Top 10 Literary Detectives

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They use their cunning, and their expertise and courage to solve crimes. From quaint English spinsters to hard drinking gumshoes, we love the page turning tales of detectives. There is a mystery at the heart of each story. Here is a list of characters that have had an impact on our culture.

 

10. V.I. Warshawski

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The adjective usually applied to Sara Paretsky’s short stories and novels is ‘gritty’. V.I. Warshawski (or Victoria, aka Vic) was one of the first tough female detectives and she inspired others to follow. The first Warshawski novel, Indemnity Only, appeared in 1982 and the latest one, Hardball, came out this year. With the exception of one short story, the stories are told in the first person. The private eye from Chicago isn’t a one-dimensional character. She likes opera and classical music, and uses karate. The novels contain several recurring characters. There is only one movie adaptation and that was released in 1991. Deadlock was filmed with the simple title, V.I. Warshawski and it starred Kathleen Turner.

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9. Nick and Nora Charles

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As one of the great double acts, Nick and Nora are remembered with affection for their playful, witty banter. They bring comedy to the detective genre. There is only one novel to feature them. Dashiell Hammett wrote The Thin Man and its publication in 1933 led to the first film adaptation, with the same title, a year later. William Powell starred as Nick, a retired private detective, and Myrna Loy played Nora, the socialite wife. They co-starred with their pet dog, Asta, a wire-haired fox terrier. Powell and Loy had excellent chemistry and the film was a big hit. Five sequels followed plus a radio show, (1941 – 1950), and a television show, (1957 – 1959), starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.

8. Sam Spade

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The Sam Spade character, created by Dashiell Hammett, only appeared in a few publications but its influence on the hardboiled detective genre was immense. The novel that features him, The Maltese Falcon (1930), was first published in serial form in a pulp magazine. He also appeared in three short stories. The Maltese Falcon was filmed three times, most successfully when Humphrey Bogart played Spade in 1941. The other two versions were released in 1931 and in 1936 (as Satan Met a Lady). The 1941 movie, directed by John Huston, was an inspiration to other film noir. Bogart also played Spade on radio, as did Edward G. Robinson. Sam Spade was also featured in comic book strips.

 

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7. Mike Hammer

MikeHammerMike Hammer is not a pretty character. He is misanthropic and uses violence to get his way, ignoring the law when it suits him. Mickey Spillane introduced the character in I, The Jury, a novel published in 1947. The book was adapted into a movie in 1953 and again in 1982. The series of books, written in the first person, has spawned several movies, TV series, and radio versions, and the final novel, The Goliath Bone, appeared in 2008. Even Mickey Spillane himself played Hammer in a 1963 film, but most fans agree that the most successful portrayal is by Stacy Keach, who played him in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer TV series from 1984 – 1987 and again in 1997 for one season.

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6. Miss Marple

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At first glance, Miss Marple appears to be just a sweet, old lady, but the English sleuth has a sharp mind that has outwitted many murderers. Crime writing supremo, Agatha Christie, wrote 12 Miss Marple novels and she was introduced in a short story in 1927. The first novel to feature her was Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. Other well known Marple tales include A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962). The final Miss Marple novel was published in 1976. Agatha Christie wrote about a world that appears very old fashioned to contemporary readers today but the continuing popularity of Miss Marple has been boosted by stage plays, TV films, and movies. Actresses to have played her include Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, and Helen Hayes.

 

 

5. Hercule Poirot

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Using his little gray cells, the Belgian detective has solved many whodunits amongst the upper classes. Agatha Christie’s character has appeared in 51 short stories and 33 novels, beginning in 1920 and ending in 1975. Numerous TV and film adaptations have made Poirot a familiar figure and he has been portrayed by Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina, Ian Holm, and others. His most famous adventure is probably Murder on the Orient Express. Poirot is the only fictional character to receive an obituary in the New York Times.

 

 

4. The Hardy Boys

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Frank (18) and Joe (17) are the crime solving Hardy brothers. Generations of kids have grown up reading about their adventures after lights out, with a flashlight. The original series of books was published between 1927 and 1979 and the characters and early plots were the work of Edward Stratameyer. Several ghostwriters wrote the books and they were published under the pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon. In some stories, the brothers and Nancy Drew team up on a case. Frank and Joe help their father, who is a private detective, and the police. The books are still read today and the franchise has produced TV shows and merchandise.

 

3. Nancy Drew

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Many young girls have taken Nancy Drew as their role model. The 18 year old sleuth, (16 years old in earlier books), enjoys solving mysteries, sometimes helping her attorney father, Carson Drew with his cases. The character was the creation of Edward Stratameyer, (see the Hardy Boys), but the stories were ghostwritten by different authors, under the collective pen name of Carolyn Keene. The first novel appeared in 1930 and they are still popular today across the world. A series of books were published in the 1980s, called the Nancy Drew Files, which portrayed an older Nancy. There have been 5 films, 2 television shows, computer games, and other merchandise in the franchise.

