Top 20 Detective Characters of All Time
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Top 20 Detective Characters of All Time

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
These sleuths should not be underestimated. For this list, we'll be looking at the greatest, most intriguing, and popular detective characters from film, TV, literature, and video games. Our countdown includes Batman, Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, Veronica Mars, Sam Spade, and more!
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Top 20 Detective Characters of All Time


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 detective characters of all time.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the greatest, most intriguing, and popular detective characters from film, TV, literature, and video games.

Who’s YOUR favorite fictional detective? Sound off in the comments!

#20: Mystery Inc.

Wear brown pants and a green shirt and you’ll instantly be called Shaggy. All brown Great Danes are called Scooby Doo at least once in their lifetimes. Such is the cultural impact of the Scooby Gang, which famously comprises Shaggy, Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Scoob himself. The gang was introduced in “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” on CBS between 1969 and 1970, and on ABC in 1978. Many aspects of the Scooby Gang have become iconic throughout the years, including their outfits, catchphrases, voices, and tropes - like discovering that most “ghosts” are just crotchety old men. Maybe they’re not “serious” detectives, but they’ve proven consistently entertaining throughout the decades, and that’s good enough for us.

#19: Veronica Mars

Having been portrayed by Kristen Bell since 2004, Veronica Mars is the eponymous detective of her popular franchise, which includes a TV show, movie, and a long-awaited fourth season on Hulu. Mars, a social outcast, cracks cases in the town of Neptune, California and has a private investigator father, who was ousted from his role as local sheriff. While never a ratings success, the series earned high praise for its unique blending of genres, including high school drama, mystery, and film noir - most of which comes through in the titular character’s gruff, hard-boiled dialogue!

#18: Adrian Monk

One of the USA Network’s biggest shows was “Monk,” a mystery-comedy-drama-police procedural that ran for eight seasons and 125 episodes. At its core is the eponymous Adrian Monk, a former homicide detective for the San Francisco Police now working as a private consultant. While there have been countless detective characters like him, what makes Monk so interesting are his various eccentricities. Monk suffers from OCD and literally hundreds of phobias (312 in his estimation), including germs, crowds, vomit, and mushrooms. He also loves structure and routine, like only drinking Sierra Springs water, and he suffers greatly in social situations. All this is brilliantly, hilariously, and touchingly captured by Tony Shalhoub, who picked up three Emmys for his performance.

#17: Olivia Benson

With the premiere of the 21st season of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” in 2019, Olivia Benson made television history; she became the longest-running live action character on primetime television. Actress Mariska Hargitay has remained in the role since the show’s debut in September of 1999, so obviously both she and the character are doing something right! Benson is a strong, brave, and fiercely intelligent character, working as Commanding Officer of the Manhattan Special Victims Unit, which investigates cases of sexual abuse. It’s certainly not an easy job, but Benson serves as a brilliant role model in the ways she approaches and handles both the cases and their victims.

#16: Jimmy Kudo

“Case Closed” is the fifth best selling manga series of all time, having sold over 230 million copies worldwide. The stories following Jimmy Kudo have been published in Weekly Shōnen Sunday since 1994, and its accompanying anime series has been running consistently since 1996. Jimmy Kudo is a child detective who solves crimes - sometimes by impersonating his friend’s father, who works as a private detective. But there’s a twist. Kudo is not actually a kid. Rather, he’s a teenager who has been shrunk and transformed into a child by a lethal poison given to him by the ominous Black Organization. It certainly adds a unique twist to the typical detective shenanigans.

#15: Sam & Max

This famous crime-fighting pair have appeared in comics, webcomics, and even a short-lived TV show. But perhaps their greatest and most famous appearance is the 1993 LucasArts video game “Sam & Max Hit the Road,” widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever. Sam is a six-foot-tall dog and Max a hyperactive rabbit, and together they travel the world (and sometimes go to space) to solve crimes. The two work wonderfully together, with Max being a near psychotic and Sam having a vast, encyclopedic knowledge of obscure topics. While Max is causing mayhem, Sam is going off on boring tangents filled with complex terminology. It’s a great relationship between two very unique characteristics.

