12 authors pick the best detectives in fiction
From the quick-witted eccentrics and renegade rule-breakers to the downtrodden curmudgeons and reliable by-the-book types, good detectives come in all shapes and sizes – but when you’ve discovered a good’un you know you’ll be in safe hands time and time again, book after book.
We asked some brilliant crime authors to share their favourite fictional detectives from past and present. Who’d make the top of your list?
Lauren North, author of One Step Behind:
You really want me to choose a favourite detective? To cast aside Jack Frost, Tom Barnaby, Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller, and choose just one detective? *Breathes deeply* Promise you won’t tell the others? OK then, here goes… my favourite detective is Hold Your Tongue‘s DI Eve Hunter, created by Deborah Masson. A headstrong badass who throws herself in every deep end she finds. Fiercely loyal to her colleagues and tunnel vision focused. If I were ever to stumble across a dead body, it would be DI Eve Hunter I would want on the case – unless the body was my husband after not putting his mug in the dishwasher again. Then I definitely wouldn’t want DI Eve Hunter on the case 😉.
Alex North, author of The Shadow Friend:
I remember being shocked the first time I read Mo Hayder’s debut novel Birdman. It wasn’t simply the gruesome crimes and the explicit, unflinching depiction of violence – although it was those things. But there also seemed to be a singular vision at work: a mixture of crime and horror with genuine, pitch-black darkness at its heart. To some extent, that is mirrored in Hayder’s protagonist, DI Jack Caffery, a tough, driven detective haunted by the unsolved abduction of his brother as a child. If anything, the sequel, The Treatment, is even more disturbing, ending with one of the bleakest moments in modern crime fiction. That could have been the end of Caffery’s story, but five later novels – dubbed the ‘Walking Man’ series – see the DI relocate to Bristol and form a relationship of sorts with police diver Flea Marley. While the crimes remain as horrific as his London cases, these later books take Caffery into more philosophical, reflective territory. It’s hard to pick a favourite; each book is superb in its own way. For me, the most haunting is the sixth book, Poppet, in which the unsettling backdrop of a secure hospital unit provides the perfect setting for Hayder’s unique blend of chills, intrigue and – ultimately – heart. It’s been too long since we’ve seen Jack Caffery, and perhaps we won’t again. But if it turns out he’s moved in the years since his last appearance (in 2014’s Wolf), I’ll be more than happy to follow him wherever he goes next.
Gytha Lodge, author of Watching From the Dark:
When it comes to smart, thorough detective work, I don’t think you can beat Ed Exley. The LA Confidential and White Jazz protagonist is a brilliant strategist, and watching his rise through the ranks over the course of two dark, violent books is both satisfying and convincing totally convincing. But he’s also at least one part antihero for every part hero. His talent for wriggling out of difficult situations and somehow coming out on top – even if that means faking it, or shooting an unarmed man – is the same talent that makes him a brilliant investigator. And is there anything more enjoyable in crime fiction than a suspect being taken to pieces by insightful, manipulative interviewing? The morally doubtful Exley teaches us that sometimes being a great detective isn’t synonymous with being a great human being.
Simon Lelic, author of The Search Party:
A compelling detective is the key to an engrossing crime novel, and one of my favourites is Matthew Shardlake, created by C J Sansom. Shardlake probably isn’t the type of bloke you’d choose to go for a drink with – the night would end early, I suspect, with everyone at the table in a funk – but you wouldn’t want him sniffing around your dirty secrets either. A melancholic hunchback with a heart, Shardlake is the perfect guide to the seedy politics of sixteenth century England. His humanity is like a guiding light – for the modern reader as much as for the shady characters he encounters.
Emma Curtis, author of Keep Her Quiet:
I haven’t read these books for years, but at one stage I was obsessed with Elizabeth George’s Detective Inspector Lynley mysteries. He is such a magnetic character. I loved the dramatic tension between his gritty job and the upper crust circles he moved in. What made these novels so compulsive was the relationship between Lynley and his spiky sidekick, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, a young woman from the wrong side of the class divide. I’m a sucker for an impossible love story. These are plotty crime novels, the stories told brilliantly, the characters three-dimensional. You more than get your money’s worth from Elizabeth George.
Tony Parsons, author of Your Neighbour’s Wife:
My favourite fictional detective is Detective Rhonda Boney in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Detective Boney relies on her sense of smell – whatever the evidence in front of her, she can smell a rat when she needs to. And Boney smells a lot of rats in Gone Girl. Described as ‘hard on the eyes’ by her creator, Detective Boney is not without compassion but never squanders it on those who are unworthy. One of those minor characters who take over a book. And Boney has what every fictional detective needs – a really great name.
