Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

My Top 25 Favorite Fictional Detectives

Another purely subjective list.  As mentioned before on this blog, I love detective fiction. I think it hones the mind and is also entertaining.

Some also rans and honorable mentions:

  • Thomas Magnum from Magnum, P.I. TV series of the ’80s. Lousy detective who solved everything by sheer luck, but a fun show.  A kind of “Peter Pan” Boy Who Never Grew Up,  Magnum had a great gig: Live in a beautiful Hawai’ian mansion owned by a never-present novelist rent-free; drive absent novelist-friend’s hot car; spend much time at beach around beautiful women; get friends Rick and TC to do most of your leg work.
  • Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote. I really don’t like this “Miss Jane Marple” style of female detective. But it was hilarious to see how many murders one small New England town could have. Cabot Cove, ME had a higher crime rate than New York,  London, or Tokyo!
  • Crockett and Tubbs of Miami Vice.  This show was not really about serious crime fiction. It was about fast cars, cool clothes, great music in the background, and beautiful women. You have a problem with that?
  • The Scooby Gang from the Scooby Doo cartoons.
  • The Three Investigators–I never got into The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew (though both my wife and daughters like Nancy) but this trio of adolescent boys from Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators helped launch my love for the genre as a young boy.
  • Brother William of Baskerville, 11th  C. Franciscan monk (formerly a Dominican and a part of the Inquisition) who solves the murders in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Only in one novel/movie, but makes a lasting impression.
  • Adrian Monk from the TV series Monk. The “Defective Detective” has far too many neuroses to be believable as a functioning human being, never mind detective, but the show is quite fun and Tony Shalaub is hilarious.
  • Inspector Clouseau–just because the Pink Panther movies (the originals, not the remakes) were so funny.
  • From the comments: Mma Precious Ramotswe, heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series set in Botswana. When I made the list, I had watched the HBO series, but had not yet read any of the novels–they’re better.


