The 30 greatest literary detectives of all time: best literary detectives revealed
Meet the detectives who defined a genre.
Whodunit? It wasn’t us, perhaps it was you. There’s only one way to find out. Let’s call for that most shadowy and exciting of literary creations – the crime-solving, riddle-repairing, mystery-mending sleuth... the greatest literary detectives of all time.
From Sherlock Holmes to Kurt Wallander, by way of Sam Spade and Miss Marple, these characters have brightened up literature for decades. That they’ll carry on doing so is an open and shut case that even foolhardy PI’s such as ourselves could solve.
So, let’s leave it to the big boys – and girls – eh? Without further ado, here are the 30 best literary sleuths known to man, woman or beast.
As ever, you get to have your say below the line…
- Ditch the bulky paperbacks with one of the best Kindles from Amazon
The 30 Greatest Literary Detectives Of All Time
Elementary, of course. The resident of 221b Baker Street is without equal when it comes to literary detectives. Applying a rigorous, almost scientific, framework to his cases, Holmes gave detective fiction not only a moral backbone, but an intelligent compass too. He endures to this day because of his colourful character – his dandy-ish affectations; his bohemian lifestyle and his almost arrogant self-regard.
Like Holmes, Hercule Poirot has an almost insufferable belief in his own abilities. This aspect of his character is sometimes overlooked because there was something exotic about this Francophone Belgian when Agatha Christie first introduced Poirot in 1920. Today, his little quirks – his delicate constitution, his fastidious nature, and his prim dress sense – seem remarkably quaint. Thanks to umpteen television and film adaptations this is one detective who will continue to thrive.
Marlowe is the archetypal hard-boiled detective from the old school – an era when men were men, and women were dames. He cracked wise, drank his liquor neat, looked the part and got the job done. Taciturn, clever and not averse to physical handiwork when it’s required, Marlowe is one of the top five literary sleuths of all time. Memorably brought to life by Humphrey Bogart (and others) on the silver screen.
For his iconic Sam Spade, Hammett took some of The Continental Op’s less savoury traits and mixed them with a dash of rugged masculine glamour. Hammett has said that Spade was the detective those on the force would love to be – complicated, silent, hard, unflinching and able to get the better of anybody. To this day, Spade remains the embodiment of old school PI charm. Bogart’s turn as Spade in the third adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is still the performance all other Hollywood detective tales are measured by.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue is generally considered to be the first example of the detective fiction genre. Which would make Poe’s colourful protagonist, C. Auguste Dupin the granddaddy of all on this list. Indeed, his way with logic, analysis and his often baffling way of solving riddles and enigmas certainly bring to mind one inhabitant of a well-known central London street.
Hammer by name, and, by the standards in which lauded crime writer Mickey Spillane first penned his Mike Hammer novels, certainly Hammer by nature. Another product of the hard-boiled genre of detective, Mike Hammer differs from the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe in that he’s a genuinely ‘tough’ tough guy. Oft compared to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, the patriotic Hammer was something of a loner within the police system, preferring his own shady methods in bringing crooks to justice.
Miss Marple is exactly how little old ladies used to be, or how we remember them in any case – petit, genteel and as reassuringly traditional as the fruitcakes they liked to bake. However, behind this façade, Miss Marple is the equal of any detective on this list. With a memory to rival Morse and able to deduce as well as Holmes, her way with a case might seem unthreatening and almost feeble, but she unfailingly gets the baddie in the end.
Yes, Morse is best known due to his unforgettable portrayal by the late, great John Thaw on TV, but, as the best things in entertainment tend to be, Morse is of course a literary creation. As onscreen, the Morse we encounter in Dexter’s novels is in thrall to opera, loves a pint of real ale and likes to drive classic cars. He also has a keen intellect and tends to solve his crimes by a combination of his photographic memory and his enviable intuition.
