The Top 5 Greatest Detectives of American Pop Culture

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The Brits have Sherlock Holmes and 007, but American pop culture boasts some the slickest, slyest and most brilliant detectives who, once on your case, are impossible to deceive for very long. From spies to cops to cartoon characters, some of the most memorable characters in American folklore are gumshoes who are as impossible for us to forget as they are for bad guys to shake.

5 Olivia Benson

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Mariska Hargitay’s character on the “SVU” installment of the “Law and Order” franchise is the ultimate sex-crimes cop. A product of her mother’s rape, she relentlessly and mercilessly tracks down New York City’s ghastliest ghouls and showers their victims with empathy and compassion. Her trademark side-to-side, shampoo commercial head shake always gets her hair out of her eyes just before it’s time to shoot. Her partner, Eliot Stabler, rounds out the duo as they break down suspects with their perfect interrogation-room rendition of beautiful cop, more beautiful cop.

4 James McNulty

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This hard-drinking, adulterous, foul-mouthed, corner-cutting central character of “The Wire” is what his partner, Bunk, would refer to as “natural po-lice.” When his nose catches the scent of an arch-criminal, there is simply nowhere for him to hide. The epitome of a rough cop on a rough beat in a rough town, McNulty’s heart is in the right place, even if his actions disgust even the most grizzled inner-city cops. You probably wouldn’t want to be married to him, but if you’re the victim of a crime in West Baltimore, there’s no other detective you’d rather have on your side.

3 Jack Ryan

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The CIA analyst born from the imagination of political/military/crime/thriller master Tom Clancy has unraveled mysteries on land, on submarines and once in a football stadium in Baltimore. No nemesis can outwit him, no international border can forbid him, no politician can contain him. He dissects multifaceted plots so complicated that it’s hard for the viewer to keep up from inside the movie theater. Sometimes he’s Harrison Ford, sometimes he’s Alec Baldwin—he’s even occasionally Ben Affleck. But to bad guys who thought they came up with the perfect crime, there is only one Jack Ryan.

2 The Scooby Doo Gang

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If you’re a cartoon bad guy who is up to some shady shenanigans on a dock, in an old warehouse or in any spooky, foggy, abandoned setting while wearing a mask that no one can detect isn’t your real face, watch out. There is a cowardly great Dane and a crew of meddling kid detectives ready to foil any plot you can cook up. They come in a van called the Mystery Machine, their feet turn into a circular blur when they run and they never, ever fail to crack the case.

1 Columbo

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Usually fictional detectives are sharply dressed, quick-witted, suave and dangerous, but the ones you really have to watch out for wear wrinkled raincoats and walk around in frumpy pants mumbling to themselves like your grandfather. You might think you’ve already gone over this before, but Peter Falk’s legendary sleuth wants to talk about it one more time. Why? You—like so many before you—have allowed his polite, yet befuddled demeanor to disarm you. You underestimate him. Bad mistake.

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