We consider the problem of detecting a ‘bump’ in the intensity of a Poisson process or in a density. We analyze two types of likelihood ratio-based statistics, which allow for exact finite sample inference and asymptotically optimal detection: The maximum of the penalized square root of log likelihood ratios (‘penalized scan’) evaluated over a certain sparse set of intervals and a certain average of log likelihood ratios (‘condensed average likelihood ratio’). We show that penalizing the square root of the log likelihood ratio — rather than the log likelihood ratio itself — leads to a simple penalty term that yields optimal power. The thus derived penalty may prove useful for other problems that involve a Brownian bridge in the limit. The second key tool is an approximating set of intervals that is rich enough to allow for optimal detection, but which is also sparse enough to allow justifying the validity of the penalization scheme simply via the union bound. This results in a considerable simplification in the theoretical treatment compared with the usual approach for this type of penalization technique, which requires establishing an exponential inequality for the variation of the test statistic. Another advantage of using the sparse approximating set is that it allows fast computation in nearly linear time. We present a simulation study that illustrates the superior performance of the penalized scan and of the condensed average likelihood ratio compared with the standard scan statistic.