2. Philip Marlowe

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The world weary, heavy drinking gumshoe, always ready with a wise crack, was personified by Marlowe, the creation of Raymond Chandler. Chandler, who began writing for pulp magazines, wrote a series of novels with Marlowe as the protagonist, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. The Big Sleep was his debut, full-length novel, published in 1939. The final Marlowe story appeared in 1958. Raymond Chandler’s world of murder, intrigue, and femmes fatales captured the imagination and radio, TV, and film versions followed. The most memorable movie portrayals include Murder My Sweet (Dick Powell in 1944), The Big Sleep (Humphrey Bogart in 1946), and Farewell My Lovely (Robert Mitchum in 1975).

1. Sherlock Holmes

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Sherlock_HolmesThe master of detection is synonymous with ‘deductive reasoning’ and even has a museum in his honor. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Holmes, introducing him to the world in 1887. The tales are mostly narrated by Holmes’ companion and chronicler, Dr Watson, in 4 novels and 56 short stories, the last story appearing in 1914.  The plays, TV episodes, and movies have made us all aware of the detective’s methods, pastimes, and domestic arrangements. He lives at lodgings in Baker Street, London, which is a major tourist attraction today, and he likes to play the violin and take cocaine. The Guinness Book of World Records states that Holmes has appeared in more than 200 movies, which is more than any other character.  The actor most associated with him is Basil Rathbone, who appeared in such Conan Doyle classics as Hound of the Baskervilles.

 

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43 Comments

  1. I just saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie and I really liked it. Nothing like the literary Holmes, of course, but still an entertaining movie. They could have ignored the Sherlock reference and still have had a sleek detective movie. More like 19th century Batman than anything.

    Hmmm…should Batman have been on this list?

  2. Porfiry Petrovitch?

    Nero Wolfe?

    Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee?

    Charlie Chan?

    Maigret?

    Morse?

    Rumpole?

    Sir Peter Wimsey?

    Gervase Fen?

    Richard Jury and Melrose Plant?

    Adam Dalgliesh?

    Enough!

  3. Sam Spade gets the attention as a Hammett creation because of the success of "The Maltese Falcon". But the Hammett detective who appears in many more stories is The Continental Op. He also arguably has the more distinguished movie resume — indirectly.

    "Red Harvest" — a Continental Op novel first published as a serial in The Black Mask magazine — is the inspiration for "Yojimbo" (though that fact is not 100% verifiable), which in turn inspired "A Fistful of Dollars" and "Last Man Standing".

  4. Sherlock Holmes is so influential he's still the model for characters in at least three hit shows: Robert Goren in Law & Order: CI, Dr. Gregory House in House, and Patrick Jane in The Mentalist.

  5. Sherlock Holmes is still the best, in my opinion. The new movie is okay, but a little too much slambang action for my taste. With Holmes, it's the intellect that counts. Also, they made Watson more of an equal to Holmes, instead of a bumbling fussbudget. I like a Watson who's properly in awe of his great friend's mind.

  6. Watson as a "bumbling fussbudget" was more of an invention of Nigel Bruce, the actor who played Watson in the films with Basil Rathbone. In the stories by Doyle (and a lot of authors who have written Holmes stories) he IS more of an equal. Doesn't mean he isn't still in awe of Holmes' mind.

    The series with Jeremy Brett was rightly hailed as being "return to form" as Watson was seen as "normalizing" Holmes and his eccentricities. Wish I could remember the actor's name who played him. : (

  7. My favorite is Chandler's Marlowe – actually all of Raymond Chandler's stories are amazing if you love hard-boiled detective fiction. And, of course, Humphrey Bogart portrayed my favorite detective on film (it was just his birthday on December 25th and a great day to watch some of his classic movies).

  8. You can be a fan of Paretsky all you want but she (and scores of others) owes quite a lot to Marcia Muller, often considered the godmother off (American) female writers writing female detectives.

  9. Ironically, you ignored the very first of fiction's great detectives: Edgar Allen Poe's C. Auguste Dupin. He starred in only three stories-"The Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Purloined Letter" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget"- but Doyle partly fashioned Holmes on Dupin (Doyle was inspired by his real-life teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell), and Dupin was the template for all the great slueths to come.

    Also, there's Sergeant Cuff of Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone" (the first full-length detective novel) and G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, the seemingly absent-minded Catholic priest who was one of the inspirations for TV's Columbo.

    • Thank you Terry! That the author didn't include Dupin means he or she was unqualified to make this list to begin with. It's an inexcusable omission.

      • I think many of our readers use absolute words they don't really mean.

        Anne is a published writer and well-read in this area. She is qualified to write a list of literary detectives.

