It’s a well-known trope at this point: the sad detective. There are so many things to be haunted by: a dead partner is always popular, or an unsolved case, or a relationship they ruined because they were working too hard on the unsolved case.
These detectives star in the anti-cozy mysteries, you’ll find no Miss Marples here. They drink too much, they don’t sleep well, and they often exhibit rash behavior that leads to mistakes on the job. Their passion is often the very thing that gets in the way of solving the case, but you can’t deny they put their whole heart into their work.
These are 20 of the most haunted detectives appearing in TV shows and movies, with personal lives that overwhelm their work and generally interfere with solving cases.
River – John River
Stellan Skarsgård is at his haggard best as Detective Inspector John River. His constant companion is his partner, Detective Sergeant Jackie Stevenson (Nicola Walker). The thing about “Stevie” is that she’s just been murdered, and River is the only one who can see and hear her. River is determined to find her killer, but his habit of talking to Stevie has naturally unnerved the rest of his department, who despair of his mental state. River must juggle current cases with his more personal investigation, all the while pretending not to see Stevie for appearances’ sake. It’s a delicate line to walk and River doesn’t always do it particularly well, although it’s always fascinating to watch.
Wallander – Kurt Wallander
Another entry into the haggard and haunted file is Kurt Wallander (played in the original Swedish show by Krister Henriksson and by Kenneth Branagh in the English version). Wallander is haunted by a number of things: his divorce, his fractured relationship with his daughter, his even more fractured relationship with his dementia-addled father. Both actors cultivate the perfect hangdog expression while drinking alone, sleeping in a chair, and yelling at his team when the case isn’t going well. Wallander is absolutely terrible at expressing his emotions or reaching out for help when he needs it.
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Endeavour – Endeavour Morse
Endeavour is the younger iteration of Oxford’s most famous detective, Inspector Morse. Even though he starts the series as a fresh-faced young detective in the 60s, he’s burdened by an unhappy childhood with an absent father. He’s also far too smart for his own good, spending his time outside of work with notoriously difficult cryptic crossword puzzles, listening to opera, and cultivating a drinking problem that increases as the seasons go on. And although he generally alienates his colleagues by casually dropping in his knowledge of Latin or ancient history, he almost always solves the case, no matter how rumpled his shirt from sleeping in it the night before.
Memories of Murder (2003) – Park Doo-man
In Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 crime thriller, Song Kang-ho plays small-town detective Park Doo-man, who gets his first major case in 1986 with the brutal assaults and murders of two women. The local station is unequipped for something this serious and makes mistakes right off the bat. Along with a more experienced officer sent from Seoul, Park hones in on a mentally challenged boy as the killer, although it transpires that he may have seen one of the killings rather than perpetrated it. There is another murder and the boy becomes an accidental victim as well, while a more promising prime suspect slips from their grasp. Almost twenty years later, Park has left the police force, but a stop at the first crime scene reveals that he is still haunted by the murders, which remain unsolved.
Zodiac (2007) – Inspector Dave Toschi
The infamous Zodiac killer surely haunted a lot of detectives, none more so than Inspector Dave Toschi, who is played in David Fincher’s 2007 film by Mark Ruffalo. Toschi was a San Francisco police inspector when the killings began, and remained one until 1985. In the 70s he was accused of forging a letter from the Zodiac killer, and although he was eventually cleared, it hampered his chances at promotion. His distinctive personal style led him to become the inspiration for several Hollywood portrayals of detectives, notably Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and Steve McQueen in Bullitt.
Vertigo (1958) – John “Scottie” Ferguson
No one does haunted like James Stewart, as he proved in Hitchcock’s classic psychological thriller in 1958. Scottie Ferguson is an ex-San Francisco detective who stepped away from the job after a chase across rooftops that took another detective’s life, and he now struggles with a fear of heights and vertigo. An old friend asks him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), as he’s worried about her mental state and curious obsession with her great-grandmother Carlotta. Scottie soon finds himself in over his head, falling in love with Madeleine, but when she inexplicably runs up the stairs of a church bell tower, his acrophobia prevents him from following her, and she falls to her death. Scottie has a breakdown, recovering after being committed to a hospital, but the whole thing starts again when he meets Judy Barton, the spitting image of the dead Madeleine.
