aka: Private Defective
The Gift. They always get everything wrong, and if it wasn't for other people, they would never solve a single case. Often used to lampshade how the real detective is frankly just making Ass Pulls. If they're just trying to solve an entirely different case and accidentally succeeding at foiling an actual criminal scheme, it's just Inspector Oblivious at work. Not to be confused with Defective Detective. Compare Clueless Deputy. Nothing to do with a Clueless Mystery, which just doesn't let the audience figure it out.
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Anime & Manga
- Detective Conan: Kogoro Mouri, until a case comes along in which a friend or family member has been killed or is at risk. Most of the real cops fall under Inspector Lestrade, except for Misao Yamamura from Gunma, who is a complete idiot who can't do anything right so that even Mouri Face Palms at him.
- Inspector Otsuka (Blooper, in the English version) from Gigantor. The 10-year-old Kid With The Remote Control is far, far more competent than he is, even without the robot.
- Hanpei Hattori from Kikaider. Dressed like Sherlock Holmes and bragged about being a descendant of Hattori Hanzo, but never managed to do much of anything (course, he was somewhat upstaged by the android Henshin Hero who was the star of the show...).
- Samurai Champloo has the bumbling Manzou the Saw who narrates a couple of episodes of the series.
- Darker Than Black has Gui Kurosawa for comic relief. Wrong Genre Savvy meets Weirdness Censor (despite knowing he's under Alien Sky and even having been possessed once) and survives due to fool's luck when he stumbles on something nasty. Then being Too Dumb to Fool helps him to stray back into danger. Even his Sassy Secretary thinks little of him.
- In Ace Attorney Investigations, there is not only Gumshoe (see Video Games), but also the comparatively clueless Thomas Bester, a private detective whom Randolph Miller hired to protect Officers. Bester is quite full of himself despite only investigating infidelity and finding lost pets, and it turns out that Miller hired people such as Bester, Gumshoe and his niece Monet to watch over the painting so no one would know he had replaced it with a fake. However, Bester turns out to be right in his initial wild guess that Amadeus Seal was one of the Gentleman Thieves in disguise.
- Thompson and Thomson (Dupont and Dupond in the original), the identical (but NOT related) dunderheads of Tintin fame. Perhaps most amusingly clueless in Prisoners of the Sun, where they are on nowhere near the right track.
- Detective Casey in both original Floyd Gottfredson and later European Mickey Mouse stories.
- Likewise The Sleuth.
- Batman once came into contact with the Biddee sisters, a pair of little old lady investigators. They do have some genuine insights on an ongoing investigation, but Batman mentions that their interference had earlier "fouled up" several cases.
- Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther movies is probably the best-known example.
- Frank Drebin from The Naked Gun films
- Johnny English lives on this trope, most of the movie's gags come from the titular protagonist's incompetence.
- Detective Greeley from The Boondock Saints. He manages to get one shooting down right ("What if it was one guy with six guns?"), but is shot down by Agent Smecker due to his past track record.
- Who's Harry Crumb? Largely this trope. Though he does have some moments of deductive prowess.
- Thompson and Thomson in the Tintin movie. One man they talk to gets nervous when they mention the pickpocket they are seeking, doesn't want police officers in his apartment, and when they are inside, they find dozens of wallets on the shelves. He claims he is a wallet collector and they believe him.
- They even find each other's wallets among his "collection" and fail to recognize them. When the man flat-out confesses he's a kleptomaniac, they think it means he's afraid of enclosed spaces. It's not until they find Tintin's wallet that they realize they have their pickpocket.
- Older Than Radio: In Sherlock Holmes, this describes Inspectors Lestrade, Gregson, Hopkins and the other inepts of Scotland Yard. It's also worth noting that this trope diminished in later stories, in a case of reverse Flanderization. In the early stories the policemen of Scotland Yard probably couldn't catch a cold, much less a criminal. In later stories their incompetence is downplayed and they're shown as having positive traits, as well as being able to solve standard, everyday crimes, with Holmes focusing on the strange and unusual affairs.
- Arthur Hastings in the last Hercule Poirot novel (Curtain). Scotland Yard Inspector Japp in the other ones.
- In Whose Body?, the very first Lord Peter Wimsey story, Inspector Sugg tries the "Accuse Everybody" method, even at one point accusing an octogenarian lady who can barely sit up of carrying a dead body while climbing up a drainpipe to a second story window - and is ready to make an arrest on that suspicion.
- The Bow Street Runners (a real organization) combine this with Miles Gloriosus in various works by Charles Dickens. They are portrayed as much better at pretending they'll catch the criminal soon than they are at actually catching said criminal.
- In the Diamond Brothers mystery series, Tim Diamond thinks he's a great detective, but all his cases are actually solved by his little brother, Nick.
- Captain Banzo from The Conditions of Great Detectives is forced to pretend to be one of these as it's his "condition" in the story - as it allows Tenkaichi, who is forced into being the brilliant amateur detective, to ride in and elegantly solve the case.
- Ben Mason accomplishes very little actual detective work on his own, being outsmarted by the villain at almost every turn and learning the truth primarily through luck and the help of the people around him.
