I have all my life loved detective characters from books, movies and TV. When well written they’re always well developed, colourful and clever with a keen eye for detail and an easy command of the application of logic. Most of all though they read people, a skill I value very highly. It’s very difficult for me to whittle down all of those intelligent men and women to a list of five favourites but I’ve really enjoyed trying.
#5 – Miss Marple
Agatha Christie’s elderly amateur detective was both the quintessential English spinster and the epitome of all of the necessary characteristics of a great amateur detective. The mix of great mind and slightly bumbling old lady is a very effective combination. Christie was said to have based the detective on a step-grandmother of hers and for me Jane Marple was best portrayed by the actress Margaret Rutherford, who was the first to portray the character on the big screen.
#4 – Nero Wolfe
Idiosyncratic characteristics are stock-in-trade for fictional detectives but Rex Stout’s detective Nero Wolfe surely must have almost every quirk and eccentricity one could imagine. Ironically these character traits have filtered down to other literary and screen based detectives ever since Wolfe was first published. He almost never leaves his home, is a foodie, is overweight, has a low tolerance for female company, only likes to be addressed by his surname, hardly ever shows his emotions, doesn’t like physical contact (like shaking hands) and borders on OCD. In 1981 Paramount Television aired a single 14 part series starring William Conrad as Wolfe and I was hooked.
Lieutenant Columbo is an instantly recognisable character in his beige trench coat and battered car. His unprepossessing personality and apparently bumbling manner hide a sharp mind and an understanding of both the application of logic and human nature. Endlessly likeable and unthreatening, he makes use of the fact his suspects under-estimate him and are mildly irritated by his constant questioning to gather the evidence he needs to solve the crime. The character was made for Peter Falk and sometimes the boundaries between the character and the actor were hard to find.
#2- Inspector Morse
My attraction to the character of Inspector Morse created by Colin Dexter could probably be traced back to both Nero Wolfe and Lieutenant Columbo. Morse, when asked about his first name, told the enquirer it was ‘inspector’ – Columbo gave a similar answer when asked the same question. He also had a similar lack of tolerance for ‘average people’ which resonates with Wolfe’s lack of tolerance for just about everyone! Apart from these superfluous overlaps, I like Morse so much because of the intelligence of the writing and the quality of the late John Thaw’s nuanced portrayal.
#1 – Sherlock Holmes
No surprise here but by far my most favourite fictional detective is the incomparable Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspired creation is for me the epitome of intelligent writing coupled with real page turning suspense. Holmes’s expert use of deductive reasoning is a course in the application of logic to solve problems. As far as onscreen portrayals my vote goes to the two most recent interpreters Johnny Lee Miller and Dominic Cumberbatch. Both actors add their own elements to the character of Holmes and are equally effective and most importantly believable.
So that’s it, my top 5. Who’s your favourite ?