There have been many great detectives on our screens, but who are the best television detectives of all time?
My top twelve includes some classic names, as well as some names that definitely wouldn’t make the list of most people!
Who are your favourite detectives? Are there any I’ve missed out?
12. Hercule Poirot
Kicking off with possibly one of the most well-known detectives of all time and yet he’s only 12th on my list…
But this is not to say I don’t think he’s a legendary character! I’ve watched many episodes of the TV series of Poirot with David Suchet, and, despite valiant efforts by other actors, Suchet is the most iconic and memorable portrayal of the Belgian detective.
Poirot is meticulous when solving his cases, and famously likes to end with a theatrical flourish by gathering the suspects at the end to reveal the murderer. Would this happen in the real world? Probably not. But it undoubtedly makes for a great climax and allows Poirot to self-indulge and show off his detecting skills!
I haven’t seen a whole Poirot episode for many years (which explains the perhaps lower ranking), but you can always rely on them for a good mystery, some laughs, and a stellar crime-solving performance by Poirot!
Pros: Methodical, never misses a trick, meticulous, always very well-dressed
Cons: Bit of a show-off, can be frustrating and irritating (for viewers and other characters), can be obsessive
Quote: “the little grey cells”
Fun Fact: To prepare for the role, David Suchet read all the Poirot books and compiled a portfolio all about the detective and his personality/mannerisms.
11. Frank and Joe Hardy
Sandwiched between two of the greatest and most legendary detectives of all time are…the Hardy Boys…. Now Frank and Joe are not quite at the same level as Poirot and Holmes, but growing up I was obsessed with the books and, later, the 1970s television series.
I could write a whole essay on how the TV series is not as good as the books (especially the Casefiles) and how Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy are too old to play the brothers, but instead I will focus on the positives!
The Hardy Boys are skilled at investigating and most of time are clever about how they go about things. They know about forensics and how to get fingerprints, they go undercover (although sometimes they’re not so successful), and ultimately they manage to solve the mystery.
Sometimes it seems to take them quite a while to reach the answer, but eventually they will get there!
Also, they show how being young and fit can be useful when you’re a detective in a spot of bother! This is quite refreshing as most of the names on this list won’t be getting involved in fights anytime soon. The Hardy Boys are fit enough to defend themselves and take action against the bad guys, something you wouldn’t see in a Poirot!
Pros: Funny, good-hearted, not afraid to put themselves at risk, good-looking in a 1970s way, their hair is never out of place even in the midst of action
Cons: Not as good as the books, Joe sings?!, think they are automatically better than qualified police and detectives (admittedly they sometimes are!), can be cocky and arrogant
Quote: Joe: “I was afraid you were going to say that”
Fun Fact: Shaun Cassidy is the son of actress Shirley Jones (Oklahoma!, Carousel) while Parker Stevenson studied architecture at Princeton.
10. Sherlock Holmes
The all-time greatest detective? Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes, and I have always been a fan, both of the books as well as the TV series in the 1980s and 90s with Jeremy Brett.
Arguably he solves some of the most difficult cases and, as the original great detective, he is inspiration for many of the detectives that followed.
Unlike the police detectives on the list, Holmes only took on cases that genuinely interested and absorbed him. He came across as easily bored, except when he was on the trail of mystery when he suddenly switched to being animated and excited.
For me, Jeremy Brett encapsulates the entire feel of Sherlock Holmes and is the definitive portrayal of this great detective. He managed to capture the oddity and eccentricity of him, but also his keen intelligence and eye for detail.
Brett portrayed Holmes as frail and thin, which fits with the lifestyle Holmes led with his drug use and irregular eating habits, and so he seemed to inhabit the role of Holmes. However, this brilliant depiction is tinged with sadness as Brett himself was dealing with some major health problems and died soon after the last series ended.
You were never quite sure what Holmes was thinking, and he was incredibly unpredictable and volatile depending on how the mood took him. He was intense and quite often rude, even to Dr Watson, despite there being a lot of respect and friendship between the two.
