I love a good private eye mystery, and although I have looked at individual books series and writers in my lists before, I realised recently that I have never looked at the genre as a whole, a misdemeanour that I fully intend to rectify.
Private eyes are really interesting characters; their distance from the law removes them its restrictions, whilst their moral code and friendship often offer them a different set of, slightly less regimented, rules to follow. Although traditionally private detectives in fiction were often former policemen who had left the force under a cloud or soldiers who were bored and seeking a return to a form of regimented lifestyle, today there are many different options to choose from when it comes to private investigators.
Originally envisaged as a top five, I quickly realised that I would need to double the number of detectives in order to showcase the ultimate list, so here are the ten best private investigators from around the world and across the Crime Fiction landscape.
10. Sam Spade: The inspiration behind many great American private detective characters, including Raymond Chandler’s exceptional Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s mischievous and cheeky character makes The Maltese Falcon a true classic pulp fiction novel.
9. Bulldog Drummond: Sapper’s demobbed solider turned private eye is a gift to anyone seeking a thrilling and tantalising series unlike anything they’ve ever read before. The books aren’t widely enjoyed anymore, and they can seem a little dated to today’s audiences in terms of their treatment of women and people of other races, but despite this I feel that there is something to be said for this forerunner to James Bond, as I outlined in my previous post.
8. Precious Ramotswe: Alexander McCall Smith’s unique detective brings a no-nonsense approach to crime solving. Her cases are often intriguing and deeply rooted in the culture of Botswana, where her novels are set. She is a fiercely intelligent, independent woman with a passion for helping others, and that is something that everyone should look up to.
7. Mikael Blomkvist: An intrepid investigative journalist out on the hunt for the perpetrators of a truly deplorable deception, the protagonist of the unfortunate Stieg Larsson’s unforgettable Millennium Trilogy is a real all rounder. Although Larsson does his best to convey the man’s normality and seedy journalistic nature, there is something heroic about the way he interacts with Lisbeth Salander, and his devotion to her cause makes for a thrilling series.
6. C. Auguste Dupin: Edgar Allan Poe’s detective, often cited as the first of its kind and the inspiration behind such greats as Sherlock Holmes, is a really interesting man with a number of intriguing perks. The story are intelligently plotted and the characters themselves are all fascinating, including the protagonist, who is perceptive, quick thinking and diligent, making him the ideal template for a host of private investigators from across the genre.
5. Lord Peter Wimsey: Overall, I feel that this list can be split into the plain, staid stalwarts of their genre, and the bizarre characters that make reading private detective stories fun. Lord Peter most definitely falls into the latter category. This strange yet compelling member of the aristocracy, who uses his wit and charm to lull his suspects into a false sense of security whilst he uses his intellect and extensive education to deduce the who, why, what and where of the crime. Sayers compelling series is worth reading for its exceptional handling of the love between Lord Peter and the object of his affections, who later becomes his wife, writer Harriet Vane.
4. Hercule Poirot: Agatha Christie’s famed Belgium detective and his ‘little grey cells’ remain incredibly popular to this day, as highlighted by Kenneth Branagh’s recent film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, which has reignited interest in the Queen of Crime’s eccentric sleuth. His strange mannerisms and knack for spotting clues everywhere he goes make this strange little man the perfect investigator, and his utter conspicuousness makes him a walking double bluff- nobody sees him watching them because they are too busy making fun of him and his fussy, slight compulsive behaviour. With a former solider, a grumpy policeman, a prim secretary and an overbearing novelist among his cohort of assistants fans can see the influences that Conon Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories had on Christie, and her characters, particularly her suspects, later became the template for the entire Golden Age of Crime Fiction.
3. Miss Phryne Fisher: You may have noticed, following on from all my previous mentions of her (including my top five post about the best novels to get you addicted on Kerry Greenwood’s fascinating 1920s sleuth), that I am something of a fan of this Australian flapper and her demur yet dastardly detecting ways. The character is a marvel, with her before its time feminist outlook, her compassion and her remarkable sense of style. Refined, intelligent and dignified, the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher is a truly unique creation and one that everyone should check out.
2. Sherlock Holmes: Of course, the great man himself truly needs no introduction, and Conan Doyle’s eccentric investigator and his faithful companion Dr Watson have long since become a template for many detective duos since the characters were introduced in the 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet. Alongside a selection of novels, the characters also appeared in a range of short stories, which were incredibly popular. He remains to this day a remarkable and renowned detective who repeatedly appears in and influences popular media in a variety of forms.
1. Philip Marlowe: My top five for this American gumshoe remains the Dorset Book Detective’s most popular post, and it’s easy to see why. With his sharp wit and tough talk, this hardboiled detective paved the way for pretty much every American detective that came after him.