Recently, someone asked me who my favorite fictional characters have been. Many of them were detectives, mysteries being my main source of entertainment. So below is my very subjective listing of favorite fictional detectives:
1 and 2. The Bobbsey Twins and Encyclopedia Brown. These were among the first books I remember reading, and they’ve influenced many a mystery lover.
3. Sherlock Holmes. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, this detective is timeless. He still captures our imaginations, as can be seen by the current-day reincarnations (Robert Downey Jr. on the big screen and Benedict Cumberbatch in the current PBS series) and inspirations (the TV series House). There are many Holmes purists, but I like to see even the modern-day adaptations.
4. Inspector Morse. Colin Dexter wrote 13 novels, but mostly we know Morse through the TV series, and the late actor John Thaw. Even Colin Dexter admits that Thaw became, for him, Morse. Intellectually snobbish, pig-headed, often sharp with underling Lewis, and always unlucky in love, Morse was redeemed by his great intellect, humor and moments of vulnerability.
5. Inspector Robbie Lewis and DS James Hathaway. A spinoff from Morse, Insp. Lewis is more down-to-earth, working-class, but with a sharper edge in the new series, following the murder of his wife. Hathaway, tall and good-looking, is the intellectual here, but without the snobbery. It’s become one of my favorite PBS shows.
6. Insp. John Rebus. Ian Rankin’s creation is smart -- and smart-alecky. His demons are alcohol and women (divorced, and also often unlucky in love). Like Morse, he’s unorthodox and always battling his bosses. And like Morse, he’s also a loner and strangely vulnerable. Rankin retired him after 17 books in Exit Music. He’s been portrayed by John Hannah and Ken Stott on TV, but neither really seemed like Rebus to me. In this case, the books are definitely better.
7. Insp. Adam Dalgliesh. Ah, the poet-detective from New Scotland Yard, the silent but sensitive man. P.D. James created him in 1962 with Cover Her Face. In 2008, James, now 90, wrote what may be her last Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient. The slowly-aging Dalgliesh is now facing retirement and married. Originally portrayed by Roy Marsden on TV, Martin Shaw took over the role later -- and, to my mind, is Dalgliesh.
8 and 9. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Some may criticize Agatha Christie for weak characterization, but she did give us two of the most well-known and well-loved detectives: private investigator Poirot, a retired Belgian police officer living in London (first seen in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920) , and amateur detective Jane Marple, the elderly spinster of St. Mary Mead (first seen in The Murder at the Vicarage, 1930). David Suchet has long portrayed Poirot on TV, and now it’s hard to picture anyone else. Miss Marple has been played by many actresses, most notably Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie.
10. DCI Jane Tennison. This ITV production (Prime Suspect) featured Helen Mirren portraying a tough-as-nails detective who often put work before family, and who slid into alcoholism as the series progressed. So well acted by Mirren, Tennison almost doesn’t seem fictional. The series is said to have served as inspiration for The Closer in the U.S.
11. Adrian Monk. Portrayed by Tony Shalhoub on the USA Network, this obsessive-compulsive private eye was funny -- and also heart-breaking, as a lonely former San Francisco police detective who now worked on his own. His two aims in life: find out who killed his wife and return to the police force. A wonderful cast backed Shalhoub: assistants Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram) and Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard), Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) and Lt. Randy Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford). I still miss this show.
12. Spenser. The character created by Robert B. Parker in his books came to TV with Robert Urich. I liked the books, but I really loved the TV series. Spenser is the detective you would want to date: tough and good-looking, but a gourmet cook who can quote poetry. Alas, he already had a girlfriend.
13. V.I. Warshawski. This Chicago private detective, created by Sara Paretsky, is tough, independent and no-nonsense. A little grittier than some other female detectives, and maybe a little harder to love.
14. Kinsey Milhone. In some ways, a cousin to Warshawski, although not as tough. The California detective is smart, athletic, principled -- and only owns one good dress, a black number she can scrunch up in her purse and still wear. At least Kinsey (written by Sue Grafton) has stopped giving herself haircuts.
15. Kate Shugak. Another tough woman, she’s a native Alaskan (Aleut) created by Dana Stabenow. Shugak, once an investigator for the Anchorage District Attorney’s Office, now works alone and finds herself in all sorts of situations, going undercover on a fishing boat and posing as an old field worker.
16. Samantha Kinsey. Ok, this TV detective is really light-weight, but I was hooked on the show (Mystery Woman on Hallmark) nonetheless. I could see myself as Samantha (though she was probably better portrayed by Kellie Martin): a murder mystery buff who owns a bookstore and whose hobby is photography. And, of course, always happening upon a situation where she could sleuth. Nothing that good ever happens to me. Maybe if I owned a bookstore?
17. Lt. Columbo. There were no whodunits in these TV shows -- as viewers, we knew who the killer was -- but it was still great to see the seemingly-bumbling but really-brilliant Columbo (Peter Falk) solve the case.
18. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I saw the TV series (Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton) before every picking up one of Rex Stout’s books, and it was a case of a TV series influencing me to later read some of the books. Nero is an overweight gourmand who pays more attention to his orchids than to people, but can solve a case without even leaving his brownstone. He has his assistant, Archie, for all the legwork. The A&E series is said to have closely followed the books.
19. Aimée Leduc. Now here’s a female P.I. quite different from the others I’ve mentioned. For one thing, she lives in Paris and dresses in vintage Channel and Dior, even wearing high heels while chasing bad guys (or being chased). But she’s tough in her own right. Created by Cara Black, Leduc is half-American, half-French (there’s also a mystery surrounding her mother). She has a great sidekick in René Friant, a dwarf and computer expert.
20. Leroy Jethro Gibbs and the rest of the NCIS cast. One of the best TV shows today -- underrated, in my opinion. Great characters, great mystery story lines, a dark undercurrent, yet with lots of humor. This really is an ensemble cast, although Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is at the heart of it.
Who are your favorite fictional detectives?