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Clueless Detective

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Never trust those ants, I always say...
Rich Woman: Someone has broken into my safe!
Detective Dan: (Examines safe) Lucky for you this safe is empty.

There is a crime, and the detective is trying to solve it. They're just abysmally bad at it, whether out of stupidity, or just because they don't have 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 (though cluelessness might apply to his personal life). Compare Clueless Deputy and Inspector Lestrade (who is only clueless at putting the pieces of the puzzle together). If this trope is invoked as a way of getting suspects to lower their guards, see Obfuscating Stupidity.

Nothing to do with a Clueless Mystery, which just doesn't let the audience figure it out.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • 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.
  • Case Closed: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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...).
  • Inspector Zenigata from the Lupin III series is the often bumbling Detective, who has on many occasions failed to arrest Lupin and his crew. Though he got lucky now and again, it's through Zenigata's own ego and negligence, that his criminal son still roams free.
  • Samurai Champloo has the bumbling Manzou the Saw who narrates a couple of episodes of the series.
  • Exagerated for comedic effect in Tantei Opera Milky Holmes. The main characters keep missing the most obvious evidence and failing to make any kind of proper deduction.

  • 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.
  • Detective Casey in both original Floyd Gottfredson and later European Mickey Mouse stories.
  • 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.

    Film — Animated 
  • Thompson and Thomson in the The Adventures of Tintin (2011). 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.

    Film — Live Action 
  • 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.
  • Holmes is this about half the time in Holmes & Watson. The other half, he's more of a Genius Ditz.
  • Johnny English lives on this trope, most of the movie's gags come from the titular protagonist's incompetence.
  • Frank Drebin from The Naked Gun films.
  • Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther movies is probably the best-known example. Though he seems well-aware of his cluelessness.
  • Who's Harry Crumb? has the titular character, who — despite coming from a long line of detectives himself, and having some (small) moments of deductive prowess — is an incompetent, idiotic buffoon that mostly stumbles on clues through sheer luck or the skill of his associates. Draisen, the president of the agency, assigns him to a kidnapping case and presents it to the family as hiring the very best, but it's just the opposite: having organized the kidnapping himself, Draisen wants to ensure the crime goes unsolved, which will then give him an excuse to fire Harry as well.