  1. Sherlock Holmes the first “consulting detective” as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Edgar Allen Poe created the modern detective story (there were forerunners in both ancient Chinese and medieval Arabic fiction) with C. August Dupin of Murders in the Rue Morgue, but Holmes was the classic and, in my opinion, still the best. No one was more brilliant than the flawed Victorian who continually showed up Scotland Yard.
  2. Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s idiosyncratic Belgian police inspector turned London private investigator. Murder on the Orient Express rivals Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles for greatest detective novel of all time.
  3. Sister Fidelma Peter Tremayne’s Catholic nun who solves mysteries  in 7th C. Ireland.  I rank Sister Fidelma so highly not only because of the careful historical research, but because she has to  solve these mysteries without the advantage of modern forensic science–while even Holmes benefitted from the early days of the science.
  4. Batman—okay, those who only know the movies and ’60s TV show are howling right now.  But Batman was never just a costumed crimefighter. From the beginning, he was also a detective  who combined the inductive reasoning (Doyle was wrong to call it “deductive,” a mistake Holmes himself would never have made) of Sherlock Holmes with the extra-legal cat burglar techniques of Maurce LeBlanc’s Gentleman thief, Arsene Lupin. Batman first appeared, after all, in Detective Comics Magazine and didn’t get his own title for a year.
  5. Columbo is  my personal favorite and played brilliantly by Peter Falk.  My tribute to Columbo on this blog is found here.
  6. Nero Wolfe the brilliant creation of Rex Stout.  An immigrant  to the U.S. from the Balkans, Wolfe gives up the active life of his adventurous youth (of which we just get, sometimes contradictory, hints) for that of a wealthy, lazy, gourmet and recluse.  But to finance this idiosyncratic lifestyle, he is a high paid private investigator. Since he seldom (and only reluctantly) leaves his house, his leg work has to be done by the narrator, his live-in assistant, Archie Goodwin. (Incidentally, 3 life-long bachelors–the great chef, Fritz, included–living without women, would today raise huge questions, although Archie dated frequently. But when Stout was writing, a female in the house would have been more scandalous. If Archie and Wolfe loved one another, it was purely platonic–Wolfe’s incredible obesity would have turned off  Archie even if he had been gay.)
  7. V. I. Warshawski–Sara Paretsky’s hard-drinking, hard loving female private investigator (Victoria Iphrigenia Warshawski) is in the hard-bitten, tough “Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer” tradition.  But while Vic is as tough as the boys who pioneered this sub-genre, she is MUCH smarter and more believable.
  8. Rabbi David Small, the brilliant creation of Harry Kemelman.  Rabbi Small is in the tradition of fictional clergy detectives that began with Chesterton’s Father Brown.  I love the way he uses his training in Talmudic reasoning to solve crimes.
  9. Chen Cao, the Chinese detective creation of Qiu Xialong set in the China of the 1990s.  This is the first Chinese detective I ever encountered actually written by a person of Chinese ethnicity.  Thus, Cao does not fit the terrible “Charlie Chan” stereotypes.  And the novels also tell much of modern China. Good stuff.
  10. Deputy Chief Brenda Lee Johnson of the great TNT series, The Closer.  See my tribute here.
  11. Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard by the great P.D. James.  “Inspector Morse” is a cheap  imitation.  a clone, modeled” on Dalgliesh. No matter how I word this, my friend,  Kevin Borders, will be p.o.’d. Sorry, Kev, we’ll have to agree to disagree here. 
  12. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, one of the first successful African-American fictional private investigators and written by an African-American, Walter Mosely.  One of the Easy Rawlins novels, Devil in a Blue Dress was made into a feature film in 1995 with Denzel Washington playing Easy Rawlins.  I hope other adaptations follow.
  13. Alex Cross is another African-American fictional detective–a forensic psychologist who first works for the D.C. police in homicide and later joins the F.B.I.  Dr. Cross has been played by Morgan Freeman in 2 film adaptations of James Patterson’s novels.
  14. Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, forensic anthropologist and sleuthing hero of Kathy Reich’s novels and the TV series “Bones.”  Forget Gil Grissom and all his CSI colleagues.  For a forensic scientist sleuth, I ‘ll take Dr. Brennan any day.
  15. Father (later Bishop) “Blackie” Ryan, the clergy detective hero of Andrew Greeley’s novels–given more realism than most similar creations because Greeley is himself a priest and theologian. Yes, Ryan is an alter-ego, but Greeley, a liberal product of Vatican II, freely admits that Blackie Ryan gets along with the Catholic heirarchy much better than he does.
  16. Jim Rockford of the 1970s TV series, The Rockford Files.  An ex-con who works as a private investigator just to earn enough money to keep his beachfront trailer. 
  17. Veronica Mars of the TV series of the same name which ran on UPN  and CW from 2004 to 2007. Here was a teenaged girl detective cut from a tougher mold than Nancy Drew.  When the series opens, Veronica is a 17 year old  high school student–lower middle class in a very rich neighborhood. Her widowed father, Keith Mars,  has been fired as sheriff for refusing to go along with the official version of a high profile murder. He is forced to become a private investigator and Veronica has an after school job as his secretary–which leads to her own sleuthing.  She has a motive other than love for her father–trying to solve her own date rape at 16. (We don’t know if her father knows. They never discuss it and the other kids at school think it was consensual sex–drunken and anonymous.  This has given her an undeserved “slut” reputation at this nasty elitist school.) The series lasts long enough to get Veronica into university (where she studies criminology and sociology and passes her own private investigator’s licensing test with a 95%).
  18. Spenser (first name never revealed), the hero of Robert B. Parker’s novels set in Boston (though Spenser was originally from Wyoming) and of the TV series, Spenser, for Hire.  I found it ironic that no-first-name Spenser hung around with an African-American hit man named “Hawk” with no last name. (I also kept wondering what would happen if Hawk was given a contract on Spenser.)  From the comments: Apparently one novel revealed Spenser’s first name as “Matt” and Hawk turned down several offered contracts on Spenser.  Good to know.  Since I originally wrote this, Robert Parker has died at 77.
  19. Perry Mason, Earl Stanley Gardner’s  super-sleuthing criminal defense lawyer.  The novels are even better than the TV show starring Raymund Burr. This was the original courtroom drama. Of course, it was unbelievable that a defense lawyer (whose job is merely to raise reasonable doubt in a jury’s mind about his/her client’s guilt of accused crimes) would constantly be able to get the real criminal to confess on the witness stand–but it was fun watching.  Because I once worked as a bailiff in a felony (circuit) court in Jacksonville, FL, I could never handle the other TV lawyer-detective “Matlock.” Matlock constantly broke courtroom procedure. No judge would let him get away with that stuff.
  20. Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw the futuristic cop and robot partner created by Isaac Asimov. Asimov wanted to prove that one could write a detective novel set in the future without having futuristic gadgets solve everything. He did so brilliantly in 3 novels.
  21. Jesse Stone, ex-L.A. cop turned police chief of the small Massachussetts town of Paradise.  This is Robert Parker’s far more realistic alternative to Spenser.  Stone is dealing with alcoholism, divorce (and his wife won’t let him move on), and small town politics while solving murders with no budget, lab, etc.  A series of TV movies have adapted these novels with Tom Selleck playing Jesse Stone–showing far more acting talent than when Selleck played “Magnum.”
  22. Harry Dresden of Jim Butcher’s “urban fantasy” novels about the only wizard listed in the Chicago phone book as such.  The Sci-Fi channel unsuccessfully tried to adapt these into a series known as The Dresden Files.
  23. Ellah Clah, the Navajo female detective of spousal  writing team David and Aimee Thurlo.  She left the reservation to join the FBI, but returns to solve her father’s murde r and ends up joining the tribal police and continuing on The Rez. Great stories and you learn much about Navajo culture, too.
  24. Elizabeth Elliott, the clerk of a Quaker Meeting in Cambridge, MA in a series of novels written by Irene Allen.
  25. Kinsey Milhone from Sue Grafton’s “ABC Murders.” Kevin Borders will be arguing that I should rank her higher, but she made the cut.

