The scruffy detective is one of the purest, most persistent tropes in the crime genre. I’m not talking about the trope of the incompetent cop, but the detective who is very adept at solving crimes and less so at looking presentable/caring about other things. Personally, I like this character type. I want to watch someone roll out of bed at noon and go stagger off to follow a lead while wearing a trench coat that has not been dry-cleaned in a decade.
I decided to put together a list of some of the most iconic entrants in this category. This is not a comprehensive list. Some of my lists are fairly exhaustive, while others are more like very specific, little tasting menus, if I’m permitted to be a bit florid with my description. This is the second kind, a sample of some very memorable men and women known for their practical nonchalance and unpretentious airs. And bedraggled appearances.
It’s worth reiterating that this list is about rumpled detectives and not rumpled regular-cops, so one of my favorites (Brian Keith as Gloucester Island Police Chief Link Mattocks from The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming) is not eligible for this list. We all have to make sacrifices.
There are also no FBI or CIA agents on this list, which rules out Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality and Walter Matthau in Hopscotch, the latter of whom dresses up sometimes but at other times works on his plans in his pajamas.
Speaking of our Lord and Savior Walter Matthau, I thought long and hard about whether his Lt. Zachary Garber from The Taking of Pelham 123 counts… and although he wears that objectionable shade of yellow and works for the MTA (a falling apart, filthy institution by its very nature), I don’t think he comes across as scruffy? I wish Matthau were on this list. I thought about The Laughing Detective, I thought about Mirage, but I couldn’t shoehorn him in, and for this, I am profoundly sorry.
This list is not ranked, because how would I even do that? Least scruffy to most scruffy? Get outta here.
Jim Rockford, The Rockford Files
James Garner’s PI Jim cleans up pretty good, but he also leads a very casual existence, living in a trailer on the beach. And if you live in a trailer on the beach, you’re going on this list.
Mare Sheehan, Mare of Easttown
Kate Winslet plays a tired, brash, beer-drinking, hoagie-loving small-town detective, who is also a mom and grandma living in a house with four generations of family members. If she’s not exhausted from her home life, she will be by the time she starts to solve the case which is at the crux of the show.
Mike Ehrmentraut, Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul
Former police officer Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks) works as a PI/fixer/hitman for Gus Fring in Breaking Bad. In Walt’s words, he’s a “grunting, dead-eyed cretin.” He’s a rough, no-frills, not particularly fashionable middle-aged guy. Not nearly as rumpled as some of the other guys on this list, but you know if he had his way, he’d be standing out in his yard, wearing his robe, hanging out with his chickens, making sure Wendell the rooster has enough to eat.
Vera Stanhope, Vera
The great Brenda Blethyn stars as DCI Vera Stanhope in this long-running British series based on the Vera books by Ann Cleeves. Our girl is cranky and can even be a bit mean. All the descriptions say she’s disheveled, but I don’t think that’s it. As Brenda has said, “Sometimes, people say to me ‘oh you wouldn’t be able to wear those clothes going to work’… they’re all good clothes that Vera wears! She just doesn’t look in a mirror. She doesn’t see if this blouse goes with that skirt.” I agree! Also, people, it’s not a crime to care very little about appearances.
Jake Peralta, Brooklyn Nine Nine
Scully and Hitchcock are the precinct layabouts in this cop comedy TV series, but they are one-note background characters. Andy Samberg’s Jake, our protagonist, is the more significant slob. He’s really clever… but he’s also a buffoon with mice living in his desk.
Shaggy, Scooby Do, Where Are You?
I mean, it’s in his name. He wears an oversized t-shirt to every investigation, never shaves the peach fuzz, slacks off on every work outing to make sandwiches.
Rainn Wilson’s Backstrom arrived to TV on the swells of the House craze. Although the show was based on Leif G.W. Persson’s darkly comic Bäckström books, about a cantankerous Scandinavian police detective, it hit American TV just when executives were wondering if what the people wanted were shows that asked “what if a genius was also an asshole?” The show lasted one season, not just because audiences didn’t want the answer to that question, but also probably because Backstrom’s issues aren’t just that he’s unkempt and crabby, but also that he’s racist! Giving us a protagonist whose bigotry is included in an umbrella of eccentricities is… bad. I don’t care to watch him redeem himself through crime-solving. So, yeah, he’s scuzzy enough for this list… too yucky to watch.
Hank Dolworth, Terriers
Ex-cop and unlicensed PI Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) doesn’t exactly seem like the kind of guy who remembers to shower every day. But he’s got a lot of other things on his mind!
Sam, Under the Silver Lake
Andrew Garfield’s slacker Sam is the prototypical amateur detective of this category. He’s slovenly, more interested than getting high than paying his rent, but grows motivated to figure out what happened to his neighbor Sarah, who has gone missing. The fact that he’s a conspiracy nut doesn’t lend him credibility, and neither does the fact that he barely takes care of himself.
Shawn Spencer, Psych
Of all the detectives ever brought to film and TV, perhaps Shawn Spencer (James Roday Rodriguez), Santa Barbara’s fake psychic private detective, is the one who makes stuff up the most. Disorganized, immature, irreverent, and outright silly, Shawn is a man-child with an eidetic memory who has had years of practice honing it, thanks to training from his tough former-cop father. The scrimshanker Shawn is allergic to hard work and flies by the seat of his pants in every aspect of his life, including his housing situation (we find out a few seasons in that he lives in an abandoned dry cleaning facility). Unlike most of the other sleuths on this list, he even plays fast and loose when solving crimes. (He pretends he’s a psychic; really, he just observes or remembers things no one else observes or remembers, and solves crimes faster than the cops, and then fakes visions to get the credit/paycheck.) To Shawn, almost nothing is sacred.
Part of Brendan’s scruffiness is the fact that he’s a high-schooler. Rian Johnson’s crackerjack 2005 neo-noir set among a group of teenagers in California asks young people to embody hardboiled tropes, and pulls it off to great success. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Brendan starts off more casual than untidy, but his investigation starts wrecking his body, leaving him… a bit messy, quite bloody.
, Darker Than Amber
Rod Taylor’s chill Travis McGee is maybe a little more polished than his literary counterpart in John D. MacDonald’s 1966 novel of the same name. Maybe. He’s a beach bum, a chivalrous bachelor who is also a libertine. But like, Rockford Beach Rules apply! If you live on a boat, you’re a little bit scruffy! Unless it’s a yacht. (It’s not a yacht.)
Charlie Cale, Poker Face
All hail Charlie Cale! The heroine of Rian Johnson’s splendid case-of-the-week mystery series Poker Face is a paragon of this character type. Though she is extra tousled and wrinkled due to her circumstances (being on the run and off the grid—living out of her car and taking up short-lived odd jobs in towns she visits), she’s still fairly relaxed when we meet her in the pilot episode. At this point, she lives in a trailer in the desert, sits outside in a lawn chair and sips beer for breakfast, goes to the Liquor Castle in the middle of the day in a pajama set and bathrobe. Right on.
Jim Hopper, Stranger Things
Hopper is technically a police chief (and therefore a regular cop), but he does detective work, and for a while, that’s his primary function in the show. So I’m violating one of my rules from the intro (the no regular-cop rule), but for good reason. He’s a real “stares into the cereal bowl for an hour” kind of guy, the epitome of the vibe I’m trying to capture with this list. Not lethargic so much as exhausted or annoyed, his appearance is far more slapdash than his investigative work.
Doc Sportello, Inherent Vice
Doc, the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, looks into the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. But he (Joaquin Phoenix) is in a weed-fueled haze most of the time, because this is California in the ’70s. Nonchalant, easygoing, and sporting thick mutton chops, Doc is a low-key kind of guy, who can rev up a bit when he’s on the trail of something big. But he’s also cool to lay down and trip out.
Shannon Mullins, The Heat
In The Heat, Melissa McCarthy’s Detective Shannon Mullins is a messy, sweatpants-wearing Boston detective with a creatively vulgar vocabulary. She means well, and she’s damn good at her job. But she also says things like, “You want something to eat? I didn’t finish my submarine sandwich from the other day.” So.
The Dude, The Big Lebowski
The Dude isn’t the best detective on this list. Actually, he’s probably the worst. And he’s probably the most slatternly, definitely the laziest. Jeffrey “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges Lebowski) wanders through Los Angeles in a t-shirt and jelly sandals, drinking white Russians and getting dragged into a hard-boiled mystery that’s out of his depth, after being mistaken for a local tycoon who shares his name. When he winds up becoming a detective of sorts, working for the man he was mistaken for, he’s asked, of his hoodie and shorts, “You don’t go out looking for a job dressed like that? On a weekday?” Yes he does. He does what he wants: “bowl, drive around, [have], the occasional acid flashback.” The Dude abides. The Dude abides.
Philip Marlowe, The Long Goodbye
Elliott Gould’s mussed-up Philip Marlowe is a far cry from the slightly vain, courtly, sardonic detective from Raymond Chandler’s books (especially the early ones), but he’s just as compelling. (Like Rockford, he can clean up really well when he needs to, and spends a bunch of the moving looking pretty slick.) Laconic, a little bit jaded, keeping very odd hours, and always with a cigarette dangling from his lips, this Marlowe perfectly blends the vague dreaminess of LA with the existentialism of the 70s.
Peter Falk’s unassuming, trench-coated, cigar-chomping detective is the granddaddy of them all. Unassuming, rumpled, and twinkly-eyed, Lt. Columbo uses his naturally unimposing, easily-underestimated vibe to his advantage, calmly finding clues and solving the mystery in his head, letting the villains think they’ve gotten away with something, before shocking them with the linchpin. “Oh, just one more thing…” and boom. Case closed.