If you were to describe John Rebus (Scottish, from the industrial working class, drinks too much, has a problem with authority, a born leader) you’d be forgiven for thinking you were talking about Sir Alex Ferguson. Indeed Rebus’s gruff demeanour and no-nonsense approach does bring to mind the Manchester United supremo, but Rebus (ex-army and apolitical) is certainly his own man. So far he’s featured in 17 novels – three of which are named after Rolling Stones albums. We like this fact.
Perry Mason, so memorably played by Raymond Burr on the long-running TV series, was not actually a detective in the real sense of the word. He was a lawyer, but the manner in which he solved the cases brought before him involved a master class in deduction and detection.
Harry Hole smokes too much, drinks too much, uses unconventional methods to catch criminals, has few close friends. However, while these traits could lapse into cliché, Jo Nesbø’s adept skill at bringing Hole to life on the page renders this fear redundant. Hole travels the world using his cunning powers of deduction to bring a number of high profile criminals to justice. Martin Scorsese is in talks to bring The Snowman – the seventh Harry Hole book – to the big screen.
The mysterious Continental Op is not only an enigma because the reader never learns his name. His duplicitous nature and the cold manner in which he goes about his work means this forerunner of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction is something of an antihero. Hammett suggests that if you look hard enough you’ll find his heart, but it’s certainly a darkly stained muscle.
In many ways Lew Archer is an explicit homage to the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe – at least in his first appearances in Macdonald’s novels. He’s slightly frazzled and has a troubled and colourful backstory, however, there are subtle differences. Less glamorous than his predecessors, he’s a more likeable character – in an everyday sense. He’s the detective you’d happily go out for a drink with. Of course, don’t get him drinking too much… He’s a detective after all. That way madness lies.
The lack of women on this least isn’t any act of sexism on her part. There simply isn’t as many female sleuths as men. V.I Warshawski is one lass worth celebrating, though. As tough and edgy as any of her male counterparts, Warshawski operates in the bad lands of Southside Chicago. She’s also something of an enigma: an athletic lady with a fondness for opera and a ballsy operator who is unlucky in love. In a dream PI pairing we’d love to see her hook up with Philip Marlowe.
Jack Reacher, the recent subject of a Tom Cruise movie, isn’t a real detective in the Marlowe/Spade/Holmes category, but he does solve puzzles with dramatic alacrity. An ex-Major in the US army, Reacher is travelling around his home country – a country he doesn’t really know and sometimes find hard to recognise – when he readily and willingly encounters trouble. Often implicated himself – what secrets does he harbour? – Reacher’s way of, erm, reaching the truth is never less than thrilling.
Douglas Adams might be better know for The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but his creation of time travelling detective Dirk Gently shouldn’t be overlooked. Gently believes in the ‘fundamental interconnectedness of all things’, which is handy because his quests take him from romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Norse mythology and American women who lose their rag when they can’t order pizza in London. A quintessentially English private eye from the upper crust.
Adam Dalgliesh is an archetype of a classic staple of British detective fiction, the gentleman detective. Coming from well-bred stock (his dad was a rector in Norfolk), Dalgliesh is imbued with an appreciation of the classics – he writes poetry and drives a Jaguar (similar to Morse in more ways than one then). He is intensely private, driven and dedicated to his job. Another loner in other words.
A middle-aged male, slightly overweight, with a fondness for a bewildering array of alcohol, Jules Maigret is another PI that displays less than wholesome life choices. He is however, a superb detective – he must be, Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories dedicated to the French sleuth.
Nick Stefanos is in many ways the spiritual heir of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and co; in much the same way that writer George Pelecanos can trace his writing chops back to James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. Sometime marketing executive-cum-barman, Stefanos also dabbles in private investigation with remarkably – given his alcohol intake – successful results. Not that makes him a happy chap mind.
One for the Dickens purists. The manner in which Dickens drew the ostensibly ordinary detective who solves the mystery at the heart of Bleak House came to define how many saw law enforcement agents in the 19th Century. Rather than rely on any instinctive flashes of deducible genius, Bucket observed, collected the available evidence and made his judgements thereafter.
