeared in last year's revival of Twin Peaks. Vikk Fisher said of Kyle MacLachlan's character that "his mind is clear, intelligent and bizarre - the perfect combination."

Dennis Franz and Rick Schroder as Andy Sipowicz and Danny Sorenson in NYPD Blue

But when it came to US investigators, most of the love was for TV detectives who handed in their badges years ago.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Andy Sipowicz, the gruff, heavy-drinking NYPD Blue detective played by Dennis Franz, was a popular choice.

"Now there's a maverick cop who doesn't play by the rules," says Michael Mackenzie, while Linsey McQueen Carson calls him an "absolute badass", adding: "He has battles with his demons but [he's] an all-round good guy and excellent cop."

More classic US cops:

"Columbo. Purely because he’s the best TV detective of all time! And the longest running detective show might I add" - Alex Garnett

"Has to be Jim Rockford, LA's finest PI - charges $200 a day plus expenses, keeps his gun in a cookie jar, has the best car chases and would rather go fishing than get involved in anything too dangerous." - Jonathan Melville

"Kojak. Who loves ya baby?" - Jeremy Snelling

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But perhaps the last word should be reserved for Mark Dunford, who replied to the question in gif form:

Who can argue with Jessica Fletcher?

We're just disappointed that Dick Van Dyke didn't get a mention for constantly stealing his son Barry's thunder in Diagnosis: Murder.

• Join the debate by joining Screen Babble on Facebook

More from Screen Babble:

Related topics: