A Celebration of Sleuths

Who done it?

The long-suffering wife? The Lord of the Manor? The respected physician? The ex-detective? The frustrated spinster daydreaming of a proper tea shop?


No need to wonder or worry.

For those addicted to the deceptively innocent pastime of detective fiction, there’s always a sleuth around to navigate the (sometimes) treacherous labyrinth of clues and to discover THE TRUTH.

For sure, Peter Diamond or Miss Silver or Inspector Murdoch or that old-timer C. Auguste Dupin or any of a host of others will make solving the most complicated crime appear remarkably easy, but the great fun for devotees of the genre is trying to figure it out before the author reveals all.

Edgar Allan Poe is credited with introducing the first fictional detective in 1841—the aforementioned C. Auguste Dupin. First called on to investigate “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in the short story of the same name, Dupin later proceeded to star in two novels—unraveling The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842) and discovering everything about The Purloined Letter (1845).

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) is regarded by many as the first true English detective novel, and it features two sleuths—Franklin Blake, the gifted amateur and first in a long line of gentlemen detectives, and Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard. Talented as these gentlemen undoubtedly were, however, they were never destined to attain the renown of a genius who first arrived on the scene in 1887.

Who was that?


Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the perennially popular Sherlock Holmes to the world in A Study in Scarlet (1887), a novel known to be the first work of fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.

With his brilliant mind, devoted sidekick Watson, and even his debilitating cocaine habit, Sherlock Holmes has been known and loved by countless millions of fans—some of whom undoubtedly would not be able to name another fictitious detective. And the Baker Street sleuth has recently been reincarnated by the BBC in a hip and happening television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

But who else can be recommended to those interested in discovering the joys of detective fiction, either in books or in television adaptations?

First to come to mind is another “gentleman detective”—Roderick Alleyn.

Unabashedly and unapologetically upper class, this younger brother of a baronet is the policeman hero of thirty-two novels published between 1934 and 1982. The output of New Zealand native Ngaio Marsh, these beautifully written and ingeniously plotted tales provide rewarding escapist entertainment. Some favorites: Death in a White Tie (1938); Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954); Singing in the Shrouds (1958); and Grave Mistake (1978).

Between 1990 and 1994, the BBC aired a series adapted from nine of the Alleyn novels, eight of which featured the perfectly cast Patrick Malahide as the elegant and erudite detective who manages to remain impeccably dressed no matter what the circumstances. In each of these frothy delights, William Simons plays Detective Sergeant Fox, Alleyn’s able assistant who provides just the right working-class contrast for his posh boss.

Another “gentleman” busy solving crime in the seductive world of crime fiction is the deceptively vapid Albert Campion who, with his rough and tumble ex-burglar man-servant Lugg, manages to unravel all manner of nefarious intrigues. Margery Allingham introduced Campion in The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) and featured him in another seventeen novels and over twenty short stories. In 1989 and 1990, eight early novels were adapted for television and starred Peter Davison as Campion.

The equally well-born and esteemed Lord Peter Wimsey was the creation of Dorothy L. Sayers, the scholarly writer who considered a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy to be her best work. Lord Peter collects incunabula, created a successful advertising campaign for cigarettes, knows a great deal about food and wine, and played cricket at Oxford while still managing to earn a First. How can you help but love somebody like that?

Novelist and mystery connoisseur Mike Ripley’s pronouncement in The Strand magazine that Allingham’s Campion was conceived as a “tongue in cheek nod towards Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey” is worth noting, but most devotees of the genre would seem to agree that both characters are great fun to read about.

In the same article, Ripley expands on the similarities of the two detectives further:

“Wimsey is known to have spent time overseas on vague secret missions for the government. Albert Campion admits that he spent the war years overseas . . . on a mission so secret that even I never discovered what it was.” Where Lord Peter had a loyal butler/batman and occasional Watson in the person of Bunter, Albert Campion could boast the companionship of reformed burglar Magersfontein Lugg, whom he once described as a man “having the courage of his previous convictions” and who “in spite of magnificent qualities, has elements of the Oaf about him.” Where Wimsey is the second son of the Duke of Denver, Campion goes one better and lets it slip that his real name is Rudolph and it is not inconceivable that he is somewhere in line for the English Crown!