#14: Professor Layton

Real name Theodore Bronev, Professor Layton is the eponymous character of a series of video games that have been running since 2007. Layton works with his apprentice Luke Triton to investigate various mysteries and solve puzzles. The games take obvious inspiration from “Sherlock Holmes,” complete with a distinct English setting and a brilliant investigator working with his less-experienced but eager apprentice. In the English version, the title character is voiced by Christopher Robin Miller, who provides Layton with a mature, gentlemanly persona. Sherlock Holmes clone or not, Professor Layton is a charming, adorable, and consistently engaging protagonist.

#13: Sam Spade

While Spade appeared in a few short stories, he’s most fondly remembered as the protagonist of “The Maltese Falcon.” This 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett is often considered one of the best of its genre, thanks to its strong writing and thrilling cast of characters. Spade perfectly embodies the hard boiled detective, due to his determination, tough persona, and near-inhuman attention to detail. All these traits were perfectly conveyed by screen legend Humphrey Bogart in the iconic 1941 film adaptation, which could very well be the greatest film noir ever made.

#12: Inspector Gadget

We hesitate calling Inspector Gadget an inspector. Or a detective. Or, really, any synonym for “crime solver.” Because, let’s be honest, the guy is totally useless. But then again, that’s exactly what makes this character so entertaining. Of course, that's not the only thing distinguishing Gadget from his countless contemporaries. He is also part cyborg, having been equipped with numerous technological devices to aid him on his missions … not that he knows how to actually use most of them. If not for his niece Penny and their dog Brain, he’d never solve a case … which just makes his hijinks all the funnier!

#11: Inspector Clouseau

Speaking of incompetent detectives, let’s talk about poor Inspector Clouseau. Clouseau is one of the OG farcical detectives, the main character of the iconic “Pink Panther” franchise. The series began in 1963 with the release of “The Pink Panther,” which made Peter Sellers a worldwide star. Since then, Steve Martin, Alan Arkin, and Roger Moore have all tried their hand at playing Clouseau. But no one really beats Sellers - a master of his craft whose bumbling and slapstick defined the role. Clouseau is perhaps the most famous inept detective in pop culture history, his humor bridging generations and cultural divides.

#10: Perry Mason

Serving as one of the most popular lawyers in fiction, Perry Mason is the protagonist of numerous novels, television shows, and TV films. Written by Erle Stanley Gardner, the first novel in the series was “The Case of the Velvet Claws,” published in 1933. Mason is a studious defense lawyer, often establishing his client’s innocence and rightfully implicating someone else in the crime. Reading Mason is a lot of fun, but watching him is even better. Most people associate Mason with actor Raymond Burr, who starred in CBS’s “Perry Mason” and dozens of subsequent television films. In 2020, an origin series starring Matthew Rhys in the titular role was aired by HBO, adding some much-welcomed depth and background for the enigmatic character.

#9: Philip Marlowe

This iconic character shares a lot in common with Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. Like Spade, Philip Marlowe is a pioneer figure in the genre of hard boiled detective fiction, complete with all the usual trappings like his tough exterior, drinking, wise cracking, and smacking people around. Like Spade, he was played by Humphrey Bogart. And, like Dashiell Hammett, author Raymond Chandler often published his works through the “Black Mask” pulp magazine. Despite the pulpy, noir-y exterior, Marlowe is actually quite a sensitive and philosophical figure, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn’t often fall for the femme fatales. A fascinating and complex figure, he’s perhaps the greatest hard boiled detective of them all.

#8: The Hardy Boys

Together, brothers Frank and Joe Hardy comprise one of the most popular detective duos of all time. The Hardy Boys franchise launched in 1927, when “The Tower Treasure” was published to great fanfare and acclaim. The characters were created by Edward Stratemeyer, and while the name Franklin W. Dixon appears on the covers, this is a collective pseudonym used by a variety of ghostwriters. The series is still going strong today, with The Hardy Boys Adventures collection having launched in 2013. The books continue to sell one million copies annually, proving both the lasting legacy and universal marketability of the lovable teenage sleuths.

#7: Dick Tracy

Running nearly as long as The Hardy Brothers is the popular comic strip “Dick Tracy.” Originally named Plainclothes Tracy, the “Dick Tracy” series began on October 4, 1931 in the Detroit Mirror. Creator Chester Gould wrote and drew the comic strips until 1977, and they continue to this very day under different authors and artists. Dick Tracy serves as a unique combination of hard boiled detectives and Inspector Gadget, if Inspector Gadget was actually competent. Like the former, he’s very tough, stoic, and intelligent. And like the latter, he often uses advanced pieces of technology to utilize forensic science and solve crimes. He’s both old and new school, making him the best of both worlds.

