Cop shows and movies are everywhere, and they’ve been around for as long as the mediums have existed. Everyone loves rooting for the good guys to bring the bad guys to justice, starting with the old John Wayne and Gary Cooper movies where they exhibited frontier justice all the way up to the approximately 78 various incarnations of Law and Order and CSI. And with every good cop show and movie, there is a top notch detective right at the heart, getting to the root of the crime and seeing things no one else can because, let’s face it, in most of these things everyone but the protagonist is an idiot. Here are some of our favorite fictional detectives.
“Dirty” Harry Callahan
A lot of detectives use nothing but their wits and bloodhound-like qualities to track down killers and solve crimes. Look no further than a character like Adrian Monk, for example, who knows how to use a gun but sure as hell never wants to, relying on his intellect more than anything else. We bring up Monk because he’s one of the most famous San Francisco detectives of all-time. The second most famous, that is. The most famous, of course, has a very different tactic than Monk. After all, there’s a reason they call him “Dirty” Harry Callahan.
Dirty Harry is a smart detective, but he’s also tough as nails and most definitely does not mind discharging his weapon in the line of duty. It’s generally a last resort and he’s pressed into it when given no other choice, but he’s a deadeye with his magnum and, trust us, he’ll take your head clean off. He’s a tireless detective who always gets his man, even if he has to bend the rules now and then to make sure he gets a conviction or, more likely, blasts the crap out of the criminal with his revolver. If you’re a criminal and Dirty Harry is assigned to the case, you’d probably be better off just surrendering.
We mentioned Law and Order, so how could we not include the greatest Law and Order character of all-time? Numerous detectives cycled through the show over its two decades on television, not to mention the multiple spin-offs, most notably Special Victims Unit. But none were more memorable than Lenny Briscoe, played masterfully by the late, great Jerry Orbach. Chances are if you’re a fan of Law and Order, you get more excited for a rerun featuring Lenny Briscoe than any other detective, and with good reason. He’s just a damn entertaining cop, quick witted and always ready with a snarky one-liner no matter how grisly the situation.
The formerly hard drinking detective was, for the most part, clean and sober through his entire run on the show, with one notable exception in one of the most powerful and unorthodox episodes in the show’s history. If you’ve seen the show, you know which one we’re talking about. If you haven’t, well, we won’t spoil it for you. Odds are it’ll be on TNT at some point in the next few weeks since they run approximately 127 episodes per week. Like Dirty Harry, Lenny doesn’t mind bending the rules now and then, as long as it gets results. But for the most part, he’s a good cop and is only out for justice.
When you’re talking about a show like The Wire, you have literally dozens of detectives to choose from. Do you take the drunken, womanizing and brilliant Jimmy McNulty? Do you go with his partner, the almost equally drunken, sometimes womanizing and no-nonsense Bunk Moreland? Nope. While McNulty and Bunk are true murder police and two of the brightest minds in the Baltimore PD, if we’re talking about the most brilliant Baltimore detective of all you’ve got to talk about Lester Freamon.
Cool Lester Smooth, as he’s often referred to, is a natural homicide detective who was put on the sidelines for 13 years because he wouldn’t play ball with some politically connected people. He was put on the original task force in season one because people thought he was a “hump”, but it quickly became readily apparent he was generally the smartest guy in the room. He used connections no one else had, saw things no one else could and went from a forgotten pawn shop detective to one of the brightest stars in homicide. Oh, and he managed to bag himself a hot ex-stripper turned informant just for good measure. Cool Lester Smooth, indeed.
We already included one member of the Law and Order franchise, but now we move onto the aforementioned spinoff Law and Order: SVU. And of course, you’re probably wondering how the hell we can choose John Munch over Elliot Stabler or Olivia Benson, and while those are two great and extremely memorable detectives, John Munch gets the nod because he has something going for him that no other fictional detective can possibly touch. Not only has he been on both Law and Order and SVU, but he was also originally created for a show called Homicide: Life on the Street, and even popped up in an uncredited cameo in The Wire.
Yep, this one character, played by Richard Belzer, is extremely well traveled and has been on three of the greatest cop shows of all-time. The character is also based primarily on real-life Baltimore detective Jay Landsman, which is a name that should sound familiar if you ever watched The Wire. Not only was there a character on that show named Jay Landsman, based on the real guy, but the actual Landsman played another character on the show. So it’s because John Munch is based on such a legendary cop and popped up on so many great shows, we have to give him the nod as our representative from Law and Order: SVU.
What, you thought we could legitimately make a list of awesome fictional detectives without including the greatest of all-time? Sherlock Holmes has been around since the 19th century, and his science of deduction is the method of detective work by which all others are measured. We could talk about the books, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or the various films starring Basil Rathbone, or even the latest big screen incarnations starring Robert Downey, Jr. in the titular role. However, we’re going to keep it in the realm of television and talk about the latest masterpiece, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and simply titled “Sherlock.”
If you haven’t seen the show, first of all, do so. Immediately. It’s a modern update of the Sherlock stories, which stays remarkably true to the source material as it follows the work of the eccentric and brilliant Sherlock with the assistance of his loyal friend and former military doctor John Watson. Cumberbatch takes the character to places he’s never been, and is delightfully obnoxious as he states again and again how much smarter he is than everyone else while also putting on full display just how out of touch with reality and common sense he often is. Cumberbatch’s performance is yet another reason we love Sherlock Holmes most of all.