479. TMTF’s Top Ten Detectives in Fiction

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

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.

9. Batman

worlds-greatest-detective

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

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

professor-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

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

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

conan-edogawa

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

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

father-brown-alt

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

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!

201. And We’re Back!

My typewriter monkeys have dusted off their typewriters. I’ve brewed some coffee, fired up my laptop and spent roughly half an hour trying to think of a really clever way to start off this blog post.

Ah, it’s good to be back.

Truth be told, I really needed the break. TMTF had become an obligation, and getting away from it for a few weeks was exactly what I needed to renew my enthusiasm for rambling about faith, writing, video games, literature, life, the universe and everything.

Having cherished a private hope that my typewriter monkeys would make their month-long vacation in Tijuana a permanent stay, I was disappointed. My monkeys have returned. They brought back a baffling collection of souvenirs: three sacks of coconuts, a Velvet Elvis and a hideous false mustache. (I know better than to ask questions.) My monkeys are annoyed to be back, and I’m annoyed they’re back, so at least we agree on something.

In other news, my break gave me an opportunity to make plans for my writing.

At some point, for example, I may put Geeky Wednesdays on hold for a dozen weeks and republish The Infinity Manuscript as a serial. Hardly anyone has read The Infinity Manuscript, which is rather a shame. I put quite a lot of work into it. Rerunning the story seems like a great option if I become temporarily too busy to handle the pressure of writing new Geeky Wednesday posts every week.

I didn’t exactly devote my month off to soul-searching, but it hit me more clearly than ever before that I need to have a better, brighter outlook. I’m a pessimist. As often as I’ve pointed out the importance of being positive, I haven’t been consistent in having a hopeful attitude.

Few things are drearier than forcing or faking cheerfulness. Artificial happiness is a poor alternative to honest pessimism. Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton’s great detective, called an outlook of false optimism “a cruel religion.”

It finally struck me that having a cheerful outlook is not the same as merely pretending to be cheerful. Without making the slightest effort to feel a certain way, I can choose to focus on the positive over the negative instead of succumbing to Batman Syndrome and letting the negative eclipse everything else.

All this to say: I’ve been more positive lately. It’s nice. I recommend it.

The past year was an adventure. I found a job, settled down, learned some invaluable lessons, ate a lot of cookies and discovered coffee tastes great with bourbon.

This was the year I grew up.

I remain grateful to God for bringing me so far, excited to press onward and upset with my typewriter monkeys for cluttering up my apartment with coconuts. I wish they had stayed in Tijuana.

154. Why G.K. Chesterton Is Awesome

Why is G.K. Chesterton awesome?

I can answer that question in one word, and that word is mooreeffoc.

I once mentioned that Chesterton pointed out how astonishing it is to see the word mooreeffoc in a shop window until one realizes one is looking at the words coffee room from the wrong side of the glass.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the man whose books are remarkable for showing things from the wrong side of the glass and making even the most ordinary things extraordinary.

I give you Gilbert Keith Chesterton, whom George Bernard Shaw called “a man of colossal genius.”

G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton was also a man of colossal size. He once told Shaw, who was evidently a thin gentleman, “To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England.” Shaw replied, “To look at you, anyone would think you have caused it.”

Fortunately, Chesterton’s imagination and sense of humor were no less impressive than his weight.

As I’ve pointed out, good literature is generally depressing. We live in a sad, dark, broken world. Chesterton didn’t deny it. His books acknowledge the darkness in the world, but they never take it lying down.

The heroes of Chesterton’s novels and stories struggle to find light in darkness and meaning in emptiness. One of my favorite sayings—one I quote in my novel, in fact—comes from Chesterton: “Always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do?” Chesterton’s poets, priests and revolutionaries never lose their courage, hope or sense of humor.

Chesterton has a fantastic trick of setting up circumstances that seem bizarre or impossible, and then providing a staggeringly simple explanation. I can’t give examples without spoiling surprises, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Read nearly any Father Brown story and you’ll see what I mean.

