Top Five Fictional Detectives


– “Who is your favourite person from history?”
– “Sherlock Holmes.”
– “Well, he’s fictional.”
– “Whoa! I think you’d better check your facts there. Fictional? Who took care of the business with the giant dog that was eating everybody? It wasn’t Watson. Don’t tell me, I suppose he was fictional too? Maybe there was no giant dog….”

— The IT Crowd

I was kind of excited, initially, about the interactive feature I found Sunday on my Washington Post app.

The headline was “Pick the best fictional detective,” and it was presented in an interactive graphic meant to evoke the NCAA tournament “brackets” that everyone (even I, despite my lack of enthusiasm for sports) filled out mere days ago.

So, you know, if you enjoy both mysteries and sports, it was extra fun. A cool idea.

But this is no proper way to figure out even who you, yourself, think are the best detectives, much less who the best actually are. (For instance, say two of your five best detectives face each other in the first round — that means one of your top five gumshoes won’t even make the top 32, assuming you’re starting with 64. That’s not right. No way it’s right. It’s a false system of selection. With basketball, it works. Not with detectives.) Another problem is that too few of my fave detectives were even on the bracket in the first round.

The only professional, scientific way to determine the top dicks is to draft an actual Top Five list, and then argue about it with everybody. Stands to reason. The immemorial custom of the blog, and so forth…

Coming up, I was never a big fan of mysteries. I wasn’t an Agatha Christie enthusiast. Nor was I into Conan Doyle, even though I always enjoyed the Basil Rathbone movies. I just wasn’t that much of an admirer of formulaic fiction. Just as I’m not big into blues, or reggae. To me, the songs just sound too much alike. One is fine, but not a whole album. I mean, you know, a blues progression is a blues progression.

Even with Edgar Allen Poe — I preferred the horror stories to “The Purloined Letter.” I got into Poe when I was about 10, and we 5th-graders shared the stories to chill each other’s blood. And “she was buried alive!” does that way better than “the letter was in plain sight!”

But then, things happened. I started reading books that broke the mold, such as Martin Cruz Smith’s wonderfully original thriller Gorky Park and Len Deighton’s alternative history novel SS-GB. And you know what a le Carre fan I am. Well, his first books about George Smiley cast him as a Christiesque amateur solver of mysteries.

And then, along came streaming, and my wife and I got hooked on a range of British murder mysteries and police procedurals. And entirely new forms, such as Nordic noir, and, believe it or not, Welsh noir.

Anyway, here’s the list. I’m sure I’m leaving out somebody awesome, but let’s get the party started:

  1. Arkady Renko — The only Russian in the bunch — almost the only non-Brit, come to think of it — he just blew the doors off the genre when he arrived in Gorky Park, and kept it up over the next few novels. I love a book that puts you in an unfamiliar place and makes it real, and that novel made you feel you were actually in the middle of the Soviet criminal-justice system in the middle of the Cold War — even though Martin Cruz Smith had never been there (just as Patrick O’Brien had never been aboard a Royal Navy frigate during the Napoleonic Wars, but he could absolutely put a reader there). I also think highly of Renko’s American counterpart in the novel, William Kirwill, but it would be cheating to put him on the list, too. Just please don’t picture William Hurt from the movie when you think of Renko. That was a horrendous instance of miscasting. For Renko, you need a Daniel Day-Lewis, to invoke my last Top Five list. He would have been perfect, when he was about 35. Kirwill, however, was perfectly cast — when I was reading the book long before the movie, I was sort of picturing Brian Dennehy.
  2. Sergeant Gerry Boyle — OK, I don’t understand the Irish Garda system all that well, so I’m not sure that Boyle technically is a “detective.” But he’s a good copper, anyway. And again, I’ve got my last Top Five list on my mind, because this was the wonderful, deeply flawed character brought to life by  Brendan Gleeson in “The Guard.” The other night, I watched a few minutes of “48 Hours” — which frankly is about as much of the film as I ever could stand. Anyway, you know the rumpled, interesting character Nick Nolte is trying to play? Gleeson does it right in “The Guard.”
  3. Detective Chief Inspector Gill Murray — The cop show we’re currently obsessed with is “Scott & Bailey,” but I couldn’t choose between Rachel and Janet. Of the two, of course, Janet is the grownup (usually), but I still didn’t want to choose. Anyway, even though she sort of gets third-place billing and isn’t even in the 5th season, Gill is far and away the best cop on the show. Possibly because the actress, Amelia Bullmore, actually wrote some of the episodes, but her character just gets smarter and smarter.
  4. Christopher Foyle — This is the star of “Foyle’s War,” a cool series in so many ways. It’s historical. It’s about WWII. It’s about how life on the home front was affected, and not in the usual way, like folks saving tin cans or whatever. Also, it’s got Honeysuckle Weeks in it, and the fact that Foyle has her as his driver should qualify him alone, if only on the basis of her awesome name.
  5. George Gently — OK, I really debated whether to put this one in the Top Five, but I’m doing it out of frustration as much as anything. It really ticked me off that Prime let us watch the first season “free,” and then cut us off. I hate that. And I’m anxious to see the rest. But he also makes the list because he’s probably the best of a type that you see so much in these productions: the world-weary old hand, filled with almost as much irony and cynicism as investigative skill — of which he has plenty. I just think he does this better than Morse, or Lewis in his modern-day iteration, or Tom Barnaby, or Foyle, or any of those guys. I also think Lee Ingleby — whom Aubrey fans will remember as Hollom in “Master and Commander” — does a great job as his troublesome young assistant.

