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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, who is definitely not clueless (except about social and personal life). The Inspector Lestrade is only clueless about putting the pieces of the puzzle together, not about getting the pieces. Compare Clueless Deputy.
Anime & Manga
- Detective Conan Kogoro Mori until a case comes along where 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 that even Mori 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.
- 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. 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.
Live Action TV
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Still, it's a telling sign that Investigations has Edgeworth explaining to him what logic means (yes, it makes sense in context, but still).
Gumshoe: Logic? . . . How do you use it?
- It's also a telling sign that this game about investigating stars the prosecutor and not the detective.
- 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!
- 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...
- Hong Kong Phooey needs help from his cat Spot in both the brains and brawn department.