  • 2666: Some of them are, though occasionally as a dark example of Obfuscating Stupidity.
  • The Bernice Summerfield novel Ship of Fools by Dave Stone has Benny trapped on an entire star-liner full of clueless detectives, all pastiching a different famous character, and all clueless in a different way. Emile Dupont of Nova Belgique (Hercule Poirot) is a raving Conspiracy Theoristnote ; Sandford Groke (Sherlock Holmes) is actually a psychopath; Kharrli the Czan (Charlie Chan) is probably the sanest, but his Funny Foreigner routine involves gratuitously insulting everyone; and Agatha Magpole (Miss Marple)'s success rate is down to her being a subconscious psychic who unwittingly prods people into committing the murders she solves.
  • 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. Tim's detective ability is summed up by Nick early in the first book:
    "Tim's first job was to find some rich lady's pedigree Siamese cat. He managed to run it over on the way to see her. The second job was a divorce case - which you may think is run-of-the-mill until I tell you that the clients were perfectly happily married until he came along. There hadn't been a third case."
  • 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.
  • Arthur Hastings in the last Hercule Poirot novel (Curtain). Scotland Yard Inspector Japp in the other ones.
  • The Kadingir series have the Nuzu Brothers, a trio of self-important detectives investigating a regicide. Their method? Lining up everyone who was in the vicinity, looking at them straight in the eye and asking, one after the other, if they are the murderer. Oh, and arresting the royal butler, just in case.
  • Captain Banzo from Lessons for a Perfect Detective Story 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.
  • 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.
  • Sacreya's Legacy: 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.
  • 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.
  • Robert L. Fish wrote parodies about "Schlock Homes" an incompetent detective. In one instance he "deduced" that their visitor had been a toothless diabetic because he discarded a cigar with a dry end and no teeth marks. When he returns you see he uses a cigar holder.
  • 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."
  • Played with in the Warlock Holmes series by G. S. Denning - Warlock Holmes is a ridiculously bad detective, whose attempts at being one are something like the Eleventh Doctor's failed Holmes pastiche in "The Snowmen", with added Insane Troll Logic. Dr. Watson is the real rational mind in the partnership, and does all the actual detective work. However, as a two hundred year old sorcerer, Holmes is very knowledgeable (while still erratic) on the subject of magic, which Watson knows nothing about, and which all their cases involve.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Detective Dan of All That is a hopelessly incompetent detective whose cases usually end with the obvious perpetrator getting away scot free while the victim is the one arrested.
  • Angel: Despite billing himself as a private detective, 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.
  • Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara on the Batman (1966) 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.
  • Detectives Hitchcock and Scully from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Both are lazy, incompetent, and generally worthless at police work, in addition to being just plain dim-witted and having an over-inflated opinion of themselves. But they are kept around because they make good coffee.
  • The Eleventh Doctor's attempt at being Sherlock Holmes in the Doctor Who Christmas Episode "The Snowmen" consists of walking into the villain's office and making a string of random and entirely wrong "deductions" (at one point saying "Come on, work with me here" as though their wrongness was the villain's fault), although this was probably more his usual tactic of deliberately talking nonsense to throw the baddies off balance, as other stories have shown the Doctor to be very good at deducing things.
  • Maxwell Smart on Get Smart.
  • The entire Seattle PD in John Doe would have trouble solving their way out of a wet paper bag without the show's eponymous savant. A couple serial killers even latch onto Doe as a Worthy Opponent, outright stating that the police don't provide them with any challenge.
  • Misty Knight in Luke Cage (2016) is a downplayed variant: she's a very good investigator (at one point, it's commented that with her resume, she could've taken a post at 1PP or even become a Fed), but not so good at other parts of being a cop, often letting her emotions get the better of her and losing convictions because of it.
  • A Formula-Breaking 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.
  • 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.
  • The police in Perry Mason might seem like it, since they kept arresting Mason's innocent clients. However, he had respect for them. In one episode he tricked a killer into planting evidence by claiming the police had missed it, leading to his arrest. His explanation was, if the police hadn't found it, then it wasn't there.
  • Sherlock Hemlock from Sesame Street.
  • Dr. Watson in "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Mysterious Vampire."
  • Whodunnit? (UK): In "Adieu Monsieur Chips", the primary investigator is the bungling head of security for the Monte Carlo casino (who has more than a touch of Inspector Clouseau about him. Host Jon Pertwee notes that he is still clueless about the killer's identity after it has been revealed.
  • In The Wire:
    • Cedric Daniels' Major Crimes Unit is designed as the dumping ground for the dead wood and humps from several departments.
      • Straight example in Michael Santangelo, who Rawls picks to spy on McNulty specifically because of his poor 40% clearance rate, which Rawls assumes will make him easy to control. Santangelo's excuse for his performance is the lack of "dunker" (easy) cases. When Avon and Stringer pay a rare visit to the pit, Santangelo is pissing at the opposite side of the roof where he was supposed to be and misses them. When he tires of being Rawls' spy, Rawls gives Santangelo an ultimatum: clear one of his open cases, give something on McNulty, or leave the Homicide Unit altogether. Thus, Jay Landsman tricks him into seeing a phony psychic named "Madame LaRue", keeping him out of the way while McNulty and Bunk clear one of his cases, giving Santangelo grounds to stand up to Rawls, and gets himself demoted to a patrol officer in the Western District, and finds himself much happier and more competent there.
      • Augie Polk and Patrick Mahon play it up to pathetically comical levels; McNulty tasks them with putting a face to Avon Barksdale, the new Baltimorean druglord. They come up with a photo of a middle-aged white man. Polk's only real concern about the job is paid overtime. Mahon is of the same ilk and jumps at the chance of early retirement after he's injured by Bodie during a raid, scheming that he'll even complement his pension with a cushy underground economy job. Appropriately, their last names, "Póg mo thóin" (pronounced Pogue Mahone and source of The Pogues' band name) are Irish for "Kiss my ass."
      • Subverted with Lester Freamon, The Chessmaster of the show and Bunny-Ears Lawyer type who quickly proves to be natural police, and zigzagged with Roland Pryzbylewski, who is a good data analyst once inside the unit but otherwise a terrible cop.
    • Happens again in season 2 when Major Stanislaus Valchek, in a bitter feud with Frank Sobotka over a stained glass window, wants an investigation opened into Sobotka's finances. He offers Ervin Burrell political influence from the council members in his district in exchange for a special unit devoted to investigating Sobotka. Rawls sends an investigative team from CID to Valchek, all "highly recommended" officers, who are, like the Barksdale detail from season 1, just dead-weight "humps" that other divisions wanted to get rid of. Witnessing the task force's lack of work ethic infuriates Valchek, who promptly blackmails Burrell into giving him a real police detail under Daniels' command (on Prez's recommendation and repaying a favor Valchek owed to Daniels from Season 1), threatening to complicate Burrell's effort to become Commissioner by exposing his premature closure of the Barksdale investigation.

