Which of them deserves to be crowned the best detective in fiction?
As regular readers of this column will know, I am a huge fan of detective fiction. Give me a good murder mystery and I will shut myself up for the rest of the day, gobbling it up greedily, devouring every plot twist, chewing on each red herring, and drinking in the denouement with delight.
So you can imagine my joy when I managed to lay my grasping little hands on the latest Anthony Horowitz. The author first brought his brand of magic to the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre with House of Silk. And now he’s dealing with the period immediately after Sherlock’s famous ‘demise’ at the Reichenbach Falls. The book is called Moriarty and that is all I am willing to say at this point, lest I be accused (yet again!) of planting spoilers.
But as I galloped across the pages at breakneck speed, I began to wonder: Is Sherlock Holmes the most popular fictional detective of all time? There must be at least four if not five generations now who have been brought up marveling at his deductive skills and intuitive insights. And yet his charm – or rather the talent of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – never seems to fade. Re-read The Hound of Baskervilles today and you will feel that familiar chill run down your spine. But if you give Holmes first place then who else would feature in the top ten?
So this Sunday morning, here’s my list of the top ten detectives in fiction. Needless to say, this is an entirely subjective list based entirely on my own preferences and, dare I say, prejudices. Feel free to compile and share your own and we’ll take a crack at making a more universal, comprehensive one!
But speaking for myself, this is how the list would go.
1) Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle): The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was what I grew up on, cutting my detective-fiction-loving teeth on an impressively bound volume of Conan Doyle’s collected works that belonged to my grandfather. When I re-read these stories on my Kindle these days, they evoke memories of sunlit afternoons in the verandah of my childhood home, the wonder I experienced as a child at a story well told, and my absolute awe at Holmes’ many exploits.
2) Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie): His giant ego, his French-accented English, his little eccentricities, his luxuriant moustache, and those ‘leetle grey cells’ all combined to make Poirot one of the most recognizable creatures of detective fiction. (Though I must confess that these days when I think Poirot, I see David Suchet!)
3) Thomas Lynley (Elizabeth George): Lord Lynley, or the 8th Earl of Asherton to give him his full title, is the archetypal tortured genius. He is estranged from his mother, his brother has a drug problem, his rash driving has crippled his closest friend, Simon St James, who is now married to Deborah, who used to be love in Lynley. If that isn’t enough stuff for psychological drama, you have Lynley’s on-off relationship with Lady Helen Clyde and his volatile partnership with his working class Detective Sergeant, Barbara Havers. All that before you even add on a murder mystery!
4) Guido Brunetti (Donna Leon): The best part of this detective series is that it is set in Venice, and the city’s beauty is apparent at every turn. Guido Brunetti is that stranger to detective fiction: a good family man. He lives life the Italian way, going home every afternoon for a three-course meal with his wife, Paola, and their kids, Raffi and Chiara. He counts on his aristocratic father-in-law, Comte Falier, for insights into Venetian high society, and by way of light reading, dips into the writings of the Roman historian, Pliny.
5) Adam Dalgliesh (P. D. James): How can you not love a detective who is also a poet? A cerebral, quiet, thoughtful, intensely private man who brings his subtle intellect to bear on the most knotted of cases and untangles them with gentlemanly ease. If that ticks all your boxes, than Dalgliesh’s your man.
6) Aurelio Zen (Michael Dibdin): He’s a bit of a mess really. With a complicated love life, an ageing mother, and a propensity to land himself in near-death encounters in various scenic parts of Italy. This is an anti-hero you find yourself rooting for despite yourself.
7) Cordelia Grey (P.D. James): She is the one character that I wish James had made more of. Grey has so much potential. Shaped by a peripatetic childhood, she has worked at all kinds of odd jobs till she ends up in a private detective agency, which she inherits when her mentor dies. If anyone deserves another outing among fictional detectives, it is Cordelia Grey.
8) Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L Sayers): The original prototype for Lord Lynley, Lord Wimsey (later the Duke of Denver) is an amateur detective, whose whimsical, slightly foolish manner, conceal a sharp, deductive mind. Think upper-class fop crossed with Hercule Poirot.
9) Miss Marple (Agatha Christie): We’ve all known someone like her. That ageing busybody who pokes her nose in everyone business, and keeps a close watch on proceedings from behind her twitching curtain. But it’s an absolute joy to read what Christie makes of her.
10) Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell): The medical examiner as detective was an unusual conceit when Cornwell came out with her first book, Post Mortem, in 1990. But what I like best about Scarpetta is her brisk, almost brusque, take-no-prisoners attitude, which in recent novels, she has transmitted to her computer genius neice, Lucy Farinelli.