I think most would agree that Sherlock Holmes is brilliant detective but perhaps not the person you’d choose to have a cup of tea and a chat with!
Pros: Brilliant detective, fascinating character, sharp, quick-witted, an all-time great
Cons: Could live a healthier lifestyle, dismissive of others, arrogant, takes a lot to earn his respect, rude, unpredictable, seems to struggle with normal human emotions
Quote: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Fun Fact: Jeremy Brett was reportedly considered to take on the role of James Bond after Sean Connery.
Another iconic detective and an iconic series that launched two other equally successful spin-offs- Lewis and Endeavour.
Inspector Morse is another detective that is a bit of a loner- never marrying, seeming to not have any real close friends and not fitting in with the rest of the police force.
Morse is also another detective that is an “intellectual”- using his above-average intelligence to solve cases, but also to patronise people who perhaps are a bit slower to figure things out than him! He is undoubtedly a good and skilled detective, but he is less conventional than other police detectives at that time.
Several times, despite having a brilliant mind, Morse often got it wrong with a case. But, this just made him more human and it made the character much more interesting than if he was a know-it-all who got it right first time, every time.
I can imagine Morse would be hard to work with, so credit to Lewis for sticking with him! His attitude can easily irritate and alienate people and it can make him quite difficult to like sometimes.
However, there is no question that he always strived to do the right things, even if it involved rubbing people up the wrong way. We see this more in Endeavour, but you do see it in Morse, albeit to a lesser extent. At this later stage in his career, Morse seems more cynical of the world and everyone in it, and resigned to his lot in life.
Morse is certainly a flawed and complex character, but that’s part of what makes him so fascinating to watch. Seeing Morse in full flow, solving a case, is always a joy, even if he is often being disagreeable!
Pros: Intelligent, knowledgeable, human, dry wit, aims to do the right thing
Cons: Patronising, has a soft spot for the ladies, drinks a lot, rude, frustrating to work with
Quote: “Morse. Everyone just calls me Morse.”
Fun Fact: John Thaw’s daughter, Abigail, later starred in Endeavour.
Yes, Endeavour and Morse are the same person, but for the purpose of this ranking they are two different detectives!
I think it’s brilliant how, even though Endeavour started long after Morse finished, you can see how Morse grew to become the man he was.
When Endeavour first appeared on the force, he was young, fresh-faced, keen, and very sure that he was there to do the right thing. In these earlier series he was a little bit annoying and cocky, determined that he was right and everyone else was wrong. He thought he was cleverer than everyone else and that everyone else he worked with was desperately slow and stupid, especially as they often arrested the first and most obvious suspect they had which was always wrong!
However, Endeavour did sometimes overcomplicate things and try to be too clever, leading to him messing up a few times.
Endeavour has undoubtedly evolved over the series, but not necessarily in a good way. He has learnt to be a better police detective and how to use his intelligence to go about things the right way. However, this has come at a cost as he is no longer so optimistic and naive about the world. We have seen Endeavour become more cynical, disillusioned, and bitter, which sows the seeds for the character of Morse several years later.
The striking thing about Endeavour is his incorruptibility. He always strives to do the right thing, even if it harmed him and his career, which is evident in Series 2 Neverland and throughout Series 6.
This confirms his position as an outsider in the police force. He is never part of the “banter” of his colleagues and, even though he gets on with Strange and Strange makes an effort to be friendly, they are never exactly friends. Endeavour clearly has respect and cares for Strange, Thursday, and even Jakes eventually, but he is never able to fully express it. He comes across uptight and never quite comfortable in his surroundings, unless he’s listening to opera with a crossword and drink in his hand!
Pros: Intelligent, incorruptible, reliable, trustworthy, deep-down he has a kind and good heart
Cons: Sometimes struggles with human interaction, thinks he’s always right (even when he’s not), sometimes over-complicates things, seems to be dealing with a lot of issues
Fun Fact: Shaun Evans has a very strong Liverpudlian accent in real life.
7. Nancy Drew
Private investigator and amateur sleuth who many will underestimate, but often to their downfall! Again, like the Hardy Boys, I grew up loving the books and am also a fan of the 1970s TV series.