- Parodied in Mark Twain's "The Stolen White Elephant," where the detectives involved were so spectacularly incompetent that the corpse of the title pachyderm had been rotting away in their headquarters for three months before anyone noticed. He also portrayed Sherlock Holmes as incompetent in "A Double-Barreled Detective Story."
Live Action TV
- Angel: A Running Gag is that Angel is better at fighting demons than he is at actual detective work. On one occasion, he actually had to hire another detective agency with a Friend on the Force for help on a case.
- Maxwell Smart on Get Smart.
- The police detectives on Monk and Psych (less so on Psych) are only shown as making significant progress on 1. Crimes not the focus of the episode (that will inspire a Eureka Moment for the main character) or 2. On their days in the lime light.
- Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara on the Batman TV Series. In one episode, where they were unable to contact Batman due to Bruce and Dick being out of town, they feared the prospect of having to solve a crime themselves. Of course, as Commissioner and Police Chief of a large city, they'd normally never be expected to solve crimes themselves as opposed to just telling the police and detectives under them to do it (they're administrators, not investigators).
- The former has apparently (and unjustly) gotten this reputation in the comics: when he has to leave Gotham, he discovers that no police precinct will hire somebody who "relied on an urban legend" to solve crimes.
- A Something Completely Different episode of Married... with Children has Al as a Clueless Detective. He does eventually solve the case, but not until he has falsely accused everybody who was at the scene, in the most unlikely ways possible (e.g. accusing a retarded man of being a criminal mastermind, and accusing a man with hooks for hands of having turned out the lights with one hand while putting a knife in the victim's back with the other). He even briefly confesses to the crime, believing he's eliminated every other possible suspect, shortly before he actually uses his knowledge from years of selling cheap women's shoes to find a vital clue and solve the case for real.
- Sherlock Hemlock from Sesame Street.
- In The Wire the dead wood and humps from several departments are dumped into an inconvenient special unit.
- Straight example in Santangello. Polk and Mahone up to pathetically comical levels; they are tasked with putting a face to Barksdale, the new Baltimorean druglord and come up with a photo of a middle-aged white man.
- Subverted with Lester, The Chessmaster of the show and Bunny-Ears Lawyer type and zigzagged with Prez a good data analyst once inside the unit but otherwise a terrible cop.
- Detective Dan of All That.
- Dr. Watson in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s78NsMFI2S0 "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Mysterious Vampire."
- Detective Dick Gumshoe of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and sequels. His incompetence is usually helpful, though, as it often leads to Phoenix getting access to information he probably shouldn't. It's probably unfair to actually call Gumshoe "incompetent". Aside from his piss-poor salary he seems to be a reasonably respected member of the force and he usually does have good information and know-how; the problem is that he's a really friendly guy at heart and he has trouble keeping a lid on things because of his natural tendency to get chummy with anyone who isn't actively insulting him. He's also a victim of the Peter Principle; he's terrific at the action-oriented aspects of a case, as evidenced by his string of Big Damn Heroes moments. The investigation, though ... Still, it's a telling sign that Investigations has Edgeworth explaining to him what logic means (yes, it makes sense in context, but still). It's also a telling sign that this game about investigating stars the prosecutor and not the detective.
Gumshoe: Logic? . . . How do you use it?
- In Trials and Tribulations, Luke Atmey cannot deduce anything you didn't already tell him. His reputation as a great detective comes from solving crimes that he paid the criminal to commit.
- The nameless private detective in the Infocom text adventure Ballyhoo.
- Zappone from Professor Layton and the Curious Village:
Zappone: Just as I suspected, a fellow detective. Your skills at puzzle solving are formidable, sir. Dare I say they approach my own? It's all in the eyes, I say. They never lie! And when they do, I know!
- Pennington of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door is a detective, and is miserable at it. He starts with misidentifying world-famous hero Mario as Luigi and just goes downhill from there. He doesn't come close to the answer to any mystery during the chapter where he's significant, but always claims to have "suspected all along" any actual facts Mario discovers. It later turns out that he's a museum curator who fancied being a detective.
- Present but downplayed in Persona 4: while Detective Dojima is portrayed as a competent sleuth, and is trying his darnedest to solve the Inaba murders, he ultimately runs into dead ends because the weird, supernatural nature of the case gets in the way of real police work. This trope comes into play more earnestly when it's revealed that his partner, Adachi, was the murderer all along.
- Sheriff Ketchum in The B-Movie Comic: Attack of the [Description witheld in order not to spoil the surprise].
- Inspector Gadget could never solve a case without Penny and Brain (he was voiced by the man who played Maxwell Smart, and was at least partly based on the character).
- It's also widely speculated that Doctor Claw himself is little more than a mechanical arm attached to a chair with a voicebox to shout out the orders of Claw's 'pet cat', who is the true criminal mastermind. According to this theory, the final scene of the opening sequence is what would really happen if Gadget ever found his way to Claw's lair...
- The two main heroes of the Polish animated series Hip-Hip and Hurra. Not only they are bumbling in general but they usually solve cases centered around some of the most basic of natural phenomenon’s yet they are still totally puzzled by them.
- Hong Kong Phooey needs help from his cat Spot in both the brains and brawn department.
- Daffy Duck as Doorlock Holmes in "Deduce, You Say".