#1044: To Foe of Theirs I’m Deadly Foe… – My Ten Favourite Literary Detectives

Perhaps April Fool’s Day isn’t the best scheduling of this post, but the recent experience of dragging my way through Helen Vardon’s Confession (1922) by R. Austin Freeman got me thinking about the literary detectives I’d follow to hell and back, and I figured that it might be worth expanding upon.

What follows, then, is what the title promises: I have dug back through my 25+ years of mystery reading and dredged up the ten sleuths I would — and in some cases, have — happily follow through even the most turgid of books solely for the delight of their company. It’s a purely personal list picked for purely personal reasons, but it was fun to write and hopefully it’ll give you something to chew over.

And so, in chronological order by their first appearance, with some covers of recommended titles if you want to check them out, I give you:

1. Sherlock Holmes

First appearance: A Study in Scarlet (1887)

Undimmed by seemingly endless years of pastiches, re-imaginings, and frank rip-offs, the clarity with which the original version of Holmes shines through is a testament to the freshness and strength of Arthur Conan Doyle’s vision and, no doubt as a result of this, how respectfully the character has been treated when it matters. Holmes is an easy inclusion, almost hors concours because of the sway he has held over the genre for almost 150 years, but don’t let that detract from the crispness of the stories, the ingenuity with which Doyle fills out the milieu, and the wonderfully limned relationships between Holmes and Watson, Holmes and police, Holmes and his clients, and Holmes and the criminal — perfectly weighted all, and still astonishingly ageless despite all the apparent progress shown in the genre.

2. Dr. John Thorndyke

First appearance: The Red Thumb Mark (1907)

R. Austin Freeman’s medical jurist Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke is, to my mind, the most successful and most believable refinement of Holmes’ genius into a personage who actually feels as if he could exist in the world. Thorndyke has his areas of specialism, albeit falling as they do into nebulous scientific endeavours, but unlike, say, Craig Kennedy, his processes are explained with wonderful clarity and feel especially ingenious as a result. I also hugely value the man’s humanity, something stripped from similarly brilliant scientific detective Cyriack Skinner Grey in the (no less entertaining) stories by Arthur Porges, with Thorndyke’s Watson-of-all-trades Francis Polton bringing much warmth to the detective’s dealings with people in distress.

3. Inspector Joseph French

First appearance: Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1924)

There’s the risk here of conflating the detective and the author, since I’m a huge fan of French’s creator Freeman Wills Crofts, and Joseph French is, as anyone will tell you, a completely bland cipher about whom we know nothing. Except that he’s intensely dogged, takes great pride in his ability to puzzle out complex schemes and no small interest in his standing at the Yard, is human enough to let rip with a stream of invective after beating his head against the wall of an apparently insoluble problem, and has a long-suffering, caring wife who has spent many an evening listening to him pacing out problems in their living room. Crofts’ delightfully humdrum schemes require a nose-to-the-grindstone detective to sort through their various complications, and French really is man for all seasons, whose relief at a breakthrough is as palpable as his commitment to the pursuit of justice being done for the purest aims. I love him to bits.

4. Superintendent Battle

First appearance: The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

Another stolid, inscrutable, tenacious policeman, and one about whom we know very little until his final appearance in Towards Zero (1944) reveals a caring father and very human investigator. There’s a flash of the genius in Battle’s ability to make connections at times, but he’s just as happy playing second fiddle to Hercule Poirot as he is leading us through some 1920s country house japes involving secret societies and all manner of misdirection — more insightful and less easily confounded than Agatha Christie’s more frequent copper Chief Inspector Japp, with more personality than the archetype that his Colonel Race. I enjoy his woodenness, the studied way he deliberately gives nothing away while possibly knowing all, and it speaks volumes about the consistency of his realisation that I enjoy him so much despite very few appearances.

5. Miss Jane Marple

First appearance: The Thirteen Problems, a.k.a. The Tuesday Club Murders (1932)

For all the ebullient brilliance of Agatha Christie’s famous little Belgian, there’s something about the quiet dignity of Aunt Jane — knitting in the corner, forgotten by her nephew and his clever friends, and yet capable of a mental acuity which eludes them — which appeals to me in so many more ways. I’ve always been more of a fan of the quiet introduction of some small matter which completely blows the lid off a situation than I have of detectival grandstanding, of the ego-boosting gathering of the suspects to point a wagging finger of accusation first one way and then the other, gradually leaving everyone limp with exhaustion, and for all her forebears and imitators, no-one has ever done this quiet devastation as well as Jane Marple.

