From Sherlock Holmes to Jackson Lamb: 12 fictional detectives whose stories will keep you gripped

Including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Inspector Maigret and Philip Marlowe – and not forgetting the sublime Inspector Sejer

Crime-fiction TV series, from The Sopranos to True Detective via The Wire and The Bridge, have been to the forefront of the golden age of television, their multiseason runs allowing for long narrative arcs and fully rounded characters. The crime-fiction novel, of course, has been doing series characters for 150 years. Here are 12 of the best.

Sherlock Holmes

Arguably the most distinctive character in the history of mystery fiction, Sherlock Holmes was so popular he survived his own author’s homicidal urges. Killed off in The Adventure of the Final Problem (1893) by Arthur Conan Doyle (who employed the dastardly Professor Moriarty to do his dirty work), Holmes first appeared in A Study in Scarlet (1887) and is still going strong, even if his recent incarnations in TV and film tend to eschew Holmes’ penchant for the occasional snort of cocaine. A polymathic genius who rigorously employed logic in his investigations over the course of 46 short stories and four novels – “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” – Holmes is never actually described as wearing a deerstalker in Conan Doyle’s stories, and would likely be outraged at the very idea of his wearing rural garb in an urban setting. Still, no sense in letting the facts get in the way of an iconic ensemble, eh?

Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple

Who is the greatest of Agatha Christie’s detectives, Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple? A moot point, of course, and made only to illustrate the fact that the prolific Christie wasn’t content with creating just one of the greatest series in the history of mystery fiction. The moustache-twirling Poirot exercised his little grey cells in a frankly astonishing 33 novels, 50 short stories and two plays, the first of which – The Mysterious Affair at Styles – was published in 1929. But while Miss Marple onlyappeared in a comparatively meagre 12 novels and 20 short stories, she is the guiding presence in some of Christie’s finest books, including They Do It With Mirrors (1952), 4.50 from Paddington (1957) and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962). There are only two kinds of crime writers: those who were weaned on Poirot and Marple, and those who, for reasons best known to themselves, try to pretend otherwise.

Inspector Maigret

When it comes to being prolific, of course, even Agatha Christie is obliged to stand aside for Georges Simenon, who published a jaw-dropping 72 novels and 28 stories featuring Inspector Maigret, a run that began in 1931, with Pietr-le-Letton (or Pietr the Latvian), and concluded with Maigret and Monsieur Charles, in 1972. The Maigret stories account for only a chunk of the total output – more than 500 novels – from the Belgian author, who was famous for keeping a fire extinguisher on his desk lest his typewriter spontaneously combust. (The latter detail is not actually true.) Never content with excavating the who, what and where of an investigation, Maigret (Jules Amédée François Maigret, since you’re asking) was most exercised by the why, a fascination with human psychology that largely accounts for his continued popularity. Simenon’s stand-alone roman durs (seek out Dirty Snow and Tropic Moon) have their fans, but it’s his Maigret novels that provide the bedrock of a formidable legacy.


Philip Marlowe

Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade came first, of course, and many will argue that Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer is the most sophisticated of the classic American private eyes, but Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe remains the embodiment of crime fiction’s knights errant. Chandler employs a style of hard-boiled lyricism married to a black sense of humour: “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober,” Marlowe tells us in the first paragraph of The Big Sleep (1939), “and I didn’t care who knew it.” Chandler took a character modelled on previous private eyes he’d created for magazines, such as Black Mask and Dime Detective, and over the course of seven novels that concluded with Playback (1958) delivered a semi-mythical hero who defined the private eye’s code. “Down these mean streets a man must go,” Chandler wrote in his essay The Simple Art of Murder, “who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Long may he go.

Inspector Alan Grant

Some series are small but perfectly formed, especially when they contain The Daughter of Time (1951), which was voted the greatest crime novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association. Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant appeared in only six novels, beginning with The Man in the Queue (1929) and ending with The Singing Sands (1952) – and only briefly appears in The Franchise Affair (1948) – but Tey’s novels have had an influence that is hugely disproportionate to their number. Tana French, Anthony Horowitz, Alexander McCall-Smith and Val McDermid are just some of the current crop of crime writers in thrall to Tey (a pseudonym of the Scottish author Elizabeth Mackintosh), with McDermid hailing her as “the most interesting of the great female writers of the Golden Age”, who “cracked open the door” for writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. Praise really doesn’t come much higher. And once you’ve finished the Alan Grant novels, there are Josephine Tey’s stand-alone novels Miss Pym Disposes (1946) and Brat Farrar (1949), both of them crime-fiction classics in their own right.