    Puppet Shows 
  • The Muppet Show: Rowlf as Sherlock Holmes in "The Case of the Disappearing Clues". 'Disappearing' because the culprit keeps eating the obvious evidence whenever Sherlock points it out, such as the still-smoking gun, the glass with their fingerprints on it, the witness, the chambermaid, Watson... with each disappearing clue, Sherlock rewrites his conclusions, eventually deducing that despite the dead body in the room, there has obviously been no murder.

  • The recurring character of Harlow Doyle ("Private Eye") on Adventures in Odyssey is often depicted as a total buffoon with difficulty grasping what a client is saying that needs to be investigated. In Doyle's case, he is also a Suspiciously Similar Substitute for an early character named David Harley, a similarly dense policeman who was eventually retired due to complaints from parents unhappy about a major character in law enforcement being depicted as an idiot.

    Video Games 
  • Ace Attorney:
    • 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. 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. 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 blackmailed the criminal into committing.
  • The nameless private detective in the Infocom text adventure Ballyhoo.
  • In Final Fantasy XIV, there is an entire series of side quests staring the exploits of the self-styled "Gentleman Inspector" Hildibrand Manderville. He's well-meaning and always sets out to do the right thing, but he almost always comes to the wrong conclusion and is very self-assured in his reasoning. It frequently falls to the Warrior of Light to steer him in the right direction as a Hyper-Competent Sidekick.
  • Super Mario Bros.:
    • Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door: Pennington 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.
    • Mario Party Advance: Shroomlock, the local detective of Shroom City, claims to be great at his job, but you end up solving all the crimes he encounters before he does. Either that, or he'll find the answer but make you figure it out yourself before he'll tell you. He also never arrests anyone, always letting them go after they apologize. Including the bank robber.
  • 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. Even then it's a bit unfair to call him "clueless", given that the case involves powers and locations that are literally Invisible to Normals.
  • 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!


    Web Original 
  • "Private Psy", a recurring character of Pokémon World Tour: United, is a Psyduck that styles itself a detective, complete with trenchcoat, deerstalker cap, and magnifying glass. He's not particularly good at being a detective, however, as he once spent several hours walking in a circle following his own footprints. He gets so dejected when anybody suggests he might not be competent that no one has the heart to go through with telling him so. It travels with Wattson, a Voltorb that is prevented from self destructing out of sheer frustration by Psy's natural dampness.

    Western Animation 
  • Daffy Duck as Dorlock Homes in Deduce, You Say!. Of course, since this is Daffy, he thinks he's a Great Detective.
  • You could probably count the number of cases Duckman has solved without Cornfed's help on one hand.
  • Garfield and Friends: None other than Sherlock Holmes is one in a fantasy episode, ("Couldn't find a hippo in a hottub") and it's Garfield-as-Watson who's the real brains of the outfit.
  • 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.
  • 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...
  • Llan-ar-goll-en: Prys and his dog Ceri are the two detectives in town. Ceri is the competent one who always solves everything. Prys, on the other hand, fits this trope to a T, doing things such as hanging a painting upside-down and thinking the artist painted it upside-down, and mistaking a picture of a watch for the watch itself.
  • Moral Orel In Elemental Orel, Orel decides to be a detective, but instead of examining actual evidence, he solves mysteries with logic based on the Bible.
  • In the Tiny Toon Adventures short "And All That Rot" from the episode "Brave Tales Of Real Rabbits", we have Sherlock parody Brainy Domes, a Small Name, Big Ego detective (portrayed by Buster Bunny in a very rare Butt-Monkey role) who ends up wreaking havoc all over London after thinking he is search of the Queen of England's missing jewels and ignoring all logic (and the advice of Doctor Flotsam, portrayed by Babs Bunny) while doing so.

Alternative Title(s): Private Defective