Who are the greatest detectives in fiction? I’m no sleuth, but this is one mystery I might be able to solve.
From a young age, I’ve enjoyed detective fiction. I watched Scooby-Doo cartoons as a young child. Almost immediately after learning to read, I devoured stacks of Hardy Boys books. I read the entire Sherlock Holmes canon in my early teens, and picked up a number of classic mysteries in college. Yes, I love a good detective story.
Of course, such a story is only as good as its detective. Here are ten of my favorite mystery-solvers, because top ten lists are my beat.
The game is afoot, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…
The TMTF List of Top Ten Detectives in Fiction!
10. C. Auguste Dupin
Although C. Auguste Dupin appeared in only three short stories, he makes history as one of the earliest fictional detectives. When Edgar Allan Poe created Dupin, the word detective had not even been coined. Heck, the character is even mentioned in the very first Sherlock Holmes story: Watson compares Holmes to Dupin. Sherlock Holmes may be the father of detective fiction, but C. August Dupin is its grandfather. The character’s sharp intellect and analytical methods helped create an archetype for fictional detectives.
I was going to put Hercule Poirot on this list, but then remembered that I’ve read only two of his mysteries, and disliked one of them. Who could possibly replace the legendary Poirot, created by the legendary Agatha Christie, in a list of great detectives? The correct answer is Batman. (The correct answer is always Batman.) When he isn’t busy punching bad guys or brooding over his tragic past, Batman earns his nickname of World’s Greatest Detective by dabbling in forensics, solving crimes, and catching bad guys… whom he generally punches before brooding some more. Batman’s gotta Batman.
8. Lord Peter Wimsey
Lord Peter Wimsey has the intelligence of a detective like Holmes or Poirot, along with his own gift: an easygoing sense of humor. In a series of novels and short stories by Dorothy Sayers, this British nobleman makes a hobby of solving crimes. Wimsey’s relationship with his valet, the solemn and hyper-competent Bunter, echoes the partnership of Jeeves and Wooster in the stories by P.G. Wodehouse—and believe me, any comparison to Wodehouse is a good thing. Wimsey has all the skill of other famous detectives, and a heck of a lot more charm.
7. Professor Hershel Layton
Hershel Layton, the star of the Professor Layton games, wears many hats… figuratively speaking. (The only literal hat he would ever deign to wear is his beloved topper.) Layton is not only a professor of archaeology, but also a puzzle enthusiast, true gentleman, and amateur detective. Even inspectors from Scotland Yard have sought Layton’s help with tough cases. The strangeness of these mysteries is matched only by his ingenuity in solving them. The good Professor is clever and kind, and have I mentioned his magnificent hat?
6. Shawn Spencer
Shawn Spencer, the star of television’s Psych, is a “psychic detective” who handles cases too small, sensitive, or just plain weird for the police. Shawn’s alleged psychic powers are actually a front for rigorous training and a photographic memory. Since he’s an immature goofball, his clients find it easier to believe that Shawn has supernatural gifts than to accept that he’s just, y’know, really smart. He runs his detective agency with the help of his friend Gus; their chemistry is easily the best thing about the show, though Shawn’s quips and pop culture references are also a lot of fun.
5. Dick Gumshoe
Dick Gumshoe, the hapless police detective from the Ace Attorney games, is easily the least competent sleuth on this list, but he gets the job done. (His musical leitmotif, which I wish were my own theme music, is aptly titled “I Can Do It When It Counts, Pal!”) What Gumshoe lacks in smarts, he makes up in dedication, tenacity, and fierce loyalty to his friends. There’s a heart of gold under that shabby coat, and a determination behind those bewildered eyes to see justice done. It’s just a shame he can’t afford any meal more expensive than ramen noodles!
4. Edogawa Conan
Kudo Shinichi is still in high school, but has already built a reputation as a crime-solving prodigy who has worked with the Tokyo police. However, when he interferes with a criminal syndicate known as the Black Organization, its attempt to murder him with an experimental drug causes an unexpected side effect: Shinichi awakens in the body of a child. Now calling himself Edogawa Conan, he moves into a local detective agency, and solves its cases from behind the scenes as he searches for a lead on the Black Organization. The manga and anime series Detective Conan (known as Case Closed in the West) boasts some of the cleverest mysteries I’ve ever seen, all solved by this adorable little guy. Edogawa Conan is cooler than an action hero and cuter than a kitten—often at the same time!
3. Adrian Monk
Adrian Monk is afraid of dentists, snakes, nudity, elevators, death, milk, and mushrooms, not necessarily in that order. These are just a few of his phobias, which, along with his obsessive-compulsive disorder, make it hard for the star of television’s Monk even to leave his home, let alone solve crimes… yet he solves them. Monk’s phobias make for terrific comedy, but also create a character whose strength lies in overcoming his worst fears every single day. Adrian Monk is the rare character who can make you laugh in one scene, only to turn on a dime and make you cry in the next.
2. Father Brown
He may not have claimed the top spot on this list, but Father Brown is probably my all-time favorite character in fiction. This gentle Roman Catholic priest stars in a number of short stories by G.K. Chesterton. I’ve already written about Father Brown: “He’s a perfect foil to Sherlock Holmes . . . Everyone expects Holmes to be brilliant. In a charming subversion, everyone dismisses Father Brown as a superstitious simpleton, which makes it all the more satisfying when he apologetically solves the mystery right under their noses.” Father Brown’s quiet brilliance, boundless compassion, and no-nonsense worldview make him not only a great detective, but something rarer and more admirable: a good man.
1. Sherlock Holmes
Throughout this blog post, I’ve repeatedly mentioned Sherlock Holmes. How could I not? Sherlock Holmes is the world’s most famous detective, and the standard by which all others are measured. His ruthless logic, unshakable calm, numerous connections, and eclectic talents make him capable of solving practically any crime. In addition to his gifts, Holmes possesses, or is possessed by, a strong determination to use them. (He doesn’t handle boredom well.) This combination of passion and ability make Holmes an unstoppable detective. In addition to the original character in the novels and stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, television’s Sherlock offers an updated take on Holmes that’s perfectly delightful.
Who is your favorite fictional detective? Give us a clue in the comments!