Alex Pavesi, author of Eight Detectives:
My favourite detective is the Private Investigator Philip Marlowe. Towards the start of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Good-bye, Marlowe is released from jail after a wrongful arrest. ‘No hard feelings?’ asks the police captain. Marlowe’s response sums up his character. ‘No feelings at all, Captain.’ Cynical and world-weary, Marlowe is resigned to whatever adventures come his way, making him the perfect chronicler of Chandler’s larger-than-life Los Angeles underworld. A keen philosopher who knows how to take a beating, his one-liners and wisecracks are so sharp he almost doesn’t need to carry a weapon. ‘Trouble is my business,’ he tells us. ‘How else would I make a nickel?’
Leona Deakin, author of Lost:
My love of detective stories began early with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books and progressed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I loved the idea of brilliant, independent detectives solving crimes outside of the usual channels. Perhaps this is why my all time favourite detective novel is Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It has all the intrigue of a traditional whodunnit with a brilliant contemporary twist. The combination of Larsson’s investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander made for a totally modern detective team whose methods were sometimes enlightening, sometimes shocking. I was gripped. My favourite game as a reader is racing the detective to the reveal and there is nothing more delightful than losing this challenge. Larsson kept me guessing right to the end. Political, psychological and emotional, this is a novel packed with mystery and malice.
Ragnar Jonasson, author of The Mist:
This was quite a difficult task, so in the end my vote was split, as I felt I had to honour two of my all time favorite detectives. P D James’ Adam Dalgliesh is one of the most human, artistic and interesting protagonists in the recent world of fiction, crime or otherwise. Each encounter with Dalgliesh was such a treat, made even more special by the fact that I was able to speak at length with Baroness James about her creation and her writing. Some people say you should never meet your heroes, but it was truly wonderful to be able to meet P D James on more than one occasion. My other choice is of course Hercule Poirot, the legendary creation of the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. The first crime novel I ever read featured Poirot, and then I went on to translate eleven novels about Poirot into Icelandic. Some of the best Poirot novels are not only my all time favorite Christie books, but without a doubt some of the best detective stories ever written.
Deborah Masson, author of Out For Blood:
There are so many great detectives out there. Far too many to mention and I thought a number impossible to narrow down to a favourite. But then I realised I could choose in a different way. I could pick the first detective to turn me on to crime fiction, a lead character who made me want to scour the shops until I’d collected every one of the books in the series – and eventually one who made me want to write. And that character was Mark Billingham’s DI Tom Thorne. The first introduction to Thorne, Sleepyhead, was such a great concept. A victim who had survived, albeit paralysed and unable to communicate, yet we were able to hear what she was thinking. DI Tom Thorne wanted justice for her and I loved his no-nonsense approach, his indifference to how others viewed him, his dogged determination to get the job done at any cost but also his ability to be wrong. Like most detectives, Thorne is flawed and comes with baggage but I think Mark summed it up when he said it comes with the territory – just as a cowboy is given a horse, a Stetson and a gun.
Cara Hunter, author of The Whole Truth:
The challenge here is who to choose! It won’t surprise anyone that Morse would be high on my list, and if I’m allowed on-screen detectives too I’d go for Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect and Angie Flynn in Motive. And then there’s Rebus and Wallander and Dalgliesh. But OK, if you force my hand, my choice is Loretta Lawson in Joan Smith’s five-book crime series. Like Miss Marple, Loretta is not strictly speaking a ‘detective’, she just has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Marple, she’s sassy, strong-minded, buts she’s also a proud feminist and brings the analytical brain of an English Lit professor to the cracking of the crime. Two of the books were dramatized by the BBC in the early ‘90s, starring Janet McTeer, Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton.
S K Sharp, author of I Know What I Saw:
Being asked to choose a favourite detective is a bit like being asked to choose a favourite child. It seems desperately unfair for it not to be Laure Berthaud (Spiral) or Saga Noren (The Bridge) – but if there can be only one, it has to be Sarah ‘The Jumper of Justice’ Lund from the novels and TV series The Killing. I love the dark, layered swirling stories. I love the off-beat, off-centre, oft-misplaced humour; the doomed struggle to be a ‘normal’ person whose job shows only a very abnormal slant on the world; the self-destructive dedication to unravelling truth. What shines brightest for me, though – and this is true of all of them, which is why it’s so hard to choose – is the compassion and loyalty they show to their far-from-perfect partners.
Who do you think are the best detectives in fiction? Let us know in the comments below!