As a lover and writer of crime fiction, what better place to start than my Favourite Five Fictional detectives.
I chose these characters from books and TV because they have consistently entertained, inspired and influenced me over the years. And they continue to do so. Repeated readings and viewings often reveal nuances, clues and moments I haven’t noticed before, also helping me with my plotting.
While there’s a long list of fictional detectives that could have made my favourite five, the ones I’ve chosen share certain characteristics that draw me to them.
- they’re unlike most of the usual fictional detectives, which means they offer a different, usually refreshing view of the world and crime
- they’re dogged, determined and quite fearless in their pursuit of justice, having high principles and ethics they never sacrifice
- they have a sense of humour. Whether wry, dry, sophisticated or slapstick, these detectives have a lighter, human side that makes them even more endearing.
1. Lieutenant Columbo
From the moment I first watched Prescription Murder, I loved the scruffy detective, who focused on the tiny, incongruous details that seemed out of place. With dogged determination, a bumbling approach that disguised his razor-sharp mind, and a love of his work, he unpicked perfect murders, often deflating some huge egos in the process.
Better than that, he deflates the huge egos of the killers, who think he’s a bumbling fool and no match for them.
And who would have thought that a crime drama which revealed the killer from the start would make such different, but compulsive viewing?
2. Chief Inspector Morse
Intelligent, intellectual and a hopeless romantic, Morse must be the most out of step detective ever. More at home with opera, literature and cryptic crosswords, he casts a weary eye over a world he doesn’t quite belong to, making him a misfit, or a loose cannon, depending on your viewpoint.
His vulnerability, demonstrated mainly through his failure with women, adds to that sense of feeling lost in a world he struggles to make sense of. The magnificent Oxford setting, with its historic and buildings, populated by the elite of academia, heightens and reinforces his disillusionment and sense of failure.
Set against such a peaceful and beautiful setting as Oxford, the complex murders seem more brutal and painful.
3. Miss Marple
Perhaps the best disguised detective of all time, Agatha’s Christie’s forthright, no nonsense sleuth never misses a trick, or a chance to unravel complex cases that thwart the police. While she puts her skills and incisive logic down to studying village life, she’s ruthless and fearless, perfectly safe behind her knitting and tweed jacket.
Agatha Christie set the standard with her complex plots, red herrings and dead ends, culminating in a reveal that often unmasks an unexpected and surprising killer.
While the BBC TV dramatization with Joan Hickson brought depth to the incisive character of Miss Marple, Christie’s plots and ability to divert attention have provided both a benchmark and inspiration for other crime writers.
4. Kinsey Millhone
Sue Grafton’s feisty private eye from California grabbed my attention in A is for Alibi, and never let go. The first person narration, crammed with attitude, humour and compassion, underpins Kinsey’s dogged nature as she ekes out a living in a small, coastal town.
With an intriguing family backstory, which slowly develops over the series, this detective is more than a match for the crooks she encounters and often hunts down. Like many private eyes, she often comes off worst, thanks to her high principles and refusal to be beaten, but this never dents her positive outlook on life.
She’s happy with her lot, aspiring to no more than a quiet life in her tiny apartment in a gentle coastal town with her small circle of friends. Yet she never gets the peaceful life she wants, as she’s dragged into all manner of intriguing investigations.
Who says that gentle isn’t interesting?
5. Detective Inspector Humphrey Goodman
It would be easy to dismiss this contemporary drama, wrapped in a gorgeous tropical island setting. Humphrey’s another misfit, whose accident prone antics often provide a slapstick element to counteract the often brutal crimes that have made Saint Marie the murder capital of the world.
Yet it’s a traditional locked room murder approach in a similar vein to Jonathan Creek (who comes in at 6 in my Favourite Five). Filled with well-developed characters and their backstories, murders that seem impossible to solve, and those sandy beaches, this is Columbo, Jonathon Creek, Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie, all wrapped up in an addictive, entertaining package that’s about as different as you can get.
And that’s my final reason for choosing these five. I’m aware of how dark, troubled and painful life can be, but when I sit down in front of the TV or with a book, I like to escape.
I’m sure you have your own favourite detectives, and there are so many to choose from, so who would make your Favourite Five?
‘A book is a device to ignite the imagination´- Alan Bennet.