TV Sleuth Smackdown

Who is the Greatest TV Sleuth of All Time? 

By David Bushman (with Nina Zipkin) 

Sherlock Holmes, arguably the greatest sleuth of all time (with the possible exception of Scooby Doo), hits the big screen again, as the title character in Guy Ritchie's new film starring Robert Downey, Jr. The important question, here at the end of the aughts (or the naughts), is: who among all TV crime-fighters is the true heir to Holmes's deerstalker cap?

And the winner is... Gil Grissom!

Gruesome Grissom by a landslide. CSI's socially inept forensic entomologist has left the show, but apparently absence really does make the heart grow fonder, as Grissom bagged an impressive 14% of the vote. Almost as impressive: the next eight nominees -- Dr. House, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse, Adrian Monk, Crockett and Tubbs, Brenda Johnson, Thomas Magnum, and Dale Cooper -- all finished within a single point of one another, in that order, although none gathered more than House's 7.9%. We're awed by the diverse bent of our readers, as these top-nine finishers represented three different countries, plus eccentric G-man Cooper, who, like cocreator David Lynch, surely hails from another planet. 

A brilliant, if immodest, detective, Holmes possesses extraordinary powers of observation and deduction, and is no slouch when it comes to the physical stuff either, having mastered the martial art of baritsu, in addition to being a skillful pugilist and swordsman. Created by Scotsman Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes appeared first in 1887 in "A Study of Scarlet," a short story published in Beeton's Christmas Annual after many rejections. Doyle went on to write fifty-six short stories and four novels featuring Holmes—aka "the canon"—including "The Final Problem" (1893), in which Holmes and criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty, locked in mortal combat, ostensibly tumble to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. The author had grown weary of his larger-than-life creation and longed to write historical yarns, though eventually he yielded to public pressure and resurrected the great detective.

More about Holmes

 

"TV Sleuth Smackdown" pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Illustration by Sidney Paget.


 
 

 

POLL RESULTS:  

Gil Grissom - 14.4% 
(William Peterson, CSI) Never mind that "Gruesome Grissom" kept two-headed scorpions and a radiated fetal pig in his office and related best to dominatrixes and serial killers: this guy is a brilliant forensic entomologist/crime scene investigator and may be the most Holmes-like name on this list: he's borderline Asperger, quotes Shakespeare, and is exceedingly skilled at observation and deduction. However, unlike Holmes, who never got to first base with Irene Adler, Grissom got the girl (Sara Sidle).

 

 

Dr. Gregory House - 7.9%
(Hugh Laurie, House) Special mention must be made of House. All M.D.s are sleuths of a sort, but House is the medical incarnation of the "consulting detective." The parallels are deliberate and delicious, from the cute play on the name Holmes, to the vicodin addiction, to the best friend/enabler Dr. Watson, who is now Dr. Wilson. Hugh Laurie even channels the great Jeremy Brett's head turn when the answer has come to him. All in all, an excellent addition to the canon.

 

 

Hercule Poirot - 7.8%
(David Suchet, Mystery!) In creating this peculiar little Belgian—a vain, fastidious fellow with an egg-shaped head and a waxed black mustache—Agatha Christie acknowledged her debt to Holmes, and like Conan Doyle, she grew tired of her creation (at one point labeling him a "detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep)," but she refused for a long time to kill him off because of his popularity with readers. Poirot was a thinking man's detective, relying not on physical clues like prints and handwriting, but rather on his own "little grey cells." In 1975, when Poirot finally met his death, he was awarded an obit in The New York Times, which has to count for something, right?

 

Inspector Morse - 7.74% 
(John Thaw, Mystery) The Oxford copper with the university creds (but no degree). The town/gown split is fierce in the spired city, but Morse can navigate the power structures of the colleges as he pursues his genuine passion for justice and punishment. Perhaps the most like our uber-sleuth: an English intellectual snob with a passion for music (opera/Wagner), an addiction (fine English ale), a penchant for cryptic crossword puzzles, completed by a sidekick (the loyal Geordie Sgt. Lewis), and with a distinct Christian name he doesn't use: Endeavor. 
 
Adrian Monk - 7.67%
(Tony Shaloub, Monk) Monk is actually based partly on Holmes, according to creator David Hoberman, but even by Holmes's standards this guy is high-maintenance—an obsessive-compulsive with, at last count, over three hundred phobias (everything from milk to mushrooms), he has to fight the urge to straighten furniture at crime scenes. Still, his photographic memory and Holmes-like ability to reconstruct entire crimes from the tiniest details make him one heckuva gumshoe.
  
