Coming up with a list of literature’s finest sleuths is very much a personal affair; for a start, it depends on one’s definition of literature. If it is restricted to the classics, for example, the list will be very different from one that includes popular modern literature. Nevertheless, there are a number of sleuths who have stood the test of time, even if some have not been around for as long as others. In this author’s opinion, they include the following:
Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin
Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin is generally considered to be the earliest fictional detectives. A former criminal, he has the advantage of knowing how the criminal’s mind works, and this stands him in good stead when solving crimes. He often bases his solutions on what is not said or done. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is very much a thinking man’s detective and is often seen as eccentric. Dupin only appeared in three short stories, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, “The Purloined Letter” in 1845 and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” in 1845. However, his importance is such that many authors thereafter based their own characters on Dupin.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes is the detective of whom everyone will think when referring to literature’s finest sleuths. His popularity is such that, even after over a hundred years, he still appears on television and in film. He first appeared in print in 1886, but the stories came thick and fast as readers lapped up Conan Doyle’s stories. Conan Doyle became tired of Holmes by 1893 and tried to kill him off, but was forced to bring him back from the dead by popular demand. Holmes is very much a cerebral detective whose thought processes are a mystery to others, even his close confidant, Dr. Watson.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple
Some will deny that Agatha Christie’s writing can be classed as literature because the language she used was so simple and straightforward. However, it is for this reason that her work is still so popular today; the language simply hasn’t aged as much as that of other authors. It is hard to choose between Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple as Christie’s greatest sleuth. Both are hugely popular and very different. Poirot is an ex Belgian police officer turned private eye who uses his ‘little grey cells’ to solve mysteries. Miss Marple is a genteel old lady who uses her knowledge of village life to solve crimes. Both are household names, even in the twenty-first century.
Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn
Not all of literature’s finest sleuths are private eyes; take Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, for example. Alleyn, a detective of Scotland Yard, appeared in 32 novels between 1934 and 1982. Alleyn was really a member of the aristocracy, but put all that aside to deal with the lower echelons of society. Working in close conjunction with his sidekick, Fox, Alleyn uses good old-fashioned investigative techniques along with an intelligent mind. Although he sometimes seems very cold, his softer side is shown in his relationship with Agatha Troy, who eventually becomes his wife.
Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone
Sue Grafton is one of the more modern authors on the list and is the author of the “Alphabet” series featuring Kinsey Millhone. Millhone is a hugely likeable private eye who is generally single and becomes very much involved with every case she takes on – sometimes to the extent that she puts herself in danger. She has a knack of asking the right questions of the right people and, like a dog with a bone, she won’t give up until she has put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Grafton’s writing isn’t of the highest quality, but Millhone is easily one of the most popular private eyes ever, which more than makes up for the writing.
Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen
Although the memorably named Aurelio Zen is an Italian policeman working in Italy, Michael Dibdin was a British author. Sadly, he died in 2007, but not before he had written 11 Aurelio Zen novels. Zen is a fictional detective with many issues. He is tired and jaded, but still continues with his career because he doesn’t really know what else to do. He often uses underhand methods to solve crimes, primarily because that is the only way to do so in a country rife with political scandal and corruption. His softer side does occasionally peek through in his relationship with his girlfriend and elderly mother.
Everyone’s list of favourite fictional detectives will be different, but those above have proved time and time again that they are amongst the most-loved sleuths in literature. Any author who comes up with a character as well-received as any of them have been will have made his mark on the world of fiction for posterity.