The characters in Chesterton’s books occasionally do ridiculous things very seriously. They often know something the reader does not, and an action that seems absurd may turn out to be quite sensible when an explanation is given. The reactions of other characters to these sanely insane people is delightful.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chesterton is his passion for paradoxes. In his books, the villain may turn out to be a good person. The detective might be the criminal, or the criminal might be an innocent man. Things are seldom what they seem.

Chesterton’s literary style is marvelous. Some readers may find his writing a little dense—he doesn’t hesitate to use words like conviviality and attenuated—but his novels manage to be both comfortably prosaic and vividly poetic.

No writer is perfect, and Chesterton has his weak points. While his dialogue is clever, it’s usually clever in exactly the same way from character to character. In one of his novels, there’s a chapter in which testimonies are given from unrelated people on several continents—a French innkeeper, a Russian stationmaster, an Asian monk and an American tavern-keeper—and they’re all meditatively poetic.

Chesterton also values ideas over perfect realism, and some of his stories are a bit unbelievable.

In the end, however, minor flaws like these are pardonable. Chesterton’s characters may sound too much like Chesterton, but he’s such an engaging writer that it hardly matters. Chesterton’s stories may not be strictly realistic, but they’re awfully good stories.

I occasionally listen to audiobooks on my iPod as I work overnight shifts at my job. About a week ago, I was listening to The Napoleon of Notting Hill, in which one of Chesterton’s characters is able, so to speak, to see everything from the wrong side of the glass.

In that character’s eyes, a fence is not a fence, but a row of iron spears guarding a house from intruders. A drugstore is not a drugstore, but an alchemist’s storeroom bursting with mysterious remedies and miraculous cures. A toyshop is not a toyshop, but an allegory of everything important in life: families, expressed by dolls; conflict, symbolized by tin soldiers; survival, represented by Noah’s Arks; work, embodied in building blocks; and more.

I finished the audiobook, put away my iPod and decided to take a break from my work. Sitting beside a window, I gazed out into the rainy night. A storefront across the street was lit by a lonely light bulb.

As I looked at it, the storefront was not a storefront. It was a defiant spark burning against the cold, wet night. It was an island of light in vast, empty ocean of darkness. It was a welcoming beacon for the wet, weary traveler.

I didn’t mean to be poetic. Chesterton had rubbed off on me. Quite by accident, I saw that storefront from the wrong side of the glass.

For someone who has never read anything by G.K. Chesterton, I recommend the Father Brown stories: particularly the early ones. Father Brown is my favorite fictional character—period. He’s generally taken for a well-intentioned but superstitious simpleton. Then, when dark mysteries baffle everyone, he humbly, almost apologetically, solves them.

Chesterton also wrote some excellent novels. I recommend The Man Who Was Thursday (which has a manly protagonist and needs to be made into a movie), a thriller bursting with intrigue, swordfights, conspiracies, high-speed chases and… theological allegory. I’ve read many books, and not one has kept me hooked quite like The Man Who Was Thursday.

For those who prefer their novels less metaphysical, The Club of Queer Trades is a lighter story about a man’s odd encounters with a club with one rule for membership: every member must make his living by inventing an entirely unique kind of work.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, G.K. Chesterton is awesome.

139. The Wanderer-Hero

I’ve been watching Doctor Who. Besides kindling a strong desire in my heart to own a fez, the show has reminded me of my very favorite character archetype: a rare, strange and wonderful kind of character, comic and tragic, plain and mysterious—the Wanderer-Hero.

(I should wear a fez. Fezzes are cool.)

The Wanderer-Hero is my favorite kind of character in fiction, and a very rare one. I can think of only four characters that fit the description perfectly: the Doctor from Doctor Who, Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Vash the Stampede from Trigun and Father Brown from the stories by G.K. Chesterton.

These four—a time-traveling alien, a wizard, a gunslinger and a priest—have hardly anything in common, or so it seems at first glance. They actually share quite a number of traits, all of which characterize the archetype of the Wanderer-Hero.

For fun, let’s take a look at just a few.

The Wanderer-Hero wanders

There is no home for the Wanderer-Hero, whose destiny is to roam.