The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) (2009) – Benjamin Espósito
In this award-winning 1970s-set Argentinian thriller from 2009, Ricardo Darin plays Benjamin Espósito, an agent of the judiciary investigating the rape and murder of a young woman. He promises her devastated husband, Ricardo, that he will solve the case, but a man who was apparently obsessed with the victim slips from his grasp. The case is closed but a year later Espósito re-encounters Ricardo, who is investigating the case on his own, still tracking the obsessed man. Working together, the man is finally arrested, but a rival of Espósito gets him out of jail. Twenty years later, Espósito has never gotten over his failure to secure a conviction, but upon finding Ricardo again, he realizes that he isn’t the only one still haunted.
The Snowman (2017) – Harry Hole
Harry Hole is to Norway what Kurt Wallander is to Sweden: the most famous fictional detective. Based on the book by Jo Nesbø, this 2017 British film stars brooding Michael Fassbender as Hole, who lives and works in Oslo, drinking too much and regretting the end of his relationship with Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her son Oleg, which was derailed by his drinking. Hole’s new work partner, Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson), is trying to link up a number of missing persons cases that may also be related to her late father, who was a detective himself. Bodies begin to turn up, accompanied by taunting snowmen left at the crime scenes, and Hole is constantly under threat of dismissal due to his drinking, dragged down by depression.
The Bone Collector (1999) – Lincoln Rhyme
Denzel Washington plays a paralyzed forensics expert who begins working with rookie officer Amelia (Angelina Jolie) after the discovery of a mutilated body. It quickly becomes apparent that a serial killer is at work, and the more that Rhyme gets involved through Amelia, the more detrimental his growing obsession is to his health. The obsession leads them first to an old crime novel and then, surprisingly, to his home medical technician (Leland Orser), who it turns out was a forensic expert himself before he was jailed for planting evidence, and caught when his crimes were exposed by Rhyme. Rhyme and Amelia are able to defeat the killer in the nick of time, and Rhyme is finally able to make peace with his paralysis.
Justified – Raylan Givens
This is the most humorous example of a haunted detective. This time it’s Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who, at the series’ outset, has vowed to stay away from his home state of Kentucky, when circumstances (a shooting in Miami) force him back. His personal ghosts are in Harlan County, where he grew up in the backwoods with a criminal for a father. He’s also got an ex-wife who works downstairs from his office, and a friend slash nemesis, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) who has his hands in just about every illegal activity in the Appalachian mountains. Although he deals with his situation with a dry wit and lackadaisical air, Raylan’s past interferes with his present on a daily basis.
Hannibal – Will Graham
Based on certain elements of the novels of Thomas Harris, Hannibal changes the origin story of how FBI Special Investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) met serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). Graham is investigating a serial killer when he is asked to team up with Lecter, a forensic psychiatrist and as-yet-undiscovered serial killer (and cannibal) himself. As their strange bond grows, Graham is increasingly troubled by his relationship with Hannibal, and Hannibal finds his killing hampered as well. Graham’s intensity as a criminal profile sees him visualizing horrific murders, with each case pushing him a little farther towards a complete mental break.
NYPD Blue – Andy Sipowicz
Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) was a detective of the old school: unfashionable, alcoholic, always ready to believe the worst of people. He has several marriages ruined by his drinking, he’s homophobic and racist, but basically made a better person over the course of the show by his partner Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits). A series of tragedies strike his life, including the shooting death of his police officer son, and the tragic death of Simone. Routinely, all of Sipowicz’ old demons come back to haunt him, and he starts drinking again, although he eventually manages to pull himself back from the edge and rebuild his life and career, marrying for a third time and having more children.
Prime Suspect – Jane Tennison
Helen Mirren was groundbreaking in her performance as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, leading the charge against institutionalized sexism as one of London’s first high-ranking police officers. She’s bold and brash, relentlessly ambitious, as she has to be to survive in a virtual lion’s den of male colleagues who are trying to force her out any way they can. Every mistake she makes is noted and practically celebrated, but she still manages to rise through the ranks and become Detective Superintendent. But the constant mistrust and misogyny take a toll, and over the course of the show Tennison goes from a social drinker that keeps up with the boys to an alcoholic, destroying familial and romantic relationships along the way.