HONORABLE MENTION (or, to be honest, the next five, because I couldn’t stop)

  • Gene Hunt — There are lot of reasons to say Gene is not a good detective, even the opposite of a good detective, and Sam Tyler mentions most of them at great length, and repetitively, on “Life on Mars.” That’s sort of Sam’s thing, other than being confused about whether he’s a time traveler or just a guy in a coma. But Gene has certain rudimentary, atavistic skills, such as fairly decent gut instinct. And awful as he is, fans of the show eventually get to enjoy Gene as a guilty pleasure. A very guilty pleasure, because he is awful. In fact, he’s so awful that I think it’s kind of a libel on the world of 1973 to say senior cops were like this and got away with it back then. But if you get picky, you won’t enjoy the show anyway. I should also add that this is kind of a Jayne Cobb thing. I call Jayne my favorite character on Firefly because as a grandfather I don’t want to admit it’s really Kaylee. In this case, for Kaylee, substitute Annie Cartwright. She does get to be a detective late in the series, but most of the time, she’s a WPC. I think this picture is of the moment when Sam asks her first name, and she says “Annie!” Which is when the viewer starts to love her.
  • John River — This is my first entrant from the world of Nordic noir. And the ways in which it qualifies as Nordic noir are confusing. It’s set in London. River is a London cop. But he’s played by a Swedish actor. Of course, what makes it noir is the tone. River, you see, talks with dead people, and they talk back. All the time. Which can be an advantage when you’re a cop, if not a fun one. Also playing a key role is Nicola Walker. She’s not a household name — I had to look it up right now — but when she pops up in any role she’s impressive. Here she is as a guest star — playing a pivotal role — on “Scott & Bailey.”
  • Jimmy Perez — This is the protagonist of “Shetland.” I went back and forth on whether to choose him or the semi-hero of the Welsh noir (it was actually originally in the Welsh language, but then released in English) “Hinterland,” Tom Mathias. Both are cops out in the boonies, trying to do a tough job under trying circumstances. Ultimately, I go with Jimmy because he’s more stable.
  • Jimmy McNulty or Bunk Moreland, you decide — I just had to get someone in from what may be the best American cop show of all time, “The Wire.” I thought I’d go with McNulty since he was kind of the star, and because his bend-the-rules detective work got the ball rolling in the first episode. But “McNutty,” as Bubbles, unquestionably the best fictional snitch ever, called him, was a screwup. So I’m offering his partner Bunk as an alternative. Of course, he could be a screwup, too. But they were great together.
  • Douglas Archer — Just to pull someone in from the weird world of alternative history. I initially read this as a Len Deighton (The Ipcress File) fan, but this kind of stands out from his other books. Archer of the Yard is a classic British detective, who in 1941 finds himself working for the SS because the Germans went ahead with their invasion of Britain, and it was successful. And because you still need to catch bad guys, right, even when you’re working for worse guys. This was a great tale — way better than weirdly similar stories like Fatherland (Detective Xavier March, a 1960s cop working in a Germany that did not lose the war, is a sort of combination of Archer and Arkady Renko). I’ve never seen the TV series, because it’s on the premium level of Hulu, and I’m just not going to pay for that. I’ll just say that the actor playing Archer doesn’t look right at all, based on photos I’ve seen.

Yeah, I know — all white guys, except for one lady-type person, and Bunk, who I know you’re already suspecting I snuck in for diversity’s sake. (But I didn’t. Bunk’s awesome.) Yeah, well…. I just couldn’t get into “Luther,” as great as Idris Elba is. Speaking of Bunk and Elba — the thing about “The Wire” is that the best characters were not the cops. In fact, by far the best character in the show was an armed robber. And Omar was not only black, but gay, if you’re keeping score. Unfortunately, this is a detectives list.

And I considered a bunch of women, and almost put Marcella on the list. She’s fascinating. But man, that series really took Nordic noir (although it was set in England) to some weird places, and we got to where we couldn’t watch anymore. And while I’m somewhat intrigued by Chloé Saint-Laurent on the French cop series “Profilage,” she’s technically not a detective, and I’ve only seen her in two episodes so far, so I don’t yet know how good she is.

And no, Jackie Brown, about whom I thought for a second, wasn’t a detective. If I were doing a Top Five Flight Attendants List, she’d be a great candidate. Along with Elaine Dickinson

Oh, but wait! Back to “The Wire”… “Beadie” Russell was awesome! And she sorta became a detective during the course of the series, right? There are just too many fictional detectives out there for me to know where to stop. If I did this again next week, my Top Five might be five completely different people…

28 thoughts on “Top Five Fictional Detectives

  1. James Edward Cross

    No Linda Barnes’ Carlotta Carlyle?
    No Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe?
    No Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, Sam Spade, or Nick and Nora Charles?
    No Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker and Rina Lazazrus?
    Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware?
    No John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee?
    No Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer?
    No Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series?
    No Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone?
    No Sarah Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski?
    No Robert B. Parker’s Spenser?

    And the list goes on, both here and abroad.

    This is truly sad.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      As I said, there are just too many.

      Also, I don’t really claim any great expertise on this. As I say, I was never a fan really of Agatha Christie — or Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett.

      So no Sam Spade, alas.

      I tend to stumble into the genre from other directions. For instance, I fall upon Douglas Archer because I’m a fan of Deighton’s spy novels. I read Gorky Park when it first came out (1981) because everybody said it was awesome — totally outside the framework of murder mysteries — and they were right. I watch all these British cop shows because my wife and I are both into PBS and BritBox, in a big way.

      Oh, and to mention another who would probably be on my wife’s list, Father Brown…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, regarding that lack of women on the list, you’ll notice that I mentioned, in passing, several women who were important characters accompanying guys on the list. Honeysuckle Weeks. Annie Cartwright. Nicola Walker. Beadie Russell.

    In keeping with the old maxim, I could have mentioned others who are “behind” these guys. For instance:

    • Polina — This is driving me nuts. I can’t seem to find her surname or patronymic, but she is a key character in Red Square. Arkady Renko would have no idea what was going on in this novel — how the first victim was killed or why — if not for the dogged hard work and intuitive brilliance of this diminutive young pathologist. And yet she doesn’t even get mentioned in the Wikipedia page about the novel.
    • Alison “Tosh” MacIntosh — A detective sergeant who works for Jimmy Perez on “Shetland,” she’s a wonderfully unconventional character. She’s not hot, or tough-looking, or any of the other things women usually are on cop shows. And she’s ridiculously young-looking — she looks for all the world like someone who might have been in your English class in high school. But she’s a good copper.
    • Detective Inspector Mared Rhys — She works for the main character on “Hinterland,” the Welsh noir one I mentioned. Also a good cop, who tries to keep the erratic Tom Mathias in line, generally unsuccessfully, because he’s pretty messed-up, this being noir and all.

    But each of them gets overshadowed by the male stars…

  3. Sally Huguley

    I recommend Endeavor (did we ever learn his last name?) and sidekick Detective Thursday from the BBC TV series. Also, I just love Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot with David Suchet as the Belgium (not French!) detective. Skip the Hollywood Agatha Christie movies. There are none better than the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series. You haven’t seen “Murder on the Orient Express” or “Death on the Nile” until you see the David Suchet version.

    If I’ve posted twice, sorry about that. My virus blocker is very aggressive!

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      His last name is “Morse.” In the original series from the 80s, it was a running gag that the middle-aged Oxford detective would never, ever share his first name. That’s because it was “Endeavour,” so calling the prequel series that was sort of a joke on the joke.

      And you know what? I meant to put Fred Thursday on my list — at least as an honorable mention. He may even be better than George Gently at embodying the world-weary, senior cop who’s seen it all. In fact, I think he is. I just wanted to gripe about Prime keeping me from watching Gently.

      And yes, you did post twice, but I deleted the other one for you.

      As Thursday would say, “Mind how you go,” everybody…

    2. James Edward Cross

      Endeavour is a prequel to the Inspector Morse series; it is set early in his career.

      I would also recommend *Sherlock Holmes*, a series of Sherlock Holmes adaptations produced by the British television company Granada Television between 1984 and 1994 and shown on iTV. Jeremy Brett played Holmes and did a fantastic job.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yeah, those were pretty good. I like Basil Rathbone, but Brett was good, too.

