Top Ten Tuesday: Freebie: Favourite Fictional Detectives

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

Previous Top Ten Tuesday Topics

With this freebie week, I thought I would spend some time with one (and later on a merger with a second) of my favourite genres: detective fiction. There is something inherently satisfying in detective fiction – the intellectual game, pitting us the reader against the writer’s plotting is one thing; the thematic conflict between chaos and law and order is equally potent. But at the heart of the detective genre lie characters placed in extremis and their reactions to that extremity and their relationships with others under strain, whether those characters be criminals, witnesses or the detectives themselves.

Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I could have populated this list with golden age writers, or indeed with Christie’s detectives alone, but I decided to limit myself to only one classic.

And for me it has to be Holmes. The genre owes so much – both good and bad – and so much can be traced back to Doyle’s creation.

He remains the mythic ur-detective of them all and The Hound of the Baskervilles is sublime, pitting our rational detective against the demonic hound.

Jackson Brodie, Kate Atkinson

Retired police officer, semi-retired detective. A complex personal life to say the least – ex-wives litter the pages of these novels, one of whom swindled him out of a fortune, children of various ages, women whom he loved and lost.

Brodie is often strangely passive for a detective, pursuing a case but often caught in a whirlwind of coincidence that resolves itself.

And always searching for lost girls. And some sort of redemption.

Jason Isaacs and Jackson Brodie in the BBC adaptation

And I love Atkinson’s narrative voice in these novels. Rich in allusion to both pop and ‘high’ culture (whatever those terms mean) and deep in layers of character. They are wonderful.

Antoinette Conway, The Dublin Murder Squad, Tana French

I could have chosen any of the detectives from this series because they are all wonderful! BUT I really wanted to include some female detectives and Conway seems to have brought the series to its conclusion in The Secret Place and The Trespasser. And as The Secret Place was my first ever French novel, she has book ended my experience of the series.

And Conway is a tough girl on the verge of breaking in the boys’ club of the Murder Squad, first introduced to us with

Still that stride, keep up or fuck off. Tall as me—six foot—and it was on purpose: two inches of that was square heels, crush your toe right off. Black trouser suit, not cheap, cut sharp and narrow; no effort to hide the shape on those long legs, the tight arse. Just crossing that squad room, she said You want to make something of it? half a dozen ways.

Harry Hole, Jo Nesbø

I found that this series paled in comparison to Nesbø’s Blood on Snow – but that was really at the other end of the spectrum from a detective!

I did enjoy The Snowman, however, even if Hole himself seems a little heavy on the tropes: alcoholic and struggling with his personal life, a string of lovers despite what appears to be less than flattering appearance, a maverick who clashes with his boss… but at the same time the focus on mental health felt fresher and more honest than many – and his Sami mother, his sister with Down’s Syndrome.

Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson

Who wouldn’t love Lisbeth?

Who wouldn’t be terrified of her?

Where Nesbø felt to me as if he was playing with the tropes and conventions of the genre, Larsson was perhaps simply ramping them up. Few detectives are given quite such a complex personality disorder – perhaps some elements of schizophrenia, autism, PTSD – or quite such a rigid and inflexible code of morality.

In a genre which is very male dominated – I mean just look at the names on this list! – Lisbeth blazes!

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, Jane Harper

Falk is a much quieter detective than many others here, and he stands out for that reason.

I also loved how, in this novel, his involvement in the investigation is unofficial, unwilling even as, having returned to his home town for the first time in an age, for the funeral of his one-time best friend, he is an outsider and not even tolerated by the locals.

And as his investigation into the death develops, revelations about his own past are very delicately managed by Harper.

Simon Serrailler, Susan Hill

Serrailler – like so many others on this list – is a mess in his personal life. In his case, though, it is simply because he acts like a shit towards women. Constantly. He plays with them, toys with them, discards them.

What I do like about this series, though, is the family surrounding Serrailler: his difficult father, saintly mother (oh the irony), sister, nephew and brother in law….

And Hill does subvert a lot of the tropes in this series, currently having Serrailler deal with the traumatic loss of an arm.

Inspector John Rebus, Ian Rankin

It’s been a long time since I visited the streets of Edinburgh with Rebus and Rankin – but I remember these as the series that got me into contemporary detective fiction. Bring on the tropes: hard drinking, loner, chain smoking!

But the depiction of Edinburgh, the dance between Rebus and Big Ger’ Cafferty, and the character of Siobhan Clarke stood out to me… maybe a series that it would be worth revisiting…

Peter Grant, Ben Aaronovitch

I promised I;;d merge my two favourite genres: detective and fantasy slide so easily together in this series – great fun, humane, urban… and Peter Grant is the only black detective on the list, and his Carribbean heritage, his Jazz loving dad are a great foil to his supernatural investigations, literal goddess of a girlfriend and boss who’s a wizard!

Harry Dresden, Jim Butcher

I have not been as blown away by this series as I was told I would be, but there is something very appealing about Dresden – wise cracking, hard boiled, magician consultant.

Special Agent Wallas, Alain Robbe-Grillet

I had a lecturer at university who was convinced the detective fiction was going to be the next big literary genre, that it would take the literary world by storm… and this was the novel he cited as the literary things that the genre could do.

Almost all of which I have forgotten about!

What I do seem to recall if that there was no body, and the the detective and the killer might have been the same person…

Maybe it would be worth another read again.

So there we have it, ten of my favourite detectives – and there were so many more I could have chosen from who are now clamouring in the back of my brain! I mean, Sam Vimes in Ankh-Morpork deserves a mention, alongside the fantasy detectives, but those novels are generally so much more than detective fiction.

Perhaps I will leave you with Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments for Detective Fiction – which I shall leave here with no comment save that they all feel out of date, but the language of number five is particularly problematic! I take it to mean the cliched moustache-twirling criminal with no real or plausible motive, rather than a random racial slur!

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

And with that I bid you farewell and, as always, please do drop your comments here – especially as it is my birthday on Thursday!

Upcoming Top Ten Tuesday Themes

  • October 5: Bookish Pet Peeves
  • October 12: Favourite Book Settings
  • October 19: Online Resources for Book Lovers (what websites, podcasts, apps, etc. do you use that make your reading life better?)
  • October 26: Halloween Freebie

23 thoughts on “Top Ten Tuesday: Freebie: Favourite Fictional Detectives”

  1. Fabulous TTT post! I love Falk and was so disappointed when she dropped him after two books! My fav detective is Inspector Gamache in the Three Pines series by Louise Penny! Thanks for your recs here!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love Sherlock Holmes and Lisbeth Salander! And I’m adding Rivers of London to my list, that one sounds fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fun list! I’ve watched a few Sherlock Holmes series (the one with Benedict Cumberbatch and the older one with Jeremy Brett), but never read the books. I really need to remedy that! Here is my Top Ten Tuesday. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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