I think Pamela Sue Martin was a great Nancy Drew, and I wish there had been more episodes. Reportedly, Martin was unhappy with the direction the series was going and felt Nancy Drew was being side-lined so she left, which I think is a massive shame.
I didn’t think too much about it growing up, but looking back Nancy Drew was a great female role model. She believed in herself and her instincts, even when others didn’t, pursuing the matter and more often than not turning out to be right! She went out of her way to help people, whether she knew them or not, and she was very intelligent and switched-on.
Although her father and, to some extent, Ned, played their parts in the series and sometimes helped her, there was no questioning Nancy’s ability and independence.
If there is anything negative to say about Nancy Drew, it’s that she often got into some dangerous scenarios without waiting for help. While this shows bravery and that she’s not afraid of anything, it also shows she a bit stupid as she could have been in real danger. But, as it always works out in the end, we can applaud her and focus on her strengths!
Growing up I wanted to be like Nancy Drew, and more than ten years later here I am still wanting to be like her!
Pros: Clever, always looked fabulous, kind, believed in herself and other people, just a really cool person
Cons: Sometimes she was a bit too nosy, put herself in sometimes dangerous situations which were a little bit stupid
Fun Fact: Jamie Lee Curtis auditioned for the role of Nancy, losing out to Pamela Sue Martin but later guest starring in an episode.
A lazy Sunday afternoon watching Columbo is hard to beat. Short, disheveled, mac-wearing, cigar-smoking Columbo is another detective that many criminals underestimated in a classic example of how looks can be deceiving.
Columbo spent much of the time fumbling around, getting distracted and talking about things that were seemingly unrelated to the case, putting the suspects on edge as they didn’t know what he would do next. But while these people were thinking Columbo was an idiot, and were often getting irritated and impatient with him, the detective was quietly working out exactly what had happened!
His apparently bumbling and oblivious exterior hid a sharp detective mind that saw through people to get to the truth. Most of the time he seemed to know who had done the crime straightaway and was just playing games with them, waiting for them to incriminate themselves further and trip up.
Columbo is a genuinely nice guy going about his work. However, he is quite a mysterious character as we don’t really know that much about him! He often mentions Mrs Columbo, but the series never really looks at his personal life at all, instead focusing on the mystery.
Columbo may be considered by the police and the suspects he meets as a funny and odd detective, but we know that the blundering exterior disguises a sharp and keen detective mind!
Pros: Good-natured, sharp-minded, shrewd, funny ( both intentionally and unintentionally), knows how to get to/unsettle people
Cons: Scruffy, could probably save hundreds of pounds of public money by wrapping up cases quicker, needs a new wardrobe
Quote: “Just one more thing…”
Fun Fact: Peter Falk provided his own clothes, including the rain coat, and he would often ad-lib the different mannerisms.
5. Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey
Like Nancy Drew, Cagney and Lacey were two early female role models in the world of detective television. However, this time they were doing it as official detectives in a police force which brought a whole new set of issues to explore.
As well as dealing with the challenges of each particular case, Cagney and Lacey have to contend with being some of the few female figures in a male-dominated environment. The series shows them overcoming some of these challenges, but also highlights the difficulties they faced as female police detectives in the 80s, both from colleagues and from other people they came into contact with during a case.
The series also explored their personal lives, with Christine getting involved in some troubled relationships while Mary-Beth had to balance family life and later cope with being pregnant. Seeing their lives out of work gave their characters more depth, making them more interesting and easier to like and root for.
I think Cagney and Lacey’s partnership is one of the best I’ve watched on TV. Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly worked really well together and created a believable partnership and friendship, despite their characters being very different.
Christine is unmarried and the quieter of the two, while Mary Beth is married with kids and is extremely chatty and outgoing. Christine often immersed herself in work and found it hard to switch off, whereas for Mary-Beth, family was the priority and the job was just that- a job to get a regular salary.
Cagney and Lacey had different backgrounds, motivations, and lives outside the police, but when they were on a case, they united to become a formidable detecting force that was inspiring and fun to see!
Pros: Strong, inspirational, funny, great double act, well-rounded characters, interesting, intelligent, overcame numerous obstacles, Christine always looked stunning
Cons: Didn’t always make the right decisions during investigations, at the 2018 British Soap Awards they spoke for way too long (I am struggling to think of anything negative to say about them!)
Fun Fact: In the first season, Meg Foster played Cagney. She was replaced by Sharon Gless from season 2 onwards.
4. Jimmy Perez
Living in the remote beauty of Shetland is DI Perez, played by Douglas Henshall.
He may not have to deal with quite as much crime as city detectives, but when a murder or other big case comes along he is more than up to the task! With limited resources and with the island posing some unique challenges that other detectives don’t have to worry about, he is someone who is very capable of solving any case that comes his way.
Perez is one of the more underrated detectives, but he really shouldn’t be! He effectively solves cases almost on his own (with support from Tosh and Sandy) and he is also a single parent to teenage step-daughter Cassie. Sometimes he is a little too over-protective of Cassie but that is understandable!
Cassie and maintaining order in Shetland are his main priorities, and this makes it near impossible to find anything to dislike about Perez.
Although Perez is understanding, sensitive, and kind, and backs people who others might not, you definitely wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side. If you are honest with him and have nothing to hide, Perez would be a great ally. But, if you’ve done something wrong, lie to him, or try to disguise anything, then watch out!
A stand-out feature of Perez is that he’s not afraid to look further into things, even if it might turn up some unpleasant truths. Duncan (biological father of Cassie) has often caused Perez some headaches, but he doesn’t let any loyalties get in the way of his investigation. This is particularly admirable and hard to do on Shetland as it seems everyone knows everyone in Shetland!
Another thing I love about Perez and Shetland is the almost fatherly relationship between him and Tosh. Especially after Tosh was raped, we have seen this friendship grow even more and it is one of the best parts of the series.
As an aside, I am so relieved they have not contrived a relationship between him and Tosh, or tried to shoehorn in romance where it’s really not needed. Jimmy Perez, the Shetland scenery, and a good mystery is more than enough!
Pros: Clever, good-hearted, good father, loyal, honest, lives in one of the most beautiful locations, has a good jumper selection
Cons: Never seems fully happy, carries a lot of stress and worries, Scottish accent not always the easiest to understand
Quote: “This is Shetland, so it’s always personal.”
Fun Fact: In the books by Ann Cleeves (who also wrote Vera), we see Jimmy’s wife Fran (he is a widower in the TV series) and Cassie is much younger than we see on TV.
Starting off as Morse’s sidekick, Lewis, played by Kevin Whately, has grown to become a widely popular detective headlining his own spin-off series!
And, for me, Lewis is my favourite of the two. While Morse is incredibly brainy and intellectual, he is also surly, whereas Lewis is more easy-going and is definitely someone I’d rather sit down and have a chat with!
But make no mistake, although Lewis appears more like your average good guy, he is just as good a detective as Morse. Although in Morse, Lewis was often the focus of ridicule and contempt by Morse, he did show in that original series that he had the makings of a good detective!
And that came to the fore in the Lewis series. Lewis was approachable, good-natured, and understanding, but he was also able to figure out when someone was lying to him. He worked through the evidence and interviews and, with assistance from Hathaway, always managed to work out what was going on.
Lewis sometimes let his personal feelings cloud his judgement, but that just made him more likeable and relatable to me (and probably every viewer).
One of the unique things about Lewis is that we’ve seen him transition from a young sergeant under Morse to an inspector with his own sergeant. It’s allowed us to really got to know and love the character and see his development, which none of the other detectives really offer!
In this series I loved to watch his relationship with Hathaway grow and they bounced off each other really well, acting as an unstoppable crime-solving duo as well as genuine friends.
Of course we also saw his relationship develop with Hobson, in one of the longest-running, slowest-burning romances ever seen on screen!
