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The true detectives

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The truth behind some of the greatest fictional detectives in TV and film…

© Thinkstock/Getty Images They are the mightiest heroes of the fictional police force: the troubled, yet brilliant, detectives who may or may not play by the rules but always get results. Such charismatic characters have probably distorted our perception of what real police work is like, yet we're all savvy enough to know that TV detectives like Rust Cohle or Sherlock Holmes don't really exist. They're just made up. Aren't they...?

To celebrate the addition of True Detective series one on Sky Box Sets, here we look at some of the truth behind the fiction - our favourite true detectives.

Sherlock Holmes, inspired by Joseph Bell, Henry Littlejohn and Jerom Caminada

If BBC's Sherlock is anything to go by, he is the master of deduction, a 'consultant detective' who can waltz into a London crime scene and tell whether the victim was in Cardiff by the splash marks on their tights. But the superhuman Holmes, created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, couldn't possibly be based on a real detective, could he? Well, yes and no.

The most famous real-life inspiration for Holmes was Dr Joseph Bell, who Doyle was a student of while at medical school and became his clerk. With Bell said to possess dramatic powers of observation and reason, their relationship took on a Holmes-Watson dynamic with Doyle as the young doctor trying to keep up with the master. Bell did occasionally assist the police as a forensic doctor but not in as much of an official capacity as Holmes's second inspiration, Henry Littlejohn, who served as a consultant when the police needed medical expertise. It is said, in fact, that the two were brought on board during the investigation into the infamous Jack the Ripper murders.

Yet, of course, neither Bell nor Littlejohn were actually detectives. A biography published in early 2014, however, made the case that Manchester investigator Jerome Caminada, who rose to national fame shortly before Sherlock Holmes made his debut in A Study in Scarlet in 1887, was the real blueprint for Baker Street's finest. Like Holmes, he worked as a 'consulting detective' on cases across the country - donning a number of skilled disguises, utilising a network of informers and apparently being able to spot a thief simply by the way they walked. All of which involved him imprisoning a staggering 1225 criminals throughout his career, although, sadly, none of this means he possessed the cheekbones of Benedict Cumberbatch.

The French Connection, inspired by Eddie Egan

In 1971's The French Connection, the story of two cops who break up a tight organised crime ring saw Gene Hackman win an Academy Award for his portrayal of the jack-the-lad Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle; a booze swilling, girl chasing detective who doesn't play by the rules. And yes, of course he has a nice hat.

The trope of a man of authority being just as wrong-doing as the criminals he's catching is no new thing, but the interesting thing about Popeye Doyle is that that trope comes from a real person and a real story; NYC detective Eddie Egan. Indeed, for the film that would crystallise his life, Egan (whose movie moniker Popeye was also his real-life nickname) was even a supervisor on the movie set in order to help Hackman slip into his skin. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Hackman even revealed he “went on a raid with these guys, Egan and his partner” to really get a feel of the way the pair operated.

Although the events of The French Connection were highly fictionalised, the concept of an organised narcotics operation which imported heroin from Turkey to France, and eventually the US in the 1970s, was indeed real, and was indeed infiltrated by Egan and his partner Salvatore 'Sonny' Grosso (who also features in the movie as Roy Scheider's 'Cloudy', aka the opposite of sunny!).

Hackman and Scheider emulated the interrogating techniques of Sonny and Egan – including using non-sequitur questions to confuse the smugglers. Funnily enough, Grosso and Egan's involvement on set ended up having a creative hand in the fictional version of the story. When Doyle accidentally shoots an FBN agent (written in for the movie), for example, this was put in the movie because Egan noted off-set he would have “killed that character” if he was real.

The pairs' involvement in The French Connection also led to Egan and Grosso becoming involved in the business themselves; Egan became a short-lived actor, and Grosso a prolific movie producer, turning the whole event full circle.

© REX/c.HBO/Everett True Detective, inspired by Stuart Murphy and Tom Tedder

What makes HBO's True Detective so engrossing is that, while rooted in gritty realism, its conspiracy of a satanic serial killer called the Yellow King seems far too strange to be true – both for its two fictional detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, and the audience. Yet, according to creator Nic Pizzolatto, it was a real case of two detectives uncovering a massive ring of ritualistic child molestation, animal sacrifice, and Satanic worship at a Louisiana church in the early 2000s that inspired series one’s drama.

Yep, Stuart Murphy and Tom Tedder may not be anything like the tense 'good cop, bad cop' pairing of Marty and Rust, but they did lead an investigation into Hosanna Church in Tangipahoa Parish. A formerly thriving evangelical church on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, Hosana once boasted thousands of members and supported schools for area children. As the church's membership dwindled, it also served a much darker role: as a haven for sexual abuse that occurred in the context of satanic rituals – complete with pentagrams, cats' blood and people dressed in black robes. Chilling stuff.

Bulitt, Zodiac and Dirty Harry, inspired by Dave Toschi

As far as fictional detectives go, you really don't get more influential than real-life badass cop Dave Toschi. A former inspector at the San Francisco Police Department, he is best known as the chief inspector in the case of the Zodiac killer, a late-60s serial killer who was never caught. The case was brought to screen in David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac, in which Mark Ruffalo portrayed Toschi – complete with flamboyant bow-tie.

Before being portrayed directly, however, Toschi influenced two titans of fictional detectives. The first was Steve McQueen's Frank Bullitt in 1968's Bullitt, a San Francisco cop who took on Toschi's penchant for an upside-down quick-draw shoulder holster. Yet, just after Bullitt's release, Toschi would gain nationwide fame after the real-life Zodiac case, and be worked into another screenplay – 1971's Dirty Harry.

Yep, despite not exactly inspiring the personality of Clint Eastwood's brutal, no nonsense cop, Toschi's struggle to track down the Zodiac killer does provide the basis for the film's plot. But, of course, instead of the killer being called Zodiac, he's called “Scorpio”, and instead of Harry Callahan failing to arrest him, he tracks the “punk” down and, finger on the trigger, asks whether he feels lucky. It turns out he isn't.

Visit Sky Box Sets to watch True Detective series one on demand

Image Credits: ©2014 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved. HBO® and all related programs are the property of Home Box Office, Inc.

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