Sonny Crockett/Ricardo Tubbs - 7.59% 
(Don Johnson/Philip Michael Thomas, Miami Vice) MTV cops Crockett and Tubbs shopped for socks at the same outlet as Thomas Magnum (meaning none), but five-o'clock shadows and linen suits aside, these were two tough hombres who not only tangled with vicious, nefarious cocaine cowboys in Miami's drug-infested South Beach, but also had to constantly figure out what soft-spoken Lieutenant Martin Castillo (Edward James Olmos) was trying to tell them.
 
 
 
 

Brenda Leigh Johnson - 7.577%
(Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer) A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, this Georgia peach is a CIA-trained interrogator who can wring a confession from a dishrag (hence, the titular nickname). Brenda, a deputy chief in the major-crimes unit of the LAPD, gives new meaning to the term "flawed hero" (wicked sweet tooth, awful driver, Type A control freak, etc.), but on the other hand, she's unfailingly polite and—like they say down South—"natural po-leece."
 
 
 
 
 
 
Thomas Magnum - 7.573% 
(Tom Selleck, Magnum, P.I.) A Vietnam vet and former POW, Magnum seemed a lot less cranky than John McCain, but maybe that had something to do with his crib (an awesome beachfront estate in O'ahu, free), his car (a Ferrari 308 GTS, also free), and his encounters with the ladies (get your mind out of the gutter!). An oxymoronic laid-back man of action, Magnum became increasingly complex as the series evolved and he was forced to deal with difficult emotional issues, like dying from a gunshot wound at the end of season seven and then miraculously returning to life when the series was surprisingly picked up for an eighth.
 
 
 
 
 
Dale Cooper - 7.1%  

(Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks) "Coop" to his friends, this G-man was all intuition, inspired by Tibetan mythology and surreal dreams involving dancing dwarves and antediluvian giants in his quest to solve the murder of depraved high-schooler Laura Palmer. When last seen, he was fractured in half, his good self trapped in the Black Lodge and his doppelganger smacking his head against the bathroom mirror as the evil BOB stared back, laughing maniacally.

 

 

Columbo - 6.6% 
(Peter Falk, Columbo) The banality of genius: a fumbling, seemingly slow-witted Everyman in a rumpled raincoat—master of the false exit—lulls haughty suspects into a false sense of security, then pounces, trapping them in their own lies. Oh, just one more thing: the part was offered to Bing Crosby and Lee J. Cobb, who turned it down. 

 

 

 

Dana Scully/Fox Mulder - 6.3%  
(Gillian Anderson/David Duchovny, The X-Files) Trust us on this: these two were a wreck. She's the skeptic, a lapsed Catholic, struggling to reconcile science with faith. He's the believer, tormented by the alien abduction of his little sister on his watch. Those later-in-life his-and-her abductions hardly helped. However, these two special FBI agents took on one of the most insidious conspiracies of all time, involving ETs, government officials, and the cancerous Cigarette Smoking Man—and won! (we think).

 

 

David Addison/Maddie Hayes - 5.9%  
(Bruce Willis/Cybill Shepherd, Moonlighting) At first, they knew just what we were there for: they sang, they danced, they bickered, they kissed, sometimes they even solved crimes! They not only quoted Shakespeare but performed it. Eventually, in one of the great TV blunders of all time, they consummated their relationship, something Holmes and Watson never did (we think).


 


Joe Friday - 3.3% 
(Jack Webb, Dragnet) Was a cop, carried a badge. But old, black-and-white Joe (forget the sixties episodes) wasn't exactly the automaton we are led to believe. Beneath that mug was the sneer of a man who despised crime and was incapable of mustering sympathy for even the most tragic transgressors. While Webb insisted Friday was just a "steady, plodding kind of cop," facts are facts, and Super Joe always got his man.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Veronica Mars - 1.5% 
(Kristin Bell, Veronica Mars) Snar-keeeee! Mistress of the sardonic quip—once, when a passer-by noticed her incapacitated car and asked "Flat?" she replied "Just as God made me." But VM was tenacious without peer, and smart too, and when she made up her mind to solve something—like her best friend's murder or her own drugging/rape—this Goddess of war was an earth-scorcher.
 