6. Dr. Gideon Fell

First appearance: Hag’s Nook (1933)

Bluff, hale, hearty, full of mirth, an absolutely no threat to anyone — witness the fixedness of focus he puts into carrying a cup on tea on a tray in He Who Whispers (1946) — John Dickson Carr’s lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell might just be my favourite detective in all of fiction for how wonderfully he is able to switch moods in a instant, a figure of fun who is easily forgotten who suddenly reveals himself as the most observant and dangerous man in the room. Carr’s other long-term detective, barrister Henry Merrivale, always seems to be fighting to retain his dignity and so is overlooked on those terms, but the G.K. Chesterton-inspired Fell has about his massiveness something that borders on the ridiculous without ever veering into pure parody, and that finer line is, to my way of thinking, far harder to walk and so much more impressive when maintained.

7. Perry Mason

First appearance: The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933)

Now, true, lawyer Perry Mason — star of 18,437 books by Erle Stanley Gardner — isn’t technically a detective, he has investigator Paul Drake to wear out shoe leather on his behalf, but it’s Mason’s brilliance that sees the connections in the information Drake brings him and Mason’s own willingness to fly close to the wind when defending his clients which displays the acuity we associate with our fictional detective of yore. I especially love the man’s self-confidence, his refusal to be bullied by any policeman when there’s even the tiniest of legal loopholes to squeeze his bulk through, shaving some of the skin off his teeth as he just about pops out the other side with morals and justice intact. His bullying, cajoling ways don’t go down well with everyone, but as a totemic figure of the genre he’s pretty damn hard to beat. And even when I finish a disappointing Mason tale I find myself thinking “Damn, I need to read more of these” because of just how much fun it is to watch the man work.

8. Superintendent Edward Beale

First appearance: The Talkative Policeman (1936)

Rupert Penny’s Edward Beale — policeman sleuth of eight books — is a favourite of mine for similar reasons to Battle and Mason, even though the character is rather more in the Joseph French mould. There’s just something about the sheer physical presence of Beale that I enjoy, the knowledge that he’s skulking around a crime scene, being amusedly tolerant of amateur hanger-on Tony Purdon and picking up all the key clues which he’ll hold close to his chest until he’s ready to reveal them. Beale’s similar in aspect to J.J. Connington‘s Chief Constable Clinton Driffield, except that there’s more humour in Penny’s writing which makes Beale more human, even if we actually know very little about him of a personal nature. In an ideal world, Beale would investigate a crime on my behalf, Thorndyke would analyse the evidence, and Mason would defend me in court.

9. Archie Carstairs

First appearance: Home Sweet Homicide (1944)

Youngest of the Carstairs clan, 10 year-old Archie, creation of Craig Rice, might just be the most perfectly realised child in fiction. Equally comfortable pouring boyish delight upon an attention-starved policeman to ferret out information, heading off with calm equanimity to burn down a house (don’t worry, he doesn’t go through with it), or summoning a coterie of young boys known collectively as The Mob to either search Baker Street Irregulars-style or, perhaps their favoured activity, incite chaos to provide a distraction, Archie’s a revelation in every line of the too few pages he’s on. Rice gave us many delightful characters in even the tip of the iceberg of her career that I’ve so far experienced, but Archie stands head, shoulders, and catchphrase (“Shambles!”) above them all.

10. Detective Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith

First appearance: The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947)

Another intelligent, hard-working policeman, Lancelot Carolus Smith, who features in five novels by Norman Berrow, is on this list with others of the same ilk — Battle, Beale French — as a testament to how enjoyable I find it when the characters solving my crimes get to their answers through hard work and a human frailty that best presents itself in failing to take oneself too seriously. To a certain extent, Smith is simply the middle of the Venn diagram represented by those three earlier gentlemen, but earns his place because of the clam certainty he brings to unusual cases such as giant thumbs squashing men to death and apparently Satanic footprints leading everyone on a merry, impossible dance through the snow. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else taking these on with such calm forbearance, and even if the cases are sometimes a little disappointing in their answers, Smith and the relationships he engenders is always good value.