Martin Beck

Northward ho! to Scandinavia, and the novels that first established the concept of Scandi noir: the Martin Beck decalogue, collectively known as The Story of a Crime, which were written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Set in Stockholm, the first of the novels, Roseanna (1965), establishes Beck as a solid, methodical police detective who is as shy of promotion as he is prone to all manner of colds, sniffles and associated ailments. The 10 novels follow Beck as he gradually ascends the ranks; the best known is The Laughing Policeman (1968), which won the Edgar Award for best novel on its US publication, in 1971. (Fans of comic crime fiction are urged to exercise caution against purchasing on the basis of title alone.) The final novel in the series, The Terrorists, arrived in 1975, by which time Sjöwall and Wahlöö had created a body of work that didn’t simply inspire writers such as Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø but also exerted a worldwide influence on the police procedural.

Inspector Sejer

Staying with Scandinavian crime fiction – and why not, says you, as it’s wildly popular – authors like Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø, with their leading characters of Kurt Wallander and Harry Hole, respectively, paved the way for Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was, for a brief period in 2008, the only book available to buy in bookshops all over the world. Meanwhile, quietly going about her business of creating the most impressive series of contemporary Scandinavian crime novels, Karin Fossum was writing the Inspector Konrad Sejer series, the first of which, Eva’s Eye, was published in 1995 (translated into English in 2012). Fossum was first published as a poet; her immaculately written, consistently brilliant novels frequently force the reader to confront impossible moral dilemmas, most notably – and heartbreakingly – in The Drowned Boy (2015). Best-of lists are allowed one example of the contributor’s bias, and Karin Fossum is mine. Seek out her books and she will become a favourite of yours too.

Harry Bosch and John Rebus

The long decline of the fictional American private eye is paralleled by the rise in the loner police detective who tends to act much like the shamus of yore. Step forward Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, police detectives who may hail from opposite sides of the Atlantic – Los Angeles and Edinburgh, respectively – but are both solitary chaps who aren’t overly fond of their superiors and are equally devoted to the idea of justice for all. (“Everybody counts or nobody counts,” runs Bosch’s mantra.) That both detectives are currently in semi-retirement augurs ill for the prospects of their series – 24 books in both cases – although, given that both men are old-school detectives who learned their trade at the university of hard knocks, they’re likely good for quite a few more outings. Meanwhile, those fond of a classic private-eye yarn – and one with a sense of humour to boot – can always take comfort in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum bounty-hunter series, which is up to 29 books (and counting).

Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker, a private detective based in Maine, wasn’t universally acclaimed when he first appeared, in Every Dead Thing (1999), in large part because the purists decried John Connolly’s blending of supernatural elements into the genre. Haunted by the ghost of his dead daughter, and frequently required to battle forces of pure evil, Parker has featured in 22 novels to date, and might be considered the genre’s most apposite anti-hero, given that it was Edgar Allen Poe who set the detective-fiction ball rolling with his first “tale of ratiocination”, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Much like Poe, Connolly doesn’t confine himself to the mystery genre, with The Book of Lost Things (2006) and He: A Novel (2017) some of his finer nongenre offerings. And while we’re on the subject of excellent Irish crime-fiction series, try Declan Hughes’ five-book series featuring the Dublin-based private eye Ed Loy and Tana French’s superb Dublin Murder Squad relay series, in which a minor character from one novel becomes the main protagonist in the next.

Jackson Lamb

Spy fiction’s heir to John le Carré's George Smiley, Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb may not be as self-effacing and dapper as Smiley – Lamb is a booze-sodden, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed spymaster who looks “like a binbag someone had set fire to” – but he’s every bit as compelling as he leads his “slow horses”, which is to say third-rate spies, into battle. Like Le Carré, Herron utilises British intelligence as a symbol of how far down the pecking order Britain has fallen on the world stage, but Herron is considerably funnier when it comes to satirising modern Britain and the spy novel itself. The series began with Slow Horses (2010) and by now consists of eight novels and a handful of novellas, the most recent of which is last year’s Bad Actors. Jackson Lamb is very much an anti-hero for our times: you might not want to share a lift with him, but when the chips are down you’d want him at your back.

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Declan Burke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic