THEY MAKE MURDER…FUN? The Greatest Detectives in Television, Fiction & Film
With the Steamfunk Mystery Dinner Party coming up in February, I have been reading and watching more murder mysteries as of late, which is really saying something because, after speculative fiction, mysteries are my favorite.
I like puzzles. I enjoy solving problems. Whenever I am bored, I like to read a good detective novel, or watch a murder mystery on television or the big screen. I always try to unmask the culprit before the end.
Sometimes I am right; sometimes, I am (happily) way off.
Over the decades, I have developed a list of my favorite detectives. The list is ever-growing and – at present – is as follows:
The world’s first “consulting detective”. While Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin was the first police detective, working diligently to solve the Murders in the Rue Morgue – the first modern murder mystery story – he was not nearly as brilliant as the flawed Victorian, nor as renown.
Recently gaining even greater popularity with the Sherlock Holmes movie and its sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the world’s most famous detective continues to show up Scotland Yard in the BBC’s acclaimed Sherlock and solves mysteries in America in the CBS series, Elementary.
Holmes has even seen a revival in graphic form, with the digital comic book, Watson and Holmes, in which a Black Sherlock Holmes and John Watson solve cases in urban America and with the interactive novel, Steampunk Holmes, in which Holmes and Watson are born again Steampunks.
Agatha Christie’s idiosyncratic Belgian police inspector turned London private investigator. With his signature mustache carefully trimmed and waxed, Poirot uses his “little gray cells” to solve the most baffling of crimes, such as the one in Murder on the Orient Express, considered one of the greatest detective novels of all time.
Upon Agatha Christie’s death, in 1976, the New York Times published a painting of the famous, dandy detective on the front page along with his obituary…the only fictional person to receive such an honor. The headline reads: “Hercule Poirot Is Dead: Famed Belgian Detective, Hercule Poirot, the Detective, Dies”.
The article starts thus: “Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age was unknown.” Regarding his health, the reporter, Thomas Lask, said: “The news of his death, given by Dame Agatha, was not unexpected. Word that he was near death reached here last May.”
The last novel starring Poirot was Curtain, released to the public on October 15, 1976, two months after Agatha Christie’s death. The novel was written – along with Christie’s other famed detective, Ms. Jane Marple’s last story Sleeping Murder – in the mid-1940’s, to be published at a later date.
Batman was never just a costumed crime-fighter. From the beginning, he was “The World’s Greatest Detective”, who combined the inductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes (not deductive reasoning–we will explore the differences in the next post) with extraordinary prestidigitation, stealth, martial and technological skills.
In fact, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 (1939) and did not get his own title for a year.
The first Batman story, The Case of the Chemical Syndicate, was originally written in the style of the pulps, and Batman showed little remorse over killing or maiming criminals. Batman proved a hit character, and he received his own solo title in 1940, while continuing to star in Detective Comics (D.C.). By that time, Batman and the company’s other major hero, Superman, quickly became the cornerstones of the company’s success.
Since then, Batman’s huge popularity has continued to grow in several films, graphic novels, animated television series and films, comic strips and in a campy 1960s live-action television show.
Columbo, was a Los Angeles police lieutenant working in Homicide. He solved his cases through extremely dogged and careful pursuit of all clues. Columbo’s razor-sharp analysis would always be hidden by a seemingly shambling, disorganized nature that always made the criminal underestimate him and make mistakes.
Unlike most detective shows, Columbo was never a whodunnit. At the beginning of each episode, we saw the murderer carefully execute his plan. Already knowing who was responsible, we were left to derive our enjoyment from the battle of wits that would follow: Columbo vs. the murderer.
In each episode, Columbo’s would also make vague comments about his wife and his past and would whistle the song, This old man came rolling home – clues to unravel the mystery of the Lieutenant himself.
From author Alexander McCall Smith comes Mma Precious Ramotswe, protagonist of the spectacular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of novels and HBO series, with actress / singer Jill Scott starring as Precious Ramotswe.
Mma Ramotswe is Botswana’s first woman detective. Unlike other “traditionally-built” (i.e. voluptuous) beauties of Botswana, Ramotswe has been interested in solving puzzles and mysteries since childhood.
She retaining many traditional values, is suspicious of technology and holds quite old-fashioned ideas about decency. As a detective, Mma Ramotswe is primarily intuitive and quite maverick in her methods. Less concerned with the law and more so with moral values, she does not often get involved with the police and prefers the traditional laws and customs of her people.
Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins
Author Walter Mosley’s African-American WWII veteran, turned private investigator, Easy Rawlins is refreshingly human, even in sometimes disappointing ways. He’s a proud man trying to cope with the social injustices of his time, as well as his own personal demons and he doesn’t always do a great job of it. He can, at times, be cruel or petty and sometimes a bit too easily led astray by temptations of the flesh. His obsessions with acquiring wealth and privacy sometimes lead him into making poor decisions. His faults, however, are tempered by his passion to rise above what has been pegged as his station in life and by an innate sense of what is right and especially what is wrong.
In 1995, the novel Devil in a Blue Dress was made into a Hollywood movie, starring Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins. The movie also featured a chilling performance by Don Cheadle as Easy’s best friend and sometimes sidekick, the stone-cold killer, Mouse.
Beginning in 1990 with Devil in a Blue Dress, the eleventh novel in the Easy Rawlins series, Little Green, releases in 2013.
