Great Gumshoes: A Guide to Fictional Detectives

Posted: August 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Recently The Guardian reported that in 1945, at the behest of the Ministry of Information in Britain, Agatha Christie wrote an essay lauding the excellence of British crime fiction. In what was essentially a piece of post-WWII propaganda meant to showcase the English culture and way of life, Christie did indeed lavishly praise several of her contemporaries, including Ngaio MarshJohn Dickson Carr, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Apparently reluctant to be entirely glowing and gushing, she also included some less flattering words for fellow crime-writer Margery Allingham, whom she charged with over-developing her characters at the expense of the plot, and for Dorothy L. Sayers, whose recurring character Lord Peter Wimsey was a good example, Christie asserted, of “a good man spoilt”, and that any early interest he held was eventually replaced by run-of-the-mill handsomeness and dullness.

Most surprising were the harsh words Christie reserved for her own creation, the much-beloved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. While Poirot is widely considered the most famous detective in literary fiction (except for, perhaps, that one fellow), Christie stated in the essay that she had become bored to tears of him, and even considered him something of an embarrassment. She acknowledged the ardent affection reserved for Poirot by fans, but went on to caution would-be writers: “Be very careful what central character you create – you may have him with you for a very long time!”

Christie herself may not even have realized, in 1945, just how extensive Poirot’s longevity was to be. The famously fastidious and mustachioed character still has legions of fans today, and is among the most beloved fictional characters in history – his obituary was even published in the New York Times on August 6th, 1975, two months before the release of the last Poirot novel, Curtain. The obit ran as front page news, under the headline: “Hercule Poirot Is Dead; Famed Belgian Detective; Hercule Poirot, the Detective, Dies

Mike Hammer, created by Mickey SpillanePoirot is far from alone. There are numerous fan clubs, both physical and electronic, dedicated to fictional detectives (fic-dicks?). Whether police detectives, private eyes, or amateur snoops, readers eat them up. The same Peter Wimsey whom Dame Agatha was so rough with above has countless fans all over the globe, and stacks of copycat fan fiction written about him by admirers.

Likewise Sherlock HolmesNero Wolfe and Mike Hammer. Something about the detective genre seems to inspire the creation of long-lasting repeat characters, heroes in possession of varying ratio of admirable qualities and flaws, to whom readers everywhere can relate. We get to know them, and glimpse what makes them tick. We cheer for them, we fear for them, and we look forward to their next adventures. 

Some sleuths have been collaborative efforts as well, coming from more than one contributing mind. The most obvious example is keen-teen sleuth Nancy Drew, the amateur adolescent whose investigative adventures have intrigued gaggles of pre-teens  for generations. Nancy Drew’s creator is listed as Carolyn Keene. Keene, along with The Hardy Boys’ series author Franklin W. Dixon, doesn’t actually exist. Both are collective publishing pseudonyms created by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging firm who puts out the stories, which have actually been written by a collection of ghostwriters. However, both The Hardy Boys (since 1927) and Nancy Drew (since 1930) have gained popularity and loyal devotees, eagerly following their next clue alongside them. It was always a special treat when a book included both Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys teaming up to solve a particularly stubborn case.

Even the more dark and hardboiled detectives have their admirers. These anti-hero types were the antithesis of the wholesome, fresh-faced appeal of Nancy Drew and her cohorts. They too investigated crimes and mysteries, but the superficial similarities stopped there. These gritty gumshoes knew their way around guns, and were as often as not halfway to the bottom of a whiskey bottle. They were not afraid to get rough with an informant or give a hysterical dame a good shake when necessary. Two of the most well-known of that ilk are Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Interestingly, Humphrey Bogart played both of those characters in film adaptations.

A fun variation on the theme is the little old lady, most famously personified by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Jane Marple is an elderly unmarried woman, deceptively innocent in appearance and demeanor, who  uses her keen intelligence and ability to go unnoticed to her advantage when solving baffling crimes and grisly murders. Another excellent example is Emily Pollifax, the title character from the series by Dorothy Gilman. Technically a spy, Mrs. Pollifax is a vaguely depressed aging woman at the beginning of the series, who finds herself enormously cheered and revitalized after a series of misunderstandings lands her a job with the CIA and sees her sent off on a wildly unbelievable mission, ending up in Albania, which (naturally) she happens to survive, while tidily solving the mystery and landing herself a job in the meantime.

Whether your preference is debonair and dashing, deceptively demure or downright dastardly, there is a fictional detective to fit the bill. If the genre is anywhere near as much fun to write as it is to read, it’s small wonder we’ve so many to choose from.



Literary Detectives Not to Be Missed

Albert Campion created by Margery Allingham
Albert Campion 
created by Margery Allingham
Nero Wolfe created by Rex Stout
Nero Wolfe 
created by Rex Stout
Ellery Queen created by Daniel Nathan (Frederic Dannay) and Manford Lepofsky (Manfred Bennington)
Ellery Queen 
created by Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky
Henry Gamadge created by Elizabeth Daly
Henry Gamadge 
created by Elizabeth Daly
Sam Spade created by Dashiell Hammett
Sam Spade 
created by Dashiell Hammett

Philip Marlowe created by Raymond Chandler
Philip Marlowe 
created by Raymond Chandler
Emily Pollifax created by Dorothy Gilman
Emily Pollifax 
created by Dorothy Gilman
Hercule Poirot created by by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot 
created by by Agatha Christie
Anthony Gethryn created by Philip MacDonald
Anthony Gethryn 
created by Philip MacDonald
Precious Ramotswe created by Alexander McCall Smith
Precious Ramotswe 
created by Alexander McCall Smith

Roderick Alleyn created by Ngaio Marsh
Roderick Alleyn 
created by Ngaio Marsh
Lord Peter Wimsey created by Dorothy L. Sayers
Lord Peter Wimsey 
created by Dorothy L. Sayers
John Rebus created by Ian Rankin
John Rebus 
created by Ian Rankin
Adam Dalgliesh created by P.D. James
Adam Dalgliesh 
created by P.D. James
Nick and Nora Charles created by Dashiell Hammett
Nick and Nora Charles 
created by Dashiell Hammett

Roy Grace created by Peter James
Roy Grace 
created by Peter James
Miss Marple created by Agatha Christie
Miss Marple 
created by Agatha Christie
Guido Brunetti created by Donna Leon
Guido Brunetti 
created by Donna Leon
Alex Cross created by James Patterson
Alex Cross 
created by James Patterson
Brother Cadfael created by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter)
Brother Cadfael 
created by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter)

Father Brown created by G.K. Chesterton
Father Brown 
created by G.K. Chesterton
Inspector Morse created by Colin Dexter
Inspector Morse 
created by Colin Dexter
Tom Barnaby created by Caroline Graham
Tom Barnaby 
created by Caroline Graham
Marcus Didius Falco created by Lindsey Davis
Marcus Didius Falco 
created by Lindsey Davis
Dalziel and Pascoe created by Reginald Hill
Dalziel and Pascoe 
created by Reginald Hill

Gideon Fell created by John Dickson Carr
Gideon Fell 
created by John Dickson Carr
Tony Hill & Carol Jordan created by Val McDermid
Tony Hill & Carol Jordan 
created by Val McDermid
Agatha Raisin created by M.C. Beaton (Marion Chesney)
Agatha Raisin 
created by M.C. Beaton (Marion Chesney)
Inspector Jack Frost created b R.D. Wingfield
Inspector Jack Frost 
created by R.D. Wingfield
Kay Scarpetta created by Patricia Cornwell
Kay Scarpetta 
created by Patricia Cornwell

Hieronymus 'Harry' Bosch created by Michael Connelly
Hieronymous ‘Harry’ Bosch 
created by Michael Connelly
Spenser created by Robert B. Parker
created by Robert B. Parker
Lew Archer created by Ross MacDonald
Lew Archer 
created by Ross MacDonald
Perry Mason created by Erle Stanley Gardner
Perry Mason 
created by Erle Stanley Gardner
Kinsey Millhone created by Sue Grafton
Kinsey Millhone 
created by Sue Grafton

Elvis Cole created by Robert Crais
Elvis Cole 
created by Robert Crais
Charlie Chan created by Earl Derr Biggers
Charlie Chan 
created by Earl Derr Biggers
Jules Maigret created by Georges Simenon
Jules Maigret 
created by Georges Simenon
Harry Hole created by Jo Nesbo
Harry Hole 
created by Jo Nesbo
Kurt Wallander created by Henning Mankell
Kurt Wallander
created by Henning Mankell
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