I’ve recently done the top ten best private detectives of all time, and as such I felt it was only right and proper to do the same for the other end of the spectrum; the police detective.
Police detectives abide by both the constructs of the law and their own personal beliefs. They often face many hurdles that private detective do not have to deal with, making them a great means of delivering both human drama and exceptional criminal investigations. They often work alongside private eyes, supporting them and giving them the stability, resources and legal standing that they need to get their result.
As such, they occupy a unique space within the Crime Fiction space, and therefore it is with great excitement that I showcase my top ten favourites. As with my piece on private detectives, I quickly realised that five would never be enough, so have a look and see what you think!
10. Frank Merlin: As a relatively new kid on the fictional police detective block, Mark Ellis’ tough yet charming London based detective might seem like an odd choice for this list, yet I was so enthralled by him in the latest novel, Merlin at War, that I felt compelled to go out and buy the previous two novels and read more about this rugged man and his dogged pursuit of right in a turbulent time.
9. Charles Parker: ‘Parker Bird’ as he is affectionately known by his colleague and later brother-in-law Lord Peter Wimsey, is a more interesting character than he lets on, and although he is less well-read and educated than his colleague, he makes up for it in dogged determination and sheer hard work, something which his noble friend cannot boast.
8. Inspector Bucket: Often noted as one of the first police detectives in fiction, the character appears in Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, assisting the wealthy protagonists in their investigations and acting as both a constabulary figure whose authority is seen as absolute, but also as a figure who highlighted the class issues abundant at the time. Believed to have been based on several real life Scotland Yard detectives, as it was commonly acknowledged that Dickens was intrigued by the newly formed division there and observed and interviewed many of its detectives, Inspector Bucket can be seen as an example of the very first police detective character, and therefore acts as a template for many later fictional incarnations of himself.
7. Jack Robinson: My love of Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Phyrne Fisher novels is by now well known and evidenced by my top five and interview with the author herself. However, whilst the protagonist represents everything that is great about female detectives, she is often ably assisted by the constabulary in the form of Inspector Jack Robinson, as well as Constable Hugh Collins and an assortment of other junior members of the Melbourne police. Jack and Hugh are the two reoccurring police characters in the series, and the inspector in particular offers a fascinating glimpse into Australian police characters. He is described as a man whose appearance is so boring and unremarkable that people have been known to forget what he looks like half way through conversing with him, making him ideal for sneaking up on suspects. He is also so unmemorable that he blends in anywhere, and this, combined with his dogged determination and vast experience in the force make him the ideal ally for the daring socialite turned private eye that is Miss Fisher.
6. James Japp: Agatha Christie’s reoccurring policeman, who regularly assists private detective Hercule Poirot, Japp is an incredibly underrated character. To my mind he is woefully undervalued, particularly in the TV and film adaptations of Christie’s brilliant Poirot novels. Although he is not perhaps as prolific as Superintendent Spence in the novels, he is certainly more inclined to use the private detective to his advantage, and Japp is often seen playing up to Poirot’s ego to gain the information or assistance he needs. His canny ability to elicit the support required is unique and shows the ingenuity and understanding of human nature which Poirot often lacks.
5. John Rebus: Ian Rankin’s indestructible detective, who gets booted off the force or almost killed more times than you can shake a stick at, is a great example of the blurred lines between private and police detectives. He often does not adhere to the law, making him a virtual outsider in the force, but his strong sense of loyalty and commitment to the force keep him coming back every time.
4. Logan McRae: Stuart MacBride’s atmospheric novels showcase the detective skills of the luckless McRae, who is a punching bag for every gangster in Aberdeen, but also an intelligent and sensitive explorer of human nature. He often uses a combination of street smarts and emotional understanding to get his man and stop some of the most vicious criminals north of the border.
3. Endeavour Morse: Colin Dexter’s cerebral, intelligent yet socially inept Inspector is a truly intriguing, heart warming character who often shows the very best of human nature whilst working to uncover those who show it at its worst. His vast education and brilliant mind combine to create a man who is able to decipher even the most vexing case, and alongside his kind and sweet Sergeant he is able to take on whatever Oxford has to throw at them. Both characters are very different in the books from those portrayed on TV, and in the books the older, kinder Sergeant Lewis is a great foil for the young, impetuous Inspector of whom he is so fond.
2. Jules Maigret: As you can see from my top five, Georges Simenon’s intrepid Parisian policeman is both fascinating and engaging, and his dogged approach to catching his criminals makes him a truly exceptional policeman and an inventive protagonist. You would think that reading about a man so ordinary he blended in almost anywhere as he went about the rigours of chasing criminals around Europe would be dull, but thanks to Simenon’s exceptional writing and brisk narrative the result is the opposite, which is probably why Maigret was written into more than 75 novels and remains a popular figure in the media today.
1. Kurt Wallander: Henning Mankell’s detective is often dubbed ‘the Swedish Inspector Morse’, and with good reason; both men are intelligent yet grumpy and often bad with people, as well as sharing diabetes and a fondness for opera and classical music. Also, both series are strongly rooted in their settings, for Morse it is Oxford, whereas Wallander walks the streets of Ystad and the wider Skane region in search of his criminals. What separates them is the tone of the novels; whilst Dexter’s Morse often deals with class related crimes depicted in a gentle, benevolent manner, Mankell shows Wallander dealing with truly disgusting acts of violence and degradation, with the character often resorting to tough tactics to restore order and allow justice to prevail.