…and a few honourable mentions…

The upbeat ingenuity employed by Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carrados (Max Carrados (1914)) is wonderful to encounter, and I very much look forward to experiencing more of Carrados’ brand of detection in due course. There’s also Anthony Berkeley’s Ambrose Chitterwick (The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929)), whose quiet, almost apologetic style of happening to ferret out the truth is delightfully low-key in the Miss Marple mould. The classic Hollywood-inspired banter of husband and wife team Jeff and Haila Troy (Made Up to Kill (1940)) by husband and wife team Kelley Roos is an absolute delight…for the first four books, at least, beyond which I’m yet to read since the series is frustratingly out of print and, on the limited evidence I have, deserves better. And, on the subject of spouses, the triumvirate of John J. Malone and Jake and Helene Justus (Eight Faces at Three (1939)) from Craig Rice’s novels are always a riotous, tongue-in-cheek delight, careening around a stylised New York, drinking plenty, solving crimes, and looking fabulous while doing so. See also the outwardly calm yet actually pressure-intense stoking of suspects deployed by Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill (Heads You Lose (1941)), a man who at once appears to be both fully on your side and ready to slap handcuffs on you at a moment’s notice, perhaps the best inscrutable policeman in fiction.


And so, how ’bout you, dear reader? Do you disagree violently with any of the above? Or, even better, do you have a recommendation you’d care to make based on my selections? I’m always on the lookout for strong characters, so recommend (or disagree) away…

29 thoughts on “#1044: To Foe of Theirs I’m Deadly Foe… – My Ten Favourite Literary Detectives

    • I’m pretty much a lone reader. I don’t have a lot of comrades. So, sometimes I doubt my stances on things. There’s a dialogue goin’ round arguing that there’s more truth in fiction than in non-fiction. I subscribe to that. Every reader is as different from the next as one grain of sand compared to another. Mystery fiction can so easily be read as literary fiction that I can’t see the dividing lines any more. I have learned a lot from Gladys Mitchell, Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers, I think a poll would be very revealing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • If you explore Jim’s blog a bit, you will unearth my antics! He recently hosted a massive poll to determine “The World’s Greatest Detective.” It was a massive amount of fun, and it brought a great many solitary readers together in conversation and camaraderie. And that is EXACTLY why I got into this blogging business myself! Welcome to the community! 😀


  1. Fascinating me old china! The publication date is a bit of a worry … and I definitely didn’t see Battle coming on the list! Plus there are a some here I barely know (Beale, Smith, Carstaurs) so would never make the cut as of now … So, when it comes to what we might term “emotional support detectives” much as I like your list I know I would substitute those aforementioned three as I know I would want Nero Wolfe (and Archie) just for the banter; Maigret to keep things always down-to-earth and in perspective; Gervase Fen for mental fireworks (and the laughs); and I’d have to get Campion and Lugg in there for their sense of adventure and esprit de corps…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m on a Rex Stout kick at the moment so definitely Wolfe and Archie, and definitely some of Maigret poking his stove and ordering up beer and sandwiches for a long interrogation. I’d love to visit Lord Darcy’s world and hang out with him and his sidekick Master Sean O’Lochlainn (he’s Oirish ye know – begorrah ’tis a fair wonder ye didn’t know that, sorr!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent selections; I love the inclusion of Smith and Beale, plus the mention of Chitterwick. Cockrill in my mind deserves a bit of a bump (although there’s unfortunately not much more for us to read, is there?) and then there’s the lack of Merrivale (although yeesh, after The Cavalier’s Cup you may reconsider ride or die).

    While we do know so little about Joseph French, do we perhaps know his humanity better than any other detective? Not some dramatic pained backstory, but just the way that he enjoys a train ride or a meal when arriving into town. In a way he’s the most fleshed out character despite still being a cipher.


    • I should perhaps have mentioned these elements on French’s character, because they are among the most delightful of any fictional detective I’m yet to encounter — the sheer giddy joy he takes in an open vista, or the open-air pleasure of a boat journey — but I didn’t want that entry to be significantly longer than the others and so had to forego bringing it up. So thanks for highlighting it here, because it just adds to my conviction that he’s one of the most underappreciated characters from the genre’s best period.


      • It strikes me that there are two flavors of the best detectives:
        1. The detective where you can’t wait for them to take the stage. Fell, Poirot, Chitterwick, and Sheringham fall into that category, although probably more so the first two.
        2. The detectives that tend to play a central role in the stories – Smith and Beale come to mind.
        French kind of straddles these two categories, as Crofts uses him in such different ways across the stories.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Poirot was a wonderful gateway for me getting into the genre, but I tend to think of him as perhaps a little too appreciated by many people — perhaps on these grounds (after all, he won the poll of Greatest GAD Sleuth run on this very blog).

      These days I find him quaint, but I’m also never really champing at the bit to have him back on the page; Christie did, at times, the correct thing by restricting his presence in certain stories (and not just late in her career when she was sick of him…!).


      • In some ways Poirot reminds me of a favorite TV detective from my childhood, Lt. Columbo. Poirot, with his fastidiousness and obsession with order, on the surface would appear to be the antithesis of Columbo but they both had an eye for the seemingly unimportant detail that “doesn’t fit”, which most people don’t notice but which attracts their attention and leads to the unraveling of the puzzle.

        At the end of Christie’s Three Act Tragedy, Poirot admits to one of the characters that it’s not his technique to scare suspects; instead he “invites their gentle ridicule”. You see some of that with Columbo.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It would be interesting to create a chart of the various relationships detectives have with suspects. There are those who lull them into a false sense of superiority, like Poirot and Columbo. Fell and Merrivale can do that too by being so jolly! Then there are the bully/intimidators: many of the inspectors d’histoires are like this, the Slacks and such, but some major sleuths have this element when it suits them, like Nero Wolfe. And there are the “straight arrows,” like JJ’s beloved Inspector French, or Roddy Alleyn or Bobby Owen, who play as honest a game with their suspects as they can.

          We could write one of those “So You Want to Be a Detective” books and show the different paths one could take!!


  3. Hmm, now is there anyone not on your list that I’d mention?

    I do like to be entertained by my sleuths – thinking about it, a lot of my favourites have that in common. My favourite classic sleuths are probably Sir Henry Merrivale, Sir Abercrombie Lewker, Hercule Poirot and, yes, Anthony Bathurst because even in their less inspired books, they are entertaining company. It’s notable that my least favourite Poirot is The Clocks, mainly because he’s hardly in it – ditto Flynn’s The Hands Of Justice (a fairly uninspired revenge thriller with Bathurst having even less to do than Poirot in The Clocks).


  4. Excellent list. Miss Marple is a favourite but I also cannot do without Poirot and I do have a soft spot for Bundle Brent. I would add Maud Silver, who is of course a professional sleuth. I love this line ‘A sleuthess,’ said Archie impressively. ‘A perfect wonder – has old Sherlock boiled.’ I’ve recently been enjoying Anna Katherine Green’s Amelia Butterworth, the prototype for the elderly spinster sleuth. Brilliant, razor sharp wit and very funny. A wonderful writer who helped form the genre and yet somehow is often overlooked. I think there are some excellent sleuths in modern detective fiction though who are finely nuanced and very three dimensional such as Martin Edwards’ Rachel Savernake. I’m a huge fan of John Banville’s Strafford. Highly literary. Beautifully written and a fabulous character.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Archie Carstairs is a great and inspired pick! I would have overlooked him, but Archie definitely deserves to be on it. I would have swapped Miss Marple for Miss Withers and Thackeray Phin would be on it as well for all the reasons James stated. Some least-likely-suspects would include Conan Edogawa, Sou Touma and Baantjer’s Inspector De Cock.


    • Yes, there’s a woeful lack of international representation here, isn’t there? Maybe I could do a follow-up list restricted to detectives in translation…


  6. I agree with your list, but I have to add a couple more.
    Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo
    Gladys Mitchell’s Beatrice Adele Bradley
    Both are amusing literary companions.


  7. A very interesting list highlighting, in a way, the different approaches to detective writing. I find that I prefer the eccentric detective over the plodding investigator, though there are a couple of examples that nicely thread the needle for me (Columbo naturally springs to mind). A list of favorites of mine would include: Holmes, Poirot, Ellery Queen, Fell, and Charlie Chan (both literary and filmic versions). Roderick Alleyn, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Adam Dalgliesh would probably be looking in from outside ready to bring up the rear.

    By the way, ever read Solar Pons? As a Holmes clone, I think you might get a kick out of those stories.


    • I tried some Pons, yes, and couldn’t get on with the style of the telling. What I can’t remember if they were stories by Derelith or if they were pastiches. So perhaps I should go back and give the character another go.


  8. I say Holmes is the greatest detective. I can’t remember ever finding him annoying, like Poirot or Merrivale can be, or boring, like French and Thorndyke. In general I often find the character of the detective to be among the least interesting parts of books I like.


    • Many thanks — always lovely to be able to spread the word where these ‘tecs are concerned; Thorndyke and Smith in particular have been revelations in my reading. Hope you enjoy whatever you’re motivated to track down.

      Liked by 1 person

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