#6: Columbo

This homicide detective is not only one of the most popular, but one of the best written and performed as well. “Columbo” was a monumental success, airing on NBC throughout the ‘70s and more sporadically on ABC from 1989 to 2003. At the heart of the show is the eponymous Columbo, played brilliantly by Peter Falk. Columbo is an unassuming blue collar detective, complete with a rumpled coat, an old beater car, and a generally clumsy, inelegant, and seemingly inept demeanor. However, he’s annoyingly relentless in his pursuit of the truth, and his persistence often generates a confession from the condescending perpetrators involved. When you hear “Just one more thing,” you know it’s about to go down...

#5: Nancy Drew

When it comes to detectives, few are as synonymous with the genre as Nancy Drew. This female sleuth was originally conceived as a counterpart to The Hardy Boys, having also been created by publisher Edward Stratemeyer. She made her first appearance in 1930, and went on to become arguably even more successful and influential than her male counterparts. Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, and two Supreme Court Justices have all proclaimed Nancy Drew to be a major source of inspiration in their lives. She’s one of the best, but also one of the most important and iconic detective characters ever created.

#4: Miss Marple

Agatha Christie is one of the greatest crime writers of all time, and one of her best creations is the elderly, amateur detective Miss Marple. She first appeared in the 1927 short story “The Tuesday Night Club,” which became part of the short story collection “The Thirteen Problems.” This particular tale portrayed a different kind of Miss Marple than the one readers grew to love, as she was a far more disagreeable person. In later novels she’s portrayed in a more gentle manner, often using her incredible intelligence to suss out the answers. Marple’s line of work has led her to develop a pessimistic outlook on human nature, adding a wonderful layer of philosophy to the timeless stories.

#3: Hercule Poirot

Beating out Miss Marple in our list is another Agatha Christie creation. Detective Hercule Poirot appeared in dozens of Christie’s works throughout 55 years of writing, including two plays and 33 novels. He made his first appearance in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” and most people will remember him from “Murder on the Orient Express.” His gorgeous mustache has been seen on the faces of many brilliant actors, including John Malkovich, Orson Welles, Kenneth Branagh, and Albert Finney. While Christie famously grew tired of writing about Poirot, the public always demanded more. And when he died in 1975’s “Curtain,” he received an obituary on the front page of The New York Times.

#2: Batman

Gotham’s dark knight is a unique mix of hard boiled detective and superhero - using state-of-the-art equipment, gadgets, and gizmos to fight criminals and solve crimes. Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, cover dated May 1939. The world was in the height of its hard boiled, film noir craze, and Batman was part of a superhero craze that also saw the debuts of Superman, The Flash, Black Widow, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. His universal appeal may lie in the fact that he’s a superhero without actual superpowers - relying instead on his wits, skill, and OK yeah, incredible fortune. Or maybe it’s his dark, brooding nature. Either way, the Caped Crusader endures today!

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Harry Callahan
Clint Eastwood Makes Any Character Cool

L
Eccentric & Meticulous, L Is the Perfect Nemesis for Light Yagami

Crockett & Tubbs
Nothing Embodies the New Wave Quite Like This Duo

Dirk Gently
The World’s Most Famous “Holistic Detective”

Ace Ventura
Pet Detective!

#1: Walker, Texas Ranger
Chuck Norris counted to infinity twice …or so the legend goes. Who are we to argue with that? Oookay, here’s our REAL number one ...

#1: Sherlock Holmes

No fictional detective will ever beat Sherlock Holmes - a name synonymous with the genre. Debuting in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 detective novel “A Study in Scarlet”, he subsequently appeared in four novels and 56 short stories, not to mention over 25,000 stage, film, and television productions! In fact, the iconic resident of 221B Baker Street is the most portrayed literary character in TV and movie history! Untidy and unsociable, Holmes is nonetheless meticulous when it comes to detective work, employing almost superhuman powers of deduction. He has a knack for revealing this reasoning with impressive dramatic flair. It might be “elementary” for him, but for Watson - and us - his skills continue to amaze!
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