Twin Peaks – Dale Cooper
FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) begins Twin Peaks as the epitome of a no-nonsense detective with all his ducks in a row, but it’s slowly revealed that he might not have everything quite as together as his smart image suggests. Cooper is of course in Twin Peaks to investigate the killing of Laura Palmer, but haunted by an incident from his past. Cooper had an affair with the wife of his former partner, Windom Earle. When Earle discovered the affair, he killed his wife Caroline, and although he was committed to a mental institution for the crime, he escaped, and has followed Cooper to Twin Peaks in order to taunt him by committing further murders.
True Detective – Rustin “Rust” Cohle
Matthew McConaughey’s Rustin “Rust” Cohle is haunted by any number of things, it’s kind of a miracle he’s still holding on. In 2012, Cohle is being interviewed about a case during his career as a homicide detective in Louisiana in 1995, beginning with the murder of a prostitute. Cohle drinks his way through the interview, but it’s evident that he had a drinking problem before as well, showing up drunk to dinner with his partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan). As the case they’re investigating grows in horror and victims, it seems likely that this is the main thing haunting Cohl, until he reveals the tragic death of his young daughter which occurred years before he was partnered with Hart.
Happy Valley – Catherine Cawood
Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancaster) can’t seem to catch a break. She’s divorced but still sleeping with her husband, she’s raising her difficult young grandson who is the child of her late daughter. The daughter committed suicide after her son’s birth, unable to deal with the fact that he was the product of rape. And now the rapist, who was never even prosecuted for the attack, is about to be released from prison for other crimes. Catherine also must deal with the needs of her former alcoholic sister and a police station that looks to her for guidance. She’s sure that the rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), will commit another crime, and she might just push him into one if he doesn’t.
Top of the Lake – Robin Griffin
Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) is a Sydney detective who returns to the small New Zealand town where she grew up to care for her ill mother. When a local twelve-year-old is discovered to be pregnant, Griffin agrees to talk with her, as she specializes in sexual assault. The tension increases when the child disappears, and it’s revealed that Griffin herself was gang-raped when she was 15. Back in the town where it happened, Griffin has only a shaky hold on herself as she must confront her past to deal with what is happening in the present.
The Killing – Sarah Linden
Homicide detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) is about to leave Seattle with her son and fiancé when a teenage girl is murdered. Linden had a lonely upbringing, and struggles with emotional detachment, with the murder being all she needs to put off moving in with her fiancé. As the case widens to include local politics, her relationship with colleague Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) also gets more complicated, as Linden finds more and more reasons to stay in Seattle and put off solidifying any emotional connections. (In the original Danish version, Forbrydelsen, Sophie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund is, if anything, even more withdrawn from human connection due to her past.
Decision to Leave (2022) – Jang Hae-jun
Park Chan-wook’s masterful 2022 neo-noir stars Park Hae-il as detective Jang Hae-jun. He doesn’t sleep well, and he only sees his wife once a week due to their careers. When he meets Song Seo-rae, a beautiful Chinese immigrant whose husband has died in a suspicious climbing accident, he quickly develops an obsession with her. Eventually, Park becomes convinced of Seo-rae’s guilt, but he still ends up destroying evidence to promote her innocence. He sinks into a depression for over a year, only for his obsession to renew itself after a chance meeting with Seo-rae and her new husband at a market.
Laura (1944) – Mark McPherson
Dana Andrews plays New York detective Mark McPherson, who’s tasked with investigating the murder of the beautiful ad exec Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), killed by a shotgun blast to the face. He investigates her life and interviews those closest to her, falling in love with the picture that they paint (as well as her actual, gorgeous picture). McPherson’s infatuation leads him to fall asleep in front of her portrait one night, and is shocked when he realizes that a woman who enters the apartment is actually Laura, and very much alive. The plot thickens as McPherson must now identify a body, and prevent the killer from finding out that Laura is still alive. But will his infatuation blind him to her guilt?