        If you don't agree with it, that is your choice. And really, is the word inexcusable the right choice of word? There are few things in life that are truly inexcusable. This site is for entertainment purposes and the authors do the their best to write lists that our viewers will find enjoyable and some times thought-provoking. Try to remember this when criticizing them with words such as "unqualified" and "inexcusable".

        As I commented early, I welcome another list on literary detectives to compliment this one. YogiBarrister, are you the person to write it?

        • Inexcusable IS the correct word. It's an inexcusable omission for this particular list, it doesn't mean the author is a bad person. If you are making a top-ten list about literary detetectives, you simply must include Dupin and mention the fact that Poe invented the genre. You might also consider referencing the books more than the movies.

        • We will have to agree to disagree. I find it hard to believe any omission is inexcusable on list that is subjective to personal tastes. Her tastes aren't yours, it is simple as that. I noticed you didn't reply to my suggestion that you write a list. That would be the best solution to fix this "inexcusable" omission. I ask once again, will you?

        • I am sure you were typing with one hand and patting yourself on the back with another while you're commenting.

        • YogiBarrister on

          TTM, on most top ten lists there are people or things that absolutely must be included. For example; a list of the greatest NY Yankee hitters without Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle would have no informative or entertainment value. It would like omitting Sherlock Holmes from this one. I'll admit, Dupin is not familiar to a lot of modern readers (another reason to include him), but because Poe invented the genre with this very character, he was an anchor candidate. It's not really the author's prerogative to omit him.

          I withdraw the comment about Ms. Iredale's qualifications. If I were her editor though, I wouldn't have published it until the mistake was corrected. BTW I'm not a troll, if I bother to post an opinion, or correction as is the case here, it's only because I'm interested. It's better to get twenrty-five comments saying your list sucks than one praising it to the high heavens.

        • I could say the same thing for not including Batman! Who cares that Poe invented the genre and created the first detective, the fact is he's NOT famous is enough reason not to include him. I can't stand you literary snobs who come up with obscure picks so you can feel superior to everyone else.

        • I agree with the dude here. this aggression against the list’s writer will not stand, man. And i remember reading ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ when i was a child then thought: “killer Orangutan? what?lame! and he even spell it wrong! (I’m Indonesian)”. but his other stories did put a goose bump on my wee neck.

        • Chris Schweizer on

          Dupin being the first literary detective doesn’t qualify for a top ten list, because he doesn’t really detect, at least not in the literary sense. He explains what happens, but (and it’s been some time since I read Rue Morgue) does so in a way that does not showcase any sort of deductive reasoning. As I said, it’s been quite a while since I read it, but doesn’t he just say, in effect “A ha! It was a killer ape,” telling us what happened but in no way enunciating the means by which he arrived at that conclusion? He’s more of a plot device to reveal the twist than a character in and of himself, the way that the others on the list are.

  10. Apart from the ones mentioned above, Nero Wolfe, Father Brown, Inspector Maigret and C Auguste Dupin, what about Monsieur Lecoq, Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander, to name just three more? I suppose ten is too small a number for a list like this. If ten of us were to put our tens together, I wonder how many there will be in common and how many we will have in all?

    • I would gladly accept another list with 10 more detectives. I'm amazed that there are so many more that weren't in this list. Any takers on writing a second list of 10 great literary detectives?

  11. I was disappointed to not see Ed McBain on this list. He is a literal detective. Wrote a great series of novels about the 82nd prcnt. Over 100 novels over many years. I loved these books. Sherlock Is the only one on this list that I enjoy reading. I'm not blown away by this list this time.

  12. The Department of Oc on

    I really can't see beyond Sherlock Holmes. The man used to solve crimes without even leaving the comfort of his drawing room!

  13. My Pick for Top 3:
    Hercule Poirot <3
    Nancy Drewww – good times reading the books until early morning under the covers with a torch. :')
    && Sherlock Holmes.

    A good article. Haters, keep the obscure detectives for your personal lists.

  14. Dupin is not obscure. He is the most famous character ever created by the guy who invented the genre. If you don’t know who Dupin is, then you aren’t qualified to discuss literary detectives, since Dupin is the original, and was the model for many of the included characters, Holmes included. Only buffoons use “snob” to mean “someone who knows more than I.” Omitting Dupin was a mistake. There is no way around it.

  15. Dupin appeared in three short stories more than 170 years ago. You can’t get much more obscure than that. More important, historical value shouldn’t be a consideration. It’s a Top Ten list. Ed McBain wrote mainly procedurals:. Interesting characters, but no one who belongs on this list. Batman is mainly sci-fi; other elements eclipse his detecting abilities as with Steed and Peel, Dekker, etc.

  16. People need to read more of the genre. And, superheroes don’t quallify. It has to have an elegance and intrigue to it!!!!!!!

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