The Doctor travels in time and space with no home but his TARDIS, a spaceship and time machine. Gandalf wanders across Middle Earth. Vash roams the deserts of Gunsmoke. Even Father Brown, who supposedly lives in Essex and later in London, spends a surprising amount of time rambling throughout England, stumbling onto crime scenes wherever he goes.

The Wanderer-Hero is comic

Outwardly, the Wanderer-Hero is cheerful, witty or clever.

When confronted with deadly peril, the Doctor’s first reaction is to make a joke. Gandalf has a wry sense of humor. Vash makes a fool of himself at every opportunity; for example, while bravely defending a town from bandits, he wears a trash can lid for a hat. Father Brown possesses a gentle wit and a comically unorthodox manner of solving mysteries.

The Wanderer-Hero is tragic

Inwardly, the Wanderer-Hero endures terrible agonies.

The Doctor suffers from deep loneliness, guilt and self-doubt, besides the sorrow of being the only surviving member of his race. Gandalf fights a long, lonely, thankless battle against a nearly invincible enemy. Wherever Vash goes, innocent people die; these tragedies tear him apart. Father Brown admits to solving crimes by possessing a profound, painful understanding of human wickedness.

The Wanderer-Hero is more than human

In some way, the Wanderer-Hero is superhuman.

The Doctor is a Time Lord, the last survivor of an ancient race of extraterrestrials. Gandalf is one of the Maiar: divine beings sent into Middle Earth in the guise of mortals. Vash is a Plant, a humanoid creature possessing incredible power. Father Brown is only a human being, but his gentleness, wisdom and compassion are almost angelic.

The Wanderer-Hero is old

The courage of the Wanderer-Hero is balanced by the wisdom of age.

The Doctor is roughly nine hundred and nine years old. Gandalf spends centuries wandering Middle Earth. Vash is one hundred thirty-one. Father Brown is the only one whose age isn’t numbered in the hundreds, and even he gives the impression of being an ancient saint.

The Wanderer-Hero always happens to be in the right place at the right time

The character is called the Wanderer-Hero, after all.

Quite by accident, the Doctor always finds himself in exactly the right time and place to avert a catastrophe. Gandalf regularly appears just in time to rescue his companions. Vash helps people wherever he goes. By solving every crime he encounters, Father Brown saves the day—and sometimes the criminal.

I suppose the reason I like the Wanderer-Hero so much is that the character is a paradox: funny and sad, silly and wise, plain and mysterious, ordinary and extraordinary. The Wanderer-Hero has a little bit of everything.

Who is your favorite Wanderer-Hero? Should I acquire a fez? Let us know in the comments!

65. TMTF’s Top Ten Fictional Clergy

Deep within every blogger’s heart is a strong, almost irresistible compulsion to make a list of the top ten of something.

This means that practically every possible top ten list has already been made. This is a problem, since I, being but a mortal man, am not exempt from the desire to feature a top ten list of some kind on TMTF.

Then it occurred to me a few days ago that there are many notable, unusual or simply awesome priests, ministers, chaplains, monks, nuns and clergymen in fiction, many of whom deserve notice and none of whom (to the best of my knowledge) are commonly featured on top ten lists.

It is, therefore, with pride and satisfaction that TMTF repairs this deficiency by presenting…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Fictional Clergy!

Note that when pictures of the characters themselves are not available, pictures of the author have been featured instead.

10. Friar Tuck (Ivanhoe)

Friar Tuck

He may be a sham and a scoundrel, but I can’t help but like Friar Tuck: a trusted companion of Robin Hood, a formidable fighter and an unapologetic drinker. His reputation as a man of the cloth is questionable, but his cheerful disregard for his priestly duties is somewhat endearing all the same.

9. The Impressive Clergyman (The Princess Bride)

The Impressive Clergyman

“Marriage is what brings us together today.” That’s all I have to say.