A medieval Franciscan friar and his young sidekick might not sound like a crime-fighting duo to equal Batman and Robin, but there was probably less need for endless kapows and biffs in 14th Century Italian monasteries. Acclaimed postmodern author Eco invested a huge amount of deduction and power of analysis in William, however the manner in which he stumbles upon the truth doesn’t equate to a definitive truth, rather a pause in just another multi-layered story. Sean Connery portrayed William in the 1986 big screen adaptation.
For 51 short stories writer G.K. Chesterton made a hero out of a short, rotund and badly dressed Catholic priest. His Father Brown certainly lacks the glamour of the US hard-boiled tradition, much less the elegance of Holmes or Poirot, but like the aforementioned he always got his man. His trump card was intuition. Not for him logic, clues and deduction, Brown would put himself in the place of the murderer and seek to understand who had the clear motive to commit the crime. It was a handy shtick that made Father Brown endure for 25 years of writing and beyond.
Speaking of salad dodging sleuths. Kurt Wallander is an overweight, disillusioned, miserable shell of a man. He’s also a rather adept detective, not that that seems to bring him any succour from a life that has gone horribly wrong. Wallander is the creation of feted Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell and he’s been subject of three television/cinema adaptations – perhaps because he reflects the ennui of modern life so capably.
Not all sleuths can be the strong, mysterious type. Sometimes you need reliable, kindly folk who you can set your clock by. Enter stage left Ruth Rendell’s most celebrated creation, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. From his sturdy old-fashioned Christian name, to his endearingly traditional dress sense, Wexford is a no-nonsense, intelligent policeman who in his own unfussy way solves cases with as much efficiency as Spade, Holmes and co.
Martin Amis has never shied away from shining a light from the murkier aspects of life and the human condition. In Night Train he flicks the switch on full beam and allows the decidedly unfeminine sounding female detective Mike Hoolihan to take centre stage. An alcoholic whose professional career has fallen on hard times, she attempts to crack an apparently open and shut case of suicide at the behest of her former boss. Unfortunately for Hoolihan when she arrives at what she perceives to be the truth is that the moment when she realises she’s been played?
Across seven novels – to date - Arkady Renko has witnessed sweeping changes in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. None of them particularly edifying. And while Renko sees greed and corruption in his homeland, he notes the West isn’t much better either. Nonetheless, Renko displays heroic tendencies in his adventures, although, according to his critics, these visions of himself may be misplaced. As ever, the detective in this case is something of a misfit when compared to the rest of society.
Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is another loner – notice a pattern emerging here? The product of a doomed alliance between an urbane Danish father and her native Greenland Inuit mother, as an adult Smilla develops a friendship with a young boy Isaiah, who is found dead, the result, it seems, of falling off a roof. But Smilla smells many rats – and she’s determined to get to the truth. No matter what.
Not many of our super sleuths are erudite men of letters (ok, a certain Mr Sherlock Holmes definitely displays a refined sense of learning), which, we guess makes Chinese detective Chen Cao something of a unique case. Not only does he quote from poetry, he translates Western detective novels into Chinese, all the while solving mysteries involving serial killers. It’s this intelligence that allows author Qiu Xiaolong to make telling observations about his former homeland too.
If Sam Spade is the detective real life detectives wish they were, then Meyer Landsmen is probably the detective they really are. Dedicated to his job undoubtedly, the rest of his life is something of a car crash. A borderline alcoholic; separated from the only woman foolish enough to take him on and, to compound matters, a Yiddish detective living in a Jewish settlement in Alaska that is about to revert back to America. A compelling creation of Chabon, Landsman is a tour de force of equal parts hard-boiled and comic traits.
A supporting, though no less fascinating character for it, player in Joseph Conrad’s other infamous novel, Chief Inspector Heat attempts to solve the mystery of an explosion in London’s Greenwich, which may or may not involve the titular character. Unfortunately he’s being impeded at all sides. Heat, despite his hi-octane name, is emblematic of a bureaucracy attempting to stifle honest goodness and seditious activities plaguing society. If there was ever a detective to feel sympathy for, it’s Heat.