Idris Elba explodes onto screen as Luther tonight – but which other great telly-detectives does he follow? And can he match them?
Idris Elba’s Luther might not have a great deal in common with Miss Marple – I can’t see him going down a storm in St Mary Mead, for instance. But that is the beauty of television crime-solving – it’s a broad church, with room for amateur sleuths, moody inspectors, razor-sharp detectives and everything in between.
That, however, brings its problems – with every man and his dog apparently having a hand (or paw) in solving crime. So we’ve limited our search for the best television detectives to professional police or private detectives, rather than the full array of part-time consultants, busybodies and hobbyist gumshoes (although I’m sure we’ll come to them another time). So here are our “top of the cops”– six great TV detectives to watch. Who would you have included? Let us know below.
Lieutenant Columbo – Columbo (1968-2003)
With his short stature and shabby attire, the cigar-chomping lieutenant doesn’t look like a brilliant detective. Nor does he act like one, as his bumbling, absent-mindedness and over-polite manner marks his card as the type of man who’d struggle to master the cooking instructions on a Pot Noodle, let alone unravel the web of deceit behind a complex murder mystery. But Columbo’s demeanour is nothing but a ruse – he’s a brilliant detective who misdirects guilty parties by lulling them into a false sense of security.
Peter Falk was not the first man to play the detective – that honour goes to Bert Freed, who first appeared as the erstwhile lieutenant as far back as 1960 – but Falk makes it his own with a performance that’s still a joy to watch today. And from the detective’s own “just one more thing …” line of questioning, to the off-screen Mrs Columbo, it’s a show that, like it’s titular character, offers more than meets the eye.
DI William Edward “Jack” Frost – A Touch of Frost (1993-2010)
The latest man in blue to go the way of the bobbies from Sun Hill, David Jason’s Frost bowed out with more than eight million viewers this Easter after more than 18 years on our screens. Equal parts human failing, comedic-value and blustering gruffness, Jason’s long-standing crime-stopper makes the list – if only because of Frost’s ability to possibly achieve the unthinkable and replace the enduringly popular Del Boy as the actor’s most memorable role.
Detective James “Jimmy” McNulty – The Wire (2002-2008)
Yes, I know. The Guardian loves The Wire. It cannot write a TV article without mentioning it. But then The Wire has also provided us with some fine po-lice, particularly in the form of the whiskey-swilling, womanising, scourge of the Baltimore PD that is Jimmy McNulty.
He may have problems with authority, alcohol and even alimony, and I’ll admit that he may not be the most likeable of characters on this list, but you can’t deny that McNulty closes cases and offers a much needed shot in the arm for the modern-day inhabitants of police procedurals.
Detective Hercule Poirot – Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-present)
Perhaps the most recognisable face furniture in on-screen detection, if it wasn’t for fine chocolates or the notion of mayonnaise on chips, Poirot might make it as Belgium’s most famous export. As it is, the impeccably-presented inspector must settle for a place on our list instead.
From the waters of the Nile to the luxury of the Orient Express, Poirot is a classic of the crime-solving genre both in his logic-based methodology to the historical setting in which he operates. David Suchet is irreplacable in the role.
DCI Endeavour Morse – Inspector Morse (1987-2000)
As the grouchy bachelor tidying up the killing streets of Oxford, John Thaw’s Inspector Morse commands a soft spot in the heart of armchair dwellers across Britain. The charismatic detective with his penchant for real ale, crosswords and of course classic cars, became a fan favourite – and a late example of the type of gentleman detective that personifies Britain’s whodunnit tradition.
A fun fact for fans of dots and dashes: the beeps in the show’s opening credits actually spell “Morse” in Morse code and applying the same rule to incidental music supposedly reveals the murderer’s identity.
Detective Lieutenant Theo Kojak – Kojak (1973-1978)
As far as catchphrases go, “Who loves ya baby?” is up there with the best of them. The follically challenged, shades-wearing lollipop-sucking New York policeman popularised the maverick cop, a character who’d bend if not break the rules to get his man, and who would come to epitomise the classic American investigator
Gene Hunt (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes)
A fan favourite I’m sure, but the ability to handle a Quattro at high speed does not make up for his questionable detective skills.
Adrian Monk (Monk)
Though he doesn’t quite make our constabulary countdown (and hasn’t seemed to made the transition across the pond as well as you might expect), Monk’s a fine detective and noteworthy for the character’s collection of psychiatric traits, phobias and ever-present OCD.
Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect)
Women are sadly under-represented on our list but despite the company of peers such as Juliet Bravo, Helen Mirren’s no-nonsense detective only just missed the cut.