37 TV & Movie Detectives That You’d Want On Your Case
Superhero movies are pretty popular at the moment, but those caped (and otherwise) crusaders deal with crises at a world-threatening level. What's a gal to do if she finds herself with a murder, mystery, or intrigue on her hands? It's time to turn to the sleuths — crime-solving detectives who'll tirelessly hunt down clues and shake up suspects until they get to the bottom of the case. Whether you're a suspect femme fatale or just a down-on-your-luck small business owner, these are 34 TV and movie detectives you'd want on your case.
Detectives have had a special spot in audience's hearts since Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin solved the murders at the Rue Morgue. Ironically the enigma of who actually created the detective genre remains a mystery to this day. While the title's usually bestowed on Edgar Allan Poe or Wilkie Collins for his novel The Moonstone, both writing eccentric geniuses piecing together disparate clues, Professor Paul Collins told NPR that otherwise little known author Charles Felix holds the distinction.
Whoever started it, the genre has proliferated to include police procedurals like the sprawling Law & Order universe, iconic private eyes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and ordinary citizens roped in by trauma in stories like Brick or Veronica Mars. No matter their origin, any of the names on this list will get to the bottom of your case.
1. Olivia Benson — 'Law & Order: SVU'
Played by Mariska Hargitay, she's the straightest shooter on the Law & Order: SVU team, always going the extra mile and caring (perhaps too much), about her work without punching suspects (Stabler, Tutuola), or sassing higher-ups (Munch).
2. Columbo — 'Columbo'
Don't let the rumply suit fool you (because it sure does throw off everyone he's investigating) — Columbo's feigned ineptitude, as portrayed by Peter Falk, leads the upper-crust he's investigating to pretty much pour out the facts. And just when you think you've gotten away with it, out comes that "just one more thing..."
3. Nick & Nora Charles — 'The Thin Man' Series
Now that he's married into high society, Nick Charles (William Powell) is supposed to be a retired private dick. Instead his lovely wife Nora (Myrna Loy) joins him as they guzzle martinis and solve mysteries high and low.
4. Wayne Hays — 'True Detective'
If something terrible happens, you want the kind of dedication Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) shows, with cases still haunting him decades later.
5. Nancy Drew — 'The Nancy Drew Mysteries'
The famous Girl Detective has endured through the years, with a movie set for 2019 with Sophia Lillis taking on the role. She's sharp, she's observant, and she's indefatigable.
6. Dale Cooper — 'Twin Peaks'
Despite his The Return record of re-traumatizing those he tried saving, Cooper's deep optimism, romantic streak, intelligence, and gut instinct make him one person you wouldn't mind running into in the Black Lodge (unless that person proves to be his doppelgänger, also played by Kyle MacLachlan).
7. Veronica Mars — 'Veronica Mars'
Sassy, sharp, and studying under her dad, Veronica (Kristen Bell) is able to carry herself through the most awkward social situations and still solve the case, even when they involve those she cares about most (on both sides of the law).
8. Jane Tennyson — 'Prime Suspects'
Dame Helen Mirren's character from Prime Suspects battles sexism and crime with equal world-weary aplomb.
9. Axel Foley — 'Beverly Hills Cop'
A fish who doesn't mind being out of water when it comes to helping a friend, Foley (played by Eddie Murphy) is also a damn fine cop who connects dots and when needed, can bring the pain too. Plus, who else on this list has a theme song that catchy?
10. Miss Fisher — 'Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries'
Who says private eyes have to be schlubby unshaven dudes in suits? Phryne Fisher (played by Essie Davis) solves crime in high style.
11. Dana Scully — 'The X-Files'
The pragmatic, groundwork half of the X-Files team, it's Scully (Gillian Anderson) who'll point out the hard facts that'll get your case solved while Mulder's still off exploring a deep government psy-op.
12. Jessica — 'Murder She Wrote'
Mental Floss points out if Murder She Wrote were all real, Miss Marple's sleepy town would be the murder capital of the world. Still, disarmingly charming Miss Marple (played by Angela Lansbury) manages to bring every criminal to justice.
13. Sherlock Holmes
Take your pick: Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch — any and all of history's most filmed detective capture his seemingly supernatural intellect and observation (and more recently, emphasize his snark too).
14. Lisbeth Salander — 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' & Sequels
You might not want to hire her if you're a dude, but if you're a woman wronged by a man, Lisbeth (played by Noomi Rapace, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy in different film iterations) will utterly destroy your perpetrator for you.
15. Crockett & Tubbs — 'Miami Vice'
If this sharp duo, ably played by Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson, is on your case, you probably had something sexily terrible happen in warm, sunny climes — not too shabby.
16. Clarice Starling — 'Silence Of The Lambs'
She might be green, but Clarice (Jodie Foster) is determined to protect the innocent, even if that means making deals with the devil himself.
17. Lenny Briscoe — 'Law & Order'
Another Law & Order stalwart who'll do everything he can to solve the case, Briscoe (Jerry Orbach, RIP) has been on the team long enough to see nearly everything.