With these similarities in mind it might be easy to think that Campion was merely a spoof of Wimsey or that Margery Allingham was continually raising the stakes in some literary poker game with Dorothy L. Sayers (who, incidentally, lived less than a dozen miles from Allingham, although the two seemed to have very little to do with each other). Yet even though Albert Campion may have started life as a gentle prod at Lord Peter, Margery Allingham realized very quickly that she had created an extremely versatile character, one who eventually dominated her writing career and engaged several generations of readers. Despite Campion’s primacy in her writing, Allingham never allowed herself to fall in love with her character, a charge still leveled at Sayers.”

Also very much in this tradition of gentleman detectives is the “Eighth Earl of Asherton,” Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard, a character created by the contemporary American writer, Elizabeth George. Introduced in 1988, Lynley has a large following and a popular BBC series chronicles many of his adventures.

Undoubtedly the most snobbish of all the sleuths is the American Philo Vance. The creation of Willard Huntington Wright writing under the pseudonym S. S. Van Dine, Vance (described in The Benson Murder Case, the first of the novels chronicling his adventures as “an aristocrat by birth and instinct”) personifies “grand.” Interestingly enough, despite his monocle, his chamois gloves, and his peculiar speech, the books, movies, and radio programs devoted to him were all immensely popular in the twenties and thirties. Maybe it was his money. Alas, his appeal in today’s world (even with all his money) is mostly to connoisseurs of period curiosities. Those who wade through the tales might well agree with Ogden Nash’s assessment of the foppish detective:

“Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance.”

In sharp contrast to the effete Mr. Vance is Peter Lovesey’s amusing portrayal of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, certainly the aristocratic private eye nonpareil. In a delightful series of three books, the eldest son of Queen Victoria stars as a high-living royal who has a passion for amateur sleuthing.

Lovesey, a personal favorite, has also created other fictional detectives, one of whom, Peter Diamond, may well be one of the most clever and endearing of all. Certainly not part of any posh social set, Diamond is a hard-working, likable chap who overcomes assorted personal problems and keeps us readers very much in his corner. Anyone who has not dipped into this wonderful series of—so far—twelve books (the latest title, Cop to Corpse, was released in 2012) has a real treat in store.

Another contemporary sleuth (and another personal favorite) is that funny, food-loving Sicilian, Inspector Salvo Montalbano—just about the most lovable of all detectives in fiction.

Easily available in the United States, the Montalbano novels are written by Andrea Camilleri and have been well translated by Stephen Sartarelli. All fifteen books currently available in English are fast-paced, engrossing, and thoroughly amusing.

Interestingly, Camilleri has said in an interview in the British newspaper The Guardian, that in this series of books social commentary “was always my aim. In many crime novels, the events seem completely detached from the economic, political and social context in which they occur. . . In my books, I deliberately decided to smuggle into a detective novel a critical commentary on my times. This also allowed me to show the progression and evolution in the character of Montalbano.”

This scholarly purpose, however, never detracts for a second from the entertainment value of the well-plotted narratives.

One charming bit of dialogue that is worth repeating from The Dance of the Seagull (2013) illustrates the appeal of the series and also pokes fun at all television adaptations. Here, Montalbano is talking with his quintessentially patient mistress, Livia, who lives miles away in Bologna and they are discussing his portrayal in the television series based on these books.

“I wouldn’t want to run into a film crew shooting an episode of that television series right as we’re walking around there. . . .”

“What the hell do you care?”

“What do you mean, what the hell do I care? And what if I find myself face to face with the actor who plays me? . . . What’s his name—Zingarelli . . . ”

“His name is Zingaretti, stop pretending you don’t know. . . . But I repeat: What do you care? How can you still have these childish complexes at your age?”

“What’s age got to do with it?”

“Anyway, he doesn’t look the least bit like you.”

“That’s true.”

“He’s a lot younger than you.”

Enough of this bullshit about age. Livia was obsessed!

Montalbano felt offended. What the hell did youth and age have to do with any of this?

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean? Anyway, as far as that goes, the guy’s totally bald, whereas I’ve got more hair than I know what to do with!”

Still another noteworthy international sleuth of the moment is the late-Victorian detective William Murdoch. Maureen Jennings created this cerebral, Jesuit-educated, ostensibly conservative, and humorless Canadian in a series of seven novels—all of which are a tad bleak and ponderous. Interestingly enough, however, the new television series based on the novels is head and shoulders more entertaining than the books. Thanks to a first-rate and likable cast, Murdoch and his colleagues are infused with a humor and style that is lacking in the printed version. Thomas Craig as Murdoch’s opera-loving bad boy Yorkshireman boss is particularly engaging.