        At the time, I also liked “The Seven-Percent Solution.” A very 70s production, but it’s hard to beat something with Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall, Alan Arkin, and Laurence Olivier. Quite a team… Samantha Eggar, too!

  4. Kathleen

    You are right; there are entirely too many for a single list. We could sort them in to never ending categories and argue, often with ourselves, forever. of course that would leave precious little time for reading and watching. Vera definitely belongs on the list. The Kellermans’ detectives all should be added as well. Chloe Saint-Laurent is not technically a detective so points should probably be given to the entire ensemble, including the archivist sister with the flexible version of confidentiality.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, another beef about the “brackets” approach on the item that inspired this

    It starts with only 32 detectives, not 64!

    Unbelievable. If they’d started with a full 64, they might have included more of my favorites…

    Looking at it again just now reminded me, though… they mentioned Harry Bosch. I need to get back to watching that. Don’t know what made me stop…

  6. Bryan Caskey

    My top five:

    1. The Hardy Boys
    2. Encyclopedia Brown
    3. Magnum, P.I.
    4. Columbo
    5. Popeye Doyle

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Ha! Popeye Doyle’s not fictional! At least, not entirely.

      I thought it was kind of weird, and it bothered me, that Nancy Drew was in that bracket (and I picked her to win the first round against Lord Peter Wimsey, not being at all familiar with his work), and the Hardy Boys were not. Did the boys have an exceptionally bad season or something?

      All my life, if you wanted to be a fair-minded and inclusive person, if you mentioned the Hardy Boys, you right away mentioned Nancy Drew as well. And if you mentioned Nancy Drew, you immediately tossed in the Hardy Boys.

      Something for all the kids that way…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Also, when it comes to detectives from TV and movies, I kind of had a prejudice against those from the 70s and 80s. To me, TV in particular was so predictable and formulaic in those days that it couldn’t compete with those representing the current Golden Age, with its higher production values.

        I realize that’s not being fair to Magnum and Columbo and Kojak and the rest, but there it is…

      2. James Edward Cross

        I enjoy the Lord Peter Whimsey stories by Dorothy Sayers. They are very much of their time (1920’s and 1930’s), My favorite is _The Nine Tailors_ … a mysterious death, missing jewels, and an introduction to change ringing all in one book!

          1. James Edward Cross

            Well, it would be Lord Peter by default because I haven’t read any Nancy Drew.

  7. Pam Wilkins

    Would Olivia Colman’s Ellie Miller on Broadchurch qualify? Detective stories aren’t really my genre, but if Beadie from The Wire merits a mention (and Lester too–c’mon!), then Ellie Miller is a good candidate. So is her Scottish detective partner (can’t recall the name). Great show, though incredibly grim.

  8. Brad Warthen Post author

    It occurs to me that I like detective stories — police procedurals and the like — more than I like the classic “mystery” stories.

    I watch those sometimes. Midsomer Murders fit into that conventional mold. It’s all about trying to figure out whodunit.

    My problem is that the writers try SO hard to keep you guessing, and throw so many red herrings at you, and WAY too many characters, and make it SO convoluted in the end, that after the episode is over, I turn to my wife and say, “Uhhh… WHO dunnit? And WHY? I don’t get it…” Sometimes, though, I figure it out ahead, because I’m like, OK, which of these MANY characters do they want me to think is LEAST likely?

    Sometimes Inspector Lewis is like that, and Morse before him. Endeavour is less that way. More about coppers and what they do than trying to outfox the viewer (or reader). I like that better…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And then there’s “Death in Paradise,” which is SO old school that it always has the obligatory scene in which all the suspects are brought together and the detective confronts each, explaining why he or she couldn’t have done it, ending with nailing the one who DID it.

      Or at least, it’s that way in the episodes I’ve watched…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        That’s actually kind of a helpful trope, though, for people like me who have trouble keeping all the characters apart unless you put them all in a room together and lay it all out…

  9. Bill

    I once met Mickey Spillane and bought some of his books but never read them if you’d like in New condition

  10. Pete Stone

    I watch the many northern European, mainly British, mystery series for the landscapes, architecture, accents, cars, and customs, and not so much for the characters and plots.

    I do enjoy the character The Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher in Australia though, in no small measure as a facial actress.

  11. Pete Stone

    The old ones could be inspirational. I once recognized a minor scene in the 1946 Sherlock Holmes movie Terror By Night that reappeared in Sergio Leone’s 1965 For a Few Dollars More.

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