 
 
 
 

Angel - 0.9% 
(David Boreanaz, Angel) Your average, everyday vampire with a soul. A real brooder. But boy could he kick butt! The fact that a preponderance of his adversaries were superpowered creatures with names like Voca (Warrior of the Underworld), the Scourge, and The Beast only made his accomplishments that much more impressive. Inside, the guy had heart—his mission was to "help the hopeless"—even if he had been dead over two hundred years and was harboring a vicious demon inside. If he's OK with Buffy, he's OK with us.
  • CONSIDERING TV ONLY (LITERARY CHARACTERS ARE A SEPARATE ISSUE.) THERE ARE TWO DISTINCT INTERPRETATIONS ON THIS QUESTION:

    fIRST THERE IS THE QUALITY OF THE PROGRAM/MOVIE/SERIES WITH REGARD TO SETTING, PRODUCTION NVALUES, PLOT, COMPLEXITY, CONSISTENCY, ETC.

    SECOND THERE IS THE CHARACTER OF THE SLEUTH HIMSELF (USED INCLUSIVELY SINCE I'M NOT TRENDY ENOUGH TO AVOID STANDARD ENGLISH)  AND THE PORTRAYAL BY THE PARTICULAR ACTOR.

    i SUSPECT THAT HOLMES HAS BEEN PLAYED BY MORE ACTORS THAN ANY OTHER SLEUTH AND THAT PHILIP MARLOWE COMES SECOND IN THIS REGARD.

    iN THE FIRST CATEGORY I FIND MYSELF UNABLE TO CHOOSE BETWEEN THE MANY EXCELLENT CANDIDATES.

    IN THE SECOND CATEGORY i CONFESS AN APPARENTLY MINORITY POSITION IN FAVOR OF DAVID JANSSEN'S HARRY O. WHENEVER i THINK OF HARRY MY FIRST IMAGE IS HIM BOARDING A CITY BUS BRCAUSE HIS BELOVED SPRITE IS IN THE SHOP. THIS DEGLAMORIZED APPROACH APPEALS TO ME.

    BUT THEN FOR A LIGHT HEARTED APPROACH IT'S HARD TO BEAT THE ROCKFORD FILES' GARNER AND BEERY COMBO.

     


    Thos, December 27, 2009 at 5:48 am

  • +-Inspector Morse along with Sergeant Lewis were the most entertaining duo

    on TV for a very long time.  Adam Dalgleish was great but gloomy.Who can

    decide between the Miss Marples?  However, Inspector Lewis and his side kick

    (I'm ashamed I can't remember his name) are just as delightful as the

    original pair and I DO hope there are more upcoming episodes.


    Granny, December 20, 2009 at 10:42 am

  • Jeremy Brett, is a deliberate omission, as we are looking to crown the TV successor to Sherlock Holmes, which alas cannot be Holmes himself. We do however pay tribute to the great JB with a clip on our home page.


    David, December 17, 2009 at 12:06 pm

  • I went with the tried-and-true Lt. Columbo, though I admit it's a tough call. Runners-up for me would be Adrian Monk, Hercule Poirot and the X-Files duo. As for glaring omissions, I see someone's already mentioned Angela Lansbury in "Murder She Wrote," but just as egregious is leaving out Jeremy Brett, who brilliantly brought Sherlock Holmes (some would argue the definitive Holmes) to life on PBS.


    JWeis31, December 12, 2009 at 1:30 pm

  • Mr. Monk got my vote.


    Mike Strickland, December 08, 2009 at 4:52 pm

  • Mike, I'm gonna guess you voted for Joe Friday.


    David, December 07, 2009 at 3:01 pm

  • Oh dear God, Angel is on the list. Let's hope the Whedon fans don't catch wind of this poll and turn it into yet another Paley Center poll circus!  :-)


    Mike Strickland, December 07, 2009 at 11:35 am

  • As far as I'm concerned a vote for Summer Glau is always appropriate.


    David, December 07, 2009 at 10:44 am

  • Humm...where do you go to vote for Summer Glau ?


    chris2, December 06, 2009 at 10:10 am

  • You guys are harsh! How could we include Goren and Eames but not any of the other L&O cops, like Briscoe? Then suddenly the list goes from 15 to 25. Too many! As for Ellery Queen, I would argue that his TV incarnations were never very successful. Dagleish and Marple I grant you could hve been included. I'm kind of stunned no one is mentioning Jane Tennison.


    David, December 04, 2009 at 2:46 pm