Three series of novels that are sometimes forgotten today but that feature memorable sleuths are Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan books, Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers chronicles, and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver books.

The Honolulu-based detective Chan was introduced in 1925 in a book called The House Without a Key. This novel still delights as do many of the successive books like The Chinese Parrot (1926) and Keeper of the Keys (1932). Biggers created this sweet-natured sleuth as a counterpoint to the “Yellow Peril” characters such as Dr. Fu Manchu that were popular at the time. And the series of books spawned many movies, radio programs (Charlie was heard in different series on four networks between 1932 and 1948), TV shows, comic books, and even a board game.

Stuart Palmer’s first novel, The Penguin Pool Mystery, was published in 1931 and filmed the following year as Penguin Pool Murder. Palmer’s heroine, Hildegarde Withers, is a comic and caustic spinster schoolteacher and amateur sleuth who has an amusing semi-romantic friendship with Inspector Oscar Piper of the New York City police.

Palmer wrote some fourteen Hildegarde Withers novels and also featured her in short stories that were published in newspapers and mystery magazines. Several of these stories were made into movies.

Ferreting out clues and solving mysteries while knitting up a storm was the forte of still another spinster sleuth, Miss Maud Silver. Created by Patricia Wentworth in 1928 and continuing to appear in her writings until 1960, this formidable retired governess was a contemporary of Agatha Christie’s beloved Miss Jane Marple. Miss Silver works closely with Scotland Yard, especially Inspector Frank Abbott, and is fond of quoting the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

And , of course, no celebration of this sort could possibly ignore the impressively prolific Agatha Christie and her two superstars: the aforementioned Jane Marple and Monsieur Hercule Poirot.

Miss Marple’s first appearance was in a short story, “The Tuesday Night Club,” published in The Sketch magazine in 1926 and she went on to appear in twelve novels and nineteen more short stories. The quintessential English gentlewoman, Jane Marple is ostensibly all lavender, gentility, and elderly sweetness, but in reality she is a shrewd and cynical observer of human nature. Reading of her exploits never ceases to amuse and Joan Hickson’s turn in the title role in the TV series is brilliant.

Hercule Poirot would certainly have applauded his placement in this piece saying, “But of course, mon ami. You have saved the best for the last!”

Introduced in 1920 in the novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot continues to attract an enormous following. According to one scholar of the genre, the name was derived from two other fictional detectives of the time: Marie Belloc Lowndes’s Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’s Monsieur Poiret, a retired Belgian police officer living in London. Perhaps even more important is the influence of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, who was mentioned above. In any case, this “little Belgian detective” was able to use his “little grey cells” to unravel (mostly) baffling mysteries in thirty-three novels, fifty short stories, and one play.

This celebration of sleuths is far from complete despite being one of the longest pieces ever appearing on the website. It might be, therefore, that a sequel is in order. In the meantime, here are some of the characters and their creators (in parenthesis) who didn’t make the first cut.

Detective Inspector William Edward “Jack” Frost (R. D. Wingfield) . . . Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout) . . . Inspector Joseph French (Freeman Wills Crofts) . . . Father Brown (G. K. Chesterton) . . . Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford (Ruth Rendell) . . . Yashim the Ottoman (Jason Goodwin) . . . Detective Inspector John Rebus (Ian Rankin) . . . Kurt Wallander (Henning Mankell) . . . Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Geoffrey Tom Barnaby (Caroline Graham) . . . Commissario Guido Brunetti (Donna Leon) . . . Philip Trent (E. C. Bentley) . . . Mike Hammer (Mickey Spillane) . . . Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter) . . . Brother Cadfael (Ellis Peters) . . . Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley (Gladys Mitchell) . . . Inspector George Gently (Alan Hunter) . . . Dr. Gideon Fell (John Dickson Carr) . . . Kate Fansler (Amanda Cross) . . . Adam Dalgliesh (P. D. James) . . . Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) . . . William Monk (Anne Perry) . . . Grijpstra and de Gier (Janwillem van de Wetering) . . . Dalziel and Pascoe (Reginald Hill) . . . Inspector Ian Rutledge (Caroline and Charles Todd) . . . Inspector Alan Banks (Peter Robinson) . . . Roger Sheringham (Anthony Berkeley) . . . Jules Maigret (Georges Simenon) . . . Charles Paris (Simon Brett)

Issue Twenty Two