8. Graham Hess (Signs)

Graham Hess

For a movie about aliens, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs gives quite a touching picture of a man torn between faith and cynicism. After his wife dies in a car accident, Graham resigns from the ministry and becomes an agnostic. He spends much of the film struggling with doubt, and the rest of the film defending his family from alien invaders: a courageous man on both fronts.

7. Shepherd Book (Firefly)

Shepherd Book

Firefly is a show about criminals, rogues and scoundrels. The cast includes a smuggler, a trigger-happy gunman, a wanted criminal, a lunatic and a classy prostitute. In the midst of these (surprisingly charming and likable) rogues is a kindly, compassionate, grandfatherly gentleman known as Shepherd Book. While one or two of his theological beliefs are slightly suspect, he may be the most genuinely Christ-like character I’ve seen in any television series of the last decade.

6. Dinah Morris (Adam Bede)

George Eliot

For those who have wondered, Adam Bede is not a cheerful book. It’s a novel about vanity and betrayal, and several of its characters end up dead or disillusioned. The gloominess of the novel makes Dinah shine all the brighter. Apart from demonstrating great selflessness and compassion, she is patient with even the characters whom the reader detests: a remarkable feat.

5. Nicholas D. Wolfwood (Trigun)

Nicholas D. Wolfwood

One thing must be made clear from the beginning: Nicholas D. Wolfwood has questionable morals. His morals are so questionable, in fact, that even other characters object to them. Nevertheless, his character is a fantastic depiction of a man trying to do the right thing the wrong way. He believes in absolute justice—he who lives by the sword must die by the sword—and can’t understand his friend Vash, who somehow solves crises without killing anyone. Vash and Wolfwood are easily two of the most complex and compelling characters I’ve seen on television.

4. Sister Carlotta (Ender’s Shadow)

dnews

Compassionate, patient and delightfully sarcastic, Sister Carlotta rescues orphans and street kids in her search for a child genius to defend Earth from a potential extraterrestrial invasion. She demonstrates great patience toward the children in her care and no patience whatsoever toward her haughty superiors—one of whom complains, “I didn’t know nuns were allowed to be sarcastic.” Like Christ himself, Sister Carlotta is kind, gentle and unafraid to speak out against foolishness.

3. Sebastião Rodrigues (Silence)

Shusaku Endo

When Sebastião Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest, travels to medieval Japan to learn the truth behind the alleged apostasy of another priest, he finds himself in a crisis unlike anything he could even have imagined. He was prepared to be martyred for the sake of Christ. He wasn’t prepared to watch as Japanese Christians were martyred instead. Rodrigues is given a choice: renounce his faith or watch as his brethren are slaughtered. Desperate for divine guidance, he is instead tormented by the silence of God. Rodrigues finds himself asking, as another great Priest once asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sebastião Rodrigues ranks high on this list for the depth of his character and his earnest desire to help others at any cost.

2. Charles François-Bienvenu Myriel (Les Misérables)

Victor Hugo

Monsieur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, once goes on a journey to visit a remote village because, he explains, its residents “need someone occasionally to tell them of the goodness of God.” He is warned that dangerous bandits roam the area; if he travels toward the village, he may meet them. “True,” says the bishop. “I am thinking of that. You are right. I may meet them. They too must need some one to tell them of the goodness of God.” Unlike the pompous, self-righteous bishops of his day, the Bishop of Digne is humble, selfless, kind, patient and generous. It is a single selfless action of the Bishop of Digne that saves Jean Valjean, a disillusioned convict and the protagonist of Les Misérables, from a bitter life of crime.

1. Father Brown (The Innocence of Father Brown)

Father Brown

Number one on this list is my all-time favorite fictional character. Father Brown is a short, clumsy, disheveled Roman Catholic priest with a blank face, a compassionate heart and a keen understanding of human nature. He’s also a brilliant detective, albeit an apologetic one. Most remarkable is his concern for criminals. Sherlock Holmes throws his archenemy over a precipice to a violent death. Father Brown, by contrast, persuades his archenemy to give up crime and become a private investigator; they later become close friends. As a detective, as a priest and as a fictional character, Father Brown is amazing.

What notable, unusual or simply awesome fictional clergy do you think should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!