Top 10 Literary Detectives
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
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.
9. Nick and Nora Charles
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
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.
7. Mike Hammer
Mike 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.
6. Miss Marple
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
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
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
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
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
The 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.