18. Jane Marple — 'Miss Marple'
Who'd suspect a sweet little old lady (played variously by Joan Hickson, Margaret Rutherford, Geraldine McEwan and others) of being a capital crime-solver? Bonus: she's also an excellent knitter.
19. The Baywatch Nights Team — 'Baywatch Nights'
For those unfamiliar, Baywatch had a spinoff show that lasted exactly two seasons: the first, a standard police procedural, and the second, a hard pivot to sea-themed X-Files knockoff. If you've been attacked by a mer-wolf or harassed by ghost ships, they're your guys.
20. Cagney & Lacey — 'Cagney & Lacey'
A single gal (Sharon Gless) and a mom (Tyne Daly) team up to fight crime! While that's likely how the show was pitched, it's as much a genuine buddy comedy as is it police procedural, though as the Huffington Post reports, the show had an uphill battle dealing with suits who thought the leads might be perceived as gay.
21. Virgil Tibbs — 'In The Heat Of The Night'
Sidney Poitier was so memorable as an investigator teamed with a racist police chief in the film version of In The Heat Of The Night that it became a TV show. His determination, dignity, and instinct absolve not only him, but others falsely accused.
22. Alex Cross — The James Patterson Series
Played by Morgan Freeman in Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider and most recently by Tyler Perry in a self-titled feature, this former FBI agent now works as a freelance profiler who chooses to live in a Washington DC neighborhood the rest of the city deems 'squalid'.
23. Sam Spade — 'The Maltese Falcon'
Dashiell Hammett's eternal gumshoe (played most famously by Humphrey Bogart) shaped the mold for all his peers, tougher than a 10-minute hard-boiled egg, always ready with a quip, and finding himself at the heart of trouble as often as he takes a drink or lights up a smoke.
24. Velma Dinkley — 'Scooby Doo'
Of all the Mystery Mobile crew, tell me it's not Velma you'd want on your case. The rock of the group, she's the one often doing the actual solving.
25. Philip Marlowe — 'The Big Sleep', 'The Long Goodbye' & 'Murder My Sweet'
Another eternal hard-boiled noir detective, played by Bogart, Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum and others, has been popping up on paper and screen since 1939's The Big Sleep. Underneath the tough front, he's a contemplative stoic.
26. Nick Knight — 'Forever Knight'
Another show consigned to the dustbin of TV history, I'll say this slowly because it's a lot. Nick Knight (Canadian actor Geraint Wyn Davies)... is a vampire... who took a job as a cop on the night shift. I mean, they explain it in the intro but it's still A LOT. Couldn't hurt to have a cop on your side with supernatural strength though.
27. "Popeye" Doyle — 'The French Connection'
Once he's on the case, Popeye (Gene Hackman) is willing to put his neck on the line, even if it means breaking the rules.
28. Will Graham — 'Red Dragon', 'Manhunter'
This FBI profiler appeared most recently in the TV show Hannibal (Hugh Dancy), but that's not exactly the iteration you want on your side; he's got a lot on his plate already. Stick with his meticulous and slightly less-broken version from Manhunter (William Patterson) or Red Dragon (Edward Norton).
29. Nicholas Angel — 'Hot Fuzz'
A cop's cop who's so good he got shipped out, in Hot Fuzz, Angel (Simon Pegg) discovers the sleepy town he's stuck in hides a dark secret. Even off duty, he can't not cop to the extreme.
30. Brendan Frye — 'Brick'
Brick's protagonist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets drawn in to intrigue, only to discover, as so many gumshoes do, a need to solve and magnetic ability to draw trouble.
31. Eddie Valiant — 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?'
Roger Rabbit's top investigator hates toons, but takes on this case when it near-literally falls in his lap. He's good at his job, but he and the toons are up against progress.
32. Marge Gunderson — 'Fargo'
Don't underestimate Minnesota nice, even if it shows up extremely pregnant. Marge (Frances McDormand) quietly gets to the bottom of dirty doings in her small town.
33. Perry Van Shrike — 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang's rat-a-tat dialogue sounds like a screwball comedy, but Val Kilmer's 'Gay' Shrike is the straight man getting to the bottom of the case.
34. Dirk Gently — 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency'
What exactly is a 'holistic detective'? Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett) will be happy to find out after tying togther a series of absolutely oddball and seemingly unrelated events and pieces.
35. Robert Graysmith — 'Zodiac'
The guy who literally wrote the book on the Zodiac killer is a puzzle-loving illustrator, but this former cartoonist (played in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal) stuck with the case and came closest to anyone to solving the mystery of the Zodiac killer.
36. James Gordon — The Batman Franchise
It takes a lot of confidence to be chief of police in a town where costumed villains regularly put the city, if not the entire world, in danger, and to put your faith in a mystery costumed millionaire, but Gordon does so while tackling the day-to-day management of his force.
37. Frank Bullitt — 'Bullitt'
Ok, Bullit isn't exactly the guy you want solving your case, but he looks so cool while not really doing it! And it's Steve McQueen!
While you'd certainly hope that you won't need to call on their services (or worse, have someone else call to solve your murder), if any of these detectives pick up your case, rest easy knowing it'll be solved.