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The 10 best TV detectives

Benjie Goodhart / 04 June 2021

There's no shortage of super sleuths on TV, and they make for some of the most popular TV series in the world. We round up some of the best TV detectives.

Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes

You may have noticed that television has something of a fixation with crime. Indeed, an alien visiting from another planet and watching TV could be forgiven for assuming that all we do, as a species, is cook, remodel our homes, and murder each other.

But the truth is, crime makes for good telly. And a good crime drama needs a hero. A good guy who makes everything right, punishes the wrong-doers, and makes our streets safe again, preferably with a twinkle in their eye and a wisecrack on their lips.

Here, then, are the ten best TV police officers/detectives/sleuths, as voted for by, um, me. You’ll notice that some are in pairs, rather than on their own. This should be put down to an inability to choose one partner over the other, and not taken as an indication that the author cannot actually count.

10. Starsky and Hutch

Back in the late 1970s, you were either team Kojak or team Starsky and Hutch. For me, it was always the latter. Somehow, a cherry red Gran Torino with a white vector stripe was a cooler prop than a lollipop. Starsky (Paul Michael Glaser) and Hutch (David Soul) had it all – the car, the chunky knitwear, the leather coats, the bromance, and the guns – which they weren’t afraid to use. They also had Huggy Bear – their jive-talking snitch and petty criminal, who was one of the great TV creations of the age. Sorry, Kojak, but Starsky and Hutch were just that bit cooler. We love ya, baby, we just loved them more.

9. Carter and Regan – The Sweeney

Before there was Starsky and Hutch, there was Carter and Regan. Instead of a Gran Torino with a cool stripe, they drove a clapped out brown Ford. They spent a lot of their time drinking and smoking, and had personal lives that were about as much of a wreck as their car. They didn’t wear chunky sweaters and leather coats, they wore crumpled suits that looked like they’d slept in them. Because they probably had. In their car. But Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) got the job done. And if that meant bending a few rules, and breaking a few bones, well, so be it. The streets were a safer place thanks t these two. Unless you were a criminal, of course.

8. Miss Marple

There may be more polar opposites in the world of TV sleuthing than The Sweeney’s duo and the sweet old lady from St Mary Mead, but I can’t think of any right now. Miss Marple would no more slide across a car bonnet and punch someone than Jack Regan would enjoy a cream tea and a good knitting pattern. But Agatha Christie’s marvellous creation – brilliantly realised by Joan Hickson from 1984-92 – was much more than an old dear in a floral frock and Sunday hat. Beneath her intentionally doddery exterior lurked a bear trap mind and a forensic eye for detail. Which was just as well, as picturesque St Mary Mead proved to be more dangerous than 1990s Medellin.

7. Tom Barnaby, Midsomer Murders

Speaking of dangerous places to live, Midsomer, the fictional English county where Chief Inspector Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) plied his trade, was seemingly home to more murderers than it was post boxes. Or dogs. Or trees. Basically, there were a lot of murders there. But what was refreshing about Barnaby, in the midst of all of this blood and gore, was his relentless good cheer. In a genre where most of the protagonists are ruddy miserable, Barnaby had a happy marriage, a loving family, and a smile on his face. He also always got his man – across 81 feature-length episodes, before he handed over his role, somewhat weirdly, to his cousin John Barnaby. I’m not sure that’s how policing really works…

6. Saga Norn, The Bridge

This Scandi-noir drama is a classic of its genre, not least because of the relationship between the two cops, Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) and Saga Norn (Sofia Helin). But while Rohde is your archetypal cop with a messed up domestic life, Norn is brilliantly, deliciously different. Although we are never formally told what makes her so different, it is fair to say she displays some distinctly autistic traits. Helin’s performance is funny, but never a shallow parody, and Norn is portrayed as anything but a pity figure. Indeed, she is brave, hugely intelligent, committed and logical. Just don’t ask her to laugh at your jokes.

5. Cagney and Lacey

Until the early 1980s, cop shows were the preserve of the alpha male. Then, suddenly, at the start of the 80s, Juliet Bravo appeared in the UK. That was all very well, in gentile England. But how would women get along on the mean streets of New York City? A year later, Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless) and Mary-Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly) came along to show us that they could cope just fine, thanks very much. Hard-drinking, unhappy Cagney, and overwrought wife-and-mother Lacy left their problems at the door of work, and took on the perps without fear or favour. The show won endless awards, and in tackling issues head-on, including mental health and gender roles, it was way ahead of its time. And it also had a cracking theme tune.

4. Hercule Poirot

Agatha Christie’s pernickety Belgian sleuth has been played by Ian Holm, Alfred Molina, John Malkovich and Peter Ustinov, but for most people, David Suchet’s portrayal is the one that springs most readily to mind, having starred in 70 episodes of the ITV drama Poirot. Like Christie’s other creation on this list, Poirot’s seemingly clucky nature and eccentric foibles would trick criminals into dismissing their investigator as a harmless crank. But beneath his fussy vanity, stylised moustache and love of routine, Poirot was an intellectual colossus who never missed even the smallest detail. And, thankfully for those of us watching, he was very fond of a theatrical reveal, all delivered in that trademark accent.

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3. Lieutenant Columbo

While Hercule Poirot has been played by any number of actors, you could never imagine anyone but Peter Falk being Columbo, a role he inhabited over 69 feature-length episodes. While Columbo shared Poirot and Marple’s underestimate-the-funny-little-guy-at-your-peril characteristic, his shows were very different, in that there was never any nature of the whodunnit to them. We always saw the perpetrator commit the crime at the start of the show. Instead, the joy of the programme was in watching the cigar-chomping old guy in the crumpled mac make fools of LA’s finest criminal minds as he teased, cajoled and infuriated them until they tied themselves in knots. Altogether now: “Just one more thing…”

2. Inspector Morse

The only actor to make this list twice is John Thaw. It’s a testament to his versatility that he could play the visceral machismo of Jack Regan, and also the quiet, considered, melancholy brilliance of the cerebral aesthete Morse. The creation of Colin Dexter (who made a cameo in every episode) Morse appeared in 33 feature-length episodes from 1987 to 2000, and audiences loved him. His love of classic cars, classical music, cryptic crosswords, and a pint or two of ale, and his gruffly touching relationship with his sergeant Lewis, made us feel we knew him somehow. And yet, until the 32nd of 33 episodes, we never even knew his first name. Mind you, if you’d been called endeavour, you’d keep it to yourself too. I suppose “Jeff” might have been a bit of a let-down after 13 years of speculation.

1. Sherlock Holmes

It’s been over 130 years since Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s troubled genius first appeared in the story A Study in Scarlet. Since then, he has gone on to become the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV history, with over 75 actors playing the supersleuth. The brilliance of the character lies not just in his brilliance (although his genius dwarfs all of the others on this list) bit in his weaknesses, too. He is an opium addict, fiercely antisocial, arrogant and aloof. But he is also brave, loyal, funny and charismatic – when he so desires. His friendship with the ever loyal Dr Watson is what keeps him grounded and makes him human. He also boasts the most famous address in literary history, and the most recognised catchphrase: “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Although the phrase never once crossed his lips in any one of Conan-Doyle’s works. Over the years, the most enduring portrayals of Holmes have been by Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and, latterly, by Benedict Cumberbatch in the magnificent modern re-imaginings of the works. Proof that the right character can survive, and thrive, in any era.

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