Dr. Alex Cross
Dr. Cross is a forensic psychologist who first works for the Washington D.C. police Homicide Division and later joins the F.B.I.
Dr. Cross is the protagonist of twenty novels and has been played extraordinarily well by Morgan Freeman in film adaptations of the novels Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. Dr. Cross was also portrayed by Tyler Perry in the film, Alex Cross…umm…no comment.
After receiving a doctorate in psychology from Johns Hopkins Univesity, Dr. Cross started a private practice and worked as a psychologist for two years. He eventually decided to become a policeman after he became disillusioned with the politics of the medical community and because the people in his neighborhood could not afford his psychological services, while white people would not see a “black shrink”.
Dr. Cross never expected to like police work, however, he became obsessed with solving crimes and soon became one of the best – and most sought after (for consultations and assistance with solving crimes) – detectives in the country.
Dr. Cross lives with his grandmother (Nana Mama) and three children, Damon, Janelle (Jannie), and Alex Jr. (Ali). His wife, Maria Simpson Cross, a social worker, was murdered.
Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is the protagonist of fifteen novels, several graphic novel adaptations and a television series.
The Dresden Files is a series of “urban fantasy” novels, by author Jim Butcher, about Chicago’s first – and only – hardboiled, wizard private investigator.
Harry’s arsenal includes: a leather duster enchanted with protective magics; a rune-carved staff; a blasting rod (a wooden stick used to give him finer control over his evocation magic), a shield bracelet; a silver ring, used to channel blasts of kinetic energy; and his mother’s silver pentacle amulet. He also carries a variety of pistols and revolvers for those times when “magic just doesn’t cut it.”
The Navajo woman detective, created by married writing team, David and Aimee Thurlo, Ellah Clah works to solve crimes while struggling to heal the rift that has grown between traditional and non-traditional beliefs in the Navajo community, in her family and within herself.
Ella works as an FBI agent out of Los Angeles. Her father, a Christian minister and her mother, a woman who kept to the traditional Navajo ways, allowed both of their children – Clifford, Ella’s older brother and Ella – to choose their own paths.
Clifford chose the more traditional way and studied to become a hataalii – a Navajo holy man, who protects the nation and community by performing rituals, rites and blessings. Ella left the reservation, went to college in California and became an FBI agent.
Ella returns to the reservation when her father is murdered, discovering that her father had been engaged in building a new church on the reservation. The project had split the community between traditional and non-traditional Navajos. A primary suspect in the murder is Ella’s brother, Clifford.
Ella, forbidden by her supervisor to get involved with the investigations, works behind the scenes, trying to solve her father’s murder.
Detective Chief Inspector John Luther begins the BBC psychological crime drama series, Luther, working for the British Serious Crime Unit and goes on to become a key member of the Serious and Serial Crime Unit.
While Luther is obsessive, possessed, fixated and sometimes violent, he is also a genius and a dedicated police officer.
Luther has paid a heavy price for his dedication and has never been able to prevent himself from being consumed by the darkness of the crimes with which he deals. For Luther, the job always comes first. His dedication to solving cases and bringing criminals to justice is a blessing and a curse – for him and for those close to him.
Brilliantly portrayed by actor Idris Elba, Luther is my favorite detective and Luther is my favorite television series.
Based one of the most celebrated officials of the Tang and Zhou Dynasties of China, Di Renjie, also known as Detective Dee, is the protagonist of several mystery novels, two television series and the popular martial arts mystery film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, an action-packed, visually breathtaking mystery starring some of China’s top acting talent, including singer / actor Andy Lau in the titular role.
Breathtakingly choreographed by martial arts master and fight choreographer / actor, Sammo Hung and directed by master filmmaker Tsui Hark, this intricately plotted whodunit is set in an exquisitely realized version of ancient China.
On the eve of her coronation as Empress, China’s most powerful woman is haunted by a chilling murder mystery: seven men under her command have burst into flames, leaving behind only black ash and skeletal bones. Recognizing this as a threat to her power, she turns to the infamous Di (Dee) Renjie, a man whose unparalleled wisdom is matched only by his martial arts skills. As Di battles a series of bizarre dangers, he unveils a chilling truth that places his life, and the future of an entire dynasty, in peril.
Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown is a ten-year old boy genius who puts his talents to work fighting crime in the small town of Idaville. Idaville is so famously tough on crime that “Hardened criminals had passed the word: ‘Stay clear of Idaville.’” This came as a result of the work of Encyclopedia – eternal fifth-grader, voracious reader (hence the nickname), and ace private eye. During the school year, Encyclopedia’s father, the police chief of Idaville, recounts his toughest cases over dinner. Without fail, Encyclopedia solves those cases before dessert. In the summer, Encyclopedia hangs out his friends and foils the nefarious plans of countless child criminals – young Moriarties to his young Holmes.
Encyclopedia’s major nemesis, however, is Bugs Meany, ringleader of a gang called The Tigers and as tough and thuggish as they come.
Encyclopedia’s sidekick is the tomboyish Sally Kimball, who is Encyclopedia’s version of Mouse – “She was the only one, boy or girl, under twelve who could punch out Bugs Meany.”
Accompanied by a large supporting cast – notorious poachers, motorcycle-riding teenage troublemakers, glamorous movie stars in town for the weekend – Encyclopedia, Sally, and Bugs star in twenty nine books and an HBO cable series.
Those are my favorites. Which detectives do you most admire? Which novel, series, or movie detective is your favorite and why?