Pros: Kind-hearted, always aiming to do the right thing, loyal, honest, easy to talk to, would definitely have a pint with him
Cons: Lets personal opinions of people cloud judgement, can get easily frustrated
Quote: “Same again?” “Mine’s a pint.”
Fun Fact: In the TV series, Lewis is from the north-east, whereas in the books he is Welsh.
2. Vera Stanhope
The second disheveled detective on this list whose main fashion piece is a raincoat.
And, yet again, a case of don’t judge a book by its cover. However, I don’t think many people underestimate DCI Stanhope as you can see immediately how sharp and switched-on she really is.
To people who are honest with her and have nothing to hide, she is nice and friendly (in her own way), showing that she does have a kind heart and a soft side. But for those that try to get away with things, be afraid because she will find you out! Vera can make anyone remotely suspicious uneasy, and she won’t stop digging until she finds out the truth.
Vera is quite an eccentric and mysterious character and we know very little about her, apart from occasional snippets. Despite Joe and Aiden trying to involve her in their lives and be friendly to her, by inviting her round for tea for example, she seems to prefer her own company.
I’ve loved watching her relationship with Joe and then Aiden grow and, even though she pushes them away and deflects any of their invitations or probing questions, there does seem to be genuine friendship between them.
One thing you can never say about Vera is that she doesn’t give a case 100% of her attention! We regularly see her working overnight, not stopping until the case is complete, which just highlights how her work really is her whole life.
Pros: You know she will catch whoever did it, has a caring side (deep down), persistent, leaves no stone unturned, dry wit, doesn’t stand for any nonsense
Cons: Scary if you get on her wrong side, bit too obsessed with her work, doesn’t let people get too close to her, doesn’t always value her colleagues
Quote: “Joe/Aiden, with me!”
Fun Fact: Brenda Blethyn has won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, received two Academy Award nominations and an Olivier nomination.
1. Christopher Foyle
And now for the number one detective. Undoubtedly the most perfect detective on this list and ever to grace our TV screens is DCS Foyle played by the wonderful Michael Kitchen.
Foyle keeps his cards very close to his chest and goes about his business in a quiet way, but he is one of the kindest, cleverest, and fascinating detectives on TV.
I could write an entire essay on Foyle (and probably will), but he is quiet, methodical, honest, and always searching for justice. He is coping with crime in a time of war, which arguably makes his job one of the more difficult ones faced by any detective on this list.
Initially he wanted to leave the police and play a greater role in the war effort, but when this didn’t work out he was resigned to being stuck in Hastings. However, he didn’t use this as an excuse to sit back and have an “easy war”, instead pursuing criminals of all kinds to get justice for the innocent victims who have been wronged.
Foyle was a kind of maverick as he was dogged in his task of bringing people to justice, even if there was pressure from other groups, whether his superiors, the military, or intelligence services, to let things slide or cover things up. Often, he found out what was going on and then was told the crime was justified in the bigger picture of the war effort, but he never agreed with that.
He hated people using the war as an excuse to commit offences, and this was most clearly seen when he went off to America to bring Howard Page to justice at the end of the war.
Normally someone so good and “perfect” wouldn’t make for a very interesting character, but it’s quite the opposite! He is very understated and doesn’t show much emotion, but that’s not to say he doesn’t care.
Foyle is clearly close to his son Andrew, and he also has a nice, fatherly relationship with Sam. She may infuriate him at times, but he does genuinely care for her and is always looking out for her. He is also loyal and believes in people, even in Sergeant Milner when his wife was murdered and all the evidence pointed to him, so he is definitely someone I would want in my corner if I was ever in any trouble!
Even in the later series set in the Cold War, when Foyle worked in London for MI5, he still kept that same honesty and morality in a world filled with subterfuge, spies, and corruption
Pros: Intelligent, always looking for justice, kind, honest, trustworthy, always well-dressed, dry wit, open-minded and unprejudiced
Cons: There wasn’t enough episodes
Quote: “My name’s Foyle, I’m a police officer”
Fun Fact: Foyle’s War was cancelled then later brought back, which explains the jump in time between the series.