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Articles - The Great Detectives

How do you rank the best detectives in the history of the mystery genre? Who comes first in your book? Who are the top ten?

Presumptuous as it may seem we at The Mystery Site.com have our opinions on this matter and have produced our list of top 10 detectives. If you have a list you would like to share – we would be interested in hearing from you and if the list is good we will publish it.

10. Lew Archer (Ross Macdonald)
The holy trinity of the mystery genre is: Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald. It may seem strange that Lew Archer would find himself in the number ten position on this list considering the important contribution Macdonald made with his creation but life goes on and more detectives come into being. Archer is the first hard boiled detective who also has some empathy and insight into the deeper motives of people’s actions.

9. Mike Hammer (Mickey Spillane)
For pure, unadulterated popularity it is hard to rival tough guy Mike Hammer. Spillane’s easy to read style and a simple ‘vengeance is mine creed’ make him easy to identify with and sympathize with. Hammer is the deep dark desire in all of us to just lash out at whomever or whatever gets between us and our goal. Hammer is the guy you want in your corner or you just need to stay away from – he disgusts you but you know if you had to choose someone to help you he would be the guy.

8. Phillip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler)
Part of the holy trinity of hard boiled detectives Phillip Marlowe makes it to the list because he wasn’t a cookie cutter version of Sam Spade – he was Spade with a moral compass and a knight in shining armour. Marlowe is a romantic at heart and he changed the direction and character of hard boiled detectives who came after him forever.

7. Ellery Queen (Daniel Nathan/Manford Lepofsky writing as Ellery Queen)
Ellery Queen was the closest any American writer ever came to Sherlock Holmes in terms of out right character intelligence and behaviour. Queen went to the scene of the crime and investigated crimes. The formulaic fair play style and complex plots around bizarre murders were key to the success of Ellery Queen but the most prominent feature was the point in each book where Queen challenges the reader to figure out the whodunit before the case is cleared. The Queen novels were a brilliant cross between cozy and procedural and Queens clever deductive reasoning second only to the man who occupies the number one position in this list.

6. Charlie Chan (Earl Derr Biggers)
To the uninitiated Charlie Chan is a racist caricature to the mystery fan the character of Chan (who was based on real life Honolulu detective Chang Apana) was the first of very few minorities to break the colour barrier in North American detective fiction. It is easy to confuse the movie depictions of Charlie Chan with the Biggers novels they are not the same. Those who criticize Charlie Chan would do well to read the novels and forget the movies.

5. Spenser (Robert B. Parker)
It may seem strange to put the spiritual son of Marlowe closer to the top of the rankings than Marlowe himself but that is in large part because Spenser is just a better detective than Marlowe. Spencer is a hard boiled tough guy who knows his limits even if he tests them constantly. Spenser is the ultimate knight in shining armour and like many hard boiled detectives of the past he is not above doing what it takes to slay the dragon even when it means going outside of the law. It isn’t that law is unimportant to Spenser it is that justice is more important to him. Spenser owes a lot to Lew Archer in terms of his capacity for understanding and identifying with the victims in the world around him. Spenser is the latest and greatest of hard boiled detectives who have built upon the previous versions offered by earlier generations.

4. V.I. Warshawski (Sarah Paretsky)
Victoria Warshawski – not that anyone calls her that – is fiercely proud of her roots in Chicago and loyal to her town. Hard boiled doesn’t quite do V.I. credit as a descriptive term. It is not unfair to say that as a female detective V.I. has to be tough as nails to begin with but her smarts is what gets her through one tough time after another. Including Warshawski is not simply a nod in the direction of the distaff side of the world of P.I.’s it is a tribute to one of the best drawn, smartest and toughest detectives to hit the best seller list in the last thirty years.

3. Sam Spade (Dashiel Hammet)
If Sam Spade has a moral center you would need a microscope to find it. Ethics – what should one do – are never a concern for Spade. Do or be done to. There is no fury in Spade which makes him all the more scary Spade is the ultimate tough guy. He is completely emotionally detached from everything. Spade’s main interest is Spade the rest is all chaff in the wind. The reality of detective fiction though is that all hard boiled detectives ultimately owe something to either Spade or Marlow.

2. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)
The fastidious Poirot is legendary for his intelligence as much as he is for his disarmingly effete style of dress and behaviour. Poirot never tips his hand because he treats everyone with the same disarming politesse whether they are a scullery maid or a princess. For Poirot it is all about the little grey cells. He is not a man of action but he discerns much from the actions of others. Poirot is the master of using inductive reasoning to get to the point where he can use deductive reasoning. Once he knows what happened he will inevitably discover the why and who.

1. Sherlock Holmes (Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle)
To this day the name Sherlock evokes a man in deer stalker cap with a sharp tongue and sharper mind. Doyle’s Holmes defined the genre for generations and still does so for many. From the simple stance of a detective whose stories are told from the perspective of his sidekick to the sidekick himself Doyle’s stamp on detective fiction is undeniable. Holmes as a character was unwavering in his pursuit of the truth regardless of personal danger and brings to bear on every case all he can, he commits totally.

So there you have it - one mystery fans take on the best of the best. If you have a better list let us know it could find its way onto this page.

Denis Bernicky

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