Favorite Literary Detectives–Who’s Yours?

Last month The Guardian asked a number of today’s best crime writers to ID their favorite literary detectives. This is what they said:

John Banville became a crime novel devotee when he met Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in the pages of The Big Sleep. He admits Marlowe is “his creator’s dream version of himself: tough, but tender too, wised up but not cynical, a private eye who has read a book.” Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, favorite of author Dreda Say Mitchell, seems to me to similarly represent authorial wish-fulfillment.

Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder—ex New York cop cum private eye—was the choice of Ian Rankin. He says Scudder is a detective with all of the conventional baggage, yet achieving “the perfect hardboiled mix of grit and poetry: cool jazz with surface noise.” Rankin’s own protagonist John Rebus would get this.

Mark Billingham credits Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade with launching the American hardboiled private eye genre in The Maltese Falcon. Yet, the book’s “most enduring mystery” is Spade himself, a character with much more going on than what is revealed on the page. Perhaps this contributes to the perennial appeal of Sherlock Holmes, too (what is going on in that head of his?), the choice of author Saima Mir.

Australian author Chris Hammer’s detective Nell Buchanan is the pick of Ann Cleeves, while Val McDermid’s favorite is Scottish writer Josephine Tey’s chameleonlike Inspector Alan Grant, who appeared in six novels from 1929 to 1952. He’s featured in Tey’s 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time, selected by the British Crime Writers’ Association in 1990 as the greatest crime novel of all time. OK, I’m ordering it.

Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and even Jessica Fletcher were cited by several of the authors and are beloved by readers of all ages. I most resonated with Stella Duffy’s choice, Trixie Belden, a pre-teen favorite at my house. “almost always fierce and brave, confronting what she saw as injustice.”

David Baldacci picked Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, popular heir to the Los Angeles mean streets of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. He says “Archer brought to the table a heart and a soul, and a way of making sense of the world that was deeply, viscerally connected to the reader.”

In general, these were safe choices. Mostly they represented series—that is, a body of work. Ten years from now, who’d be your nominees? I’d hope to see Joe Ide’s Isaiah Quintabe, Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash, and Mick Herron’s Slough House team in the mix.

2 thoughts on “Favorite Literary Detectives–Who’s Yours?

  1. I’d have to say Robert B. Parker’s Spenser would lead he pack of my favorites. He’s tough but tender, intelligent, witty, and a bit sentimental. Of course, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee has them all beat, but he’s not a detective in the strictest sense of the word. He’s a salvage consultant. Police wise there’s Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Renee Ballard, and I just finished reading a very entertaining novel (The Maze) by Nelson DeMille featuring his protagonist of many hats, John Corey. And I’ll always have a soft spot for Rob Kantner’s Ben Perkins, although Ben seems to be in retirement these days. Dont’ forget the ladies–Kinsey Milhone (Man, I wish Sue had made it all the way through the alphabet) and Chicago’s own V.I. Warshawski (Sara keeps getting better with each book). Anybody out there remember my own peerless PI, Ron Shade?\

  2. I second your choice of the Slough House Team.. What a wonderful group of characters(those who manage not to get killed off by the author!) So, perhaps, Jackson Lamb or River ..And to add a note..the casting choices for the Slough House film series are spot on

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