I await your interaction–additions, subtractions, different rankings, etc.

July 1, 2009 - Posted by | detective fiction, Uncategorized


  1. Actually I’m picking a bone about your saying Morse is a cheap imitation of Dalgleish. Morse more than holds his own!!

    Comment by Kevin Borders | July 1, 2009

  2. Ouch! The problem with subjective lists is the friends who have their own subjective p.o.v.!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 1, 2009

  3. What?! No Remington Steele? haha

    Comment by Steven Kippel | July 1, 2009

  4. Not even in the also rans, Steven. No “Hart to Hart” either.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 1, 2009

  5. “Easy Rawlins” is great as in as is the Cajun Detective Dave Robicheaux (James Lee Burke novels).

    Comment by Paul | July 1, 2009

  6. I forgot to mention Lord Peter Wimsey (of cozy novel virtuoso Dorothy L. Sayers).

    Comment by Paul | July 1, 2009

  7. I like Sayers’ religious works, but I never could handle Wimsey. I don’t like the “I’m an aristocrat who has no real job, so I’ll dabble in criminal investigation” type of which Wimsey is Exhibit A.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 1, 2009

  8. Never heard of Burke. I’ll have to check it out, thanks.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 1, 2009

  9. I like:

    1. Phyrne Fisher (by Kerry Greenwood) – set in Melbourne, Australia just after WWI. Phryne is one of the idle rich, but only as the result of a significant inheritance before which she was very poor, was an ambulance driver in France during the war and collects waifs and strays.

    2. Maisie Dobbs (by Jacqueline Windspear) is a “psychologist and investigator” in post World War I London. Started out as a housemaid but her employers recognised her abilities and arranged for her to be educated, trained and then set her up in business.

    3. Inspector William Monk (by Anne Perry) – set in London in the 1860s – police investigator.

    4. Precious Ramotswe (by Alexander McCall Smith) – set in Botswana, Precious is a lady of “traditional build” (ie not slim) who solves crimes and helps orphans and occasionally helps her fiance/husband to run a motor repair business. (BBC TV series, also)

    5. Brother Cadfael (by Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters) Cadfael is a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey during the 12th century, so he doesn’t have any high tech equipment, either. (BBC TV series, also)

    6. Rumpole of the Bailey (by John Mortimer) – a British barrister who had to do some detective work in order to win his cases. Perhaps cheating a bit. (BBC TV series, also)

    I also really like Rabbi David Small.

    Comment by Judy Redman | July 3, 2009

  10. I’ve started watching Poirot, since I like David Suchet in other things he’s been in (e.g., Moses, he narrated a Pilgrim’s Progress book on tape, he was Aslan on the Focus on the Family Chronicles of Narnia radio shows).

    My dad’s a big Rockford fan. He gets a laugh at how the cops like to take credit for Rockford’s work in the end, after they spent most of the episode mocking Rockford’s ideas!

    I forgot about the Alfred Hitchcock mysteries. I read a few of them when I was younger. They were cool.

    Comment by James Pate | July 3, 2009

  11. Thanks, Judy. Several of yours are unknown to me, but a few should have made my “runners up.” I’ve read a few of the Brother Cadfael mysteries and enjoyed them and want to read more. HBO has just finished a first season of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and it introduced me to Mma Precious Ramotswe and her friends. I have ordered some of Alexander Smith’s original novels from the library thanks to that series. HBO films it in Botswana and uses indigenous actors for all the supporting roles. It’s great and one of the few HBO series that the whole family can watch (no nudity or graphic violence).

    I’ll have to check out your other series. Thank for the recommendations.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 3, 2009

  12. Thanks for sharing, Jame.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 3, 2009

  13. 18) Spenser first name is actually Matt as said by his lover Susan Silverman in the Judas Contract novel, the settings were in Boston not Chicago, even the TV series was filmed mostly in Boston, later movies after series cancellation were in Canada and Hawk over the course of several novels and TV shows was offered numerous contracts on Spenser which he refused;

    Comment by Ron Minns | November 13, 2009

  14. Thanks for the corrections, Ron.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 13, 2009

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: