Books - Susan's Favourite Book Detective

Spectacles and a magnifying glass lying on an open book

Inspired, but not surprised, by last night’s ITV special to crown Britain’s Favourite TV Detective, Susan Omand lists her top five favourite book detectives instead...

I am a sucker for a good detective story. It doesn’t matter about the era really or, to be honest, the type of crime being investigated; as long as the plot is good and the way it is solved is intriguing, I’m there for it. When I heard about the ITV special, I did wonder about choosing my own favourite detectives from either TV or film but, once I started those lists, they went on and on [and on and on – Ed] and I couldn’t tie down specific favourites in any particular order – you only have to look at the Watching the Detectives articles that Steve and I write to see how many there are (and there are many more that haven’t yet been written about.)

Books, though, are different. There are several fictional detectives whose work I have great collections of and re-read over and over again. You may say that re-reading a crime novel is a futile thing to do, having already found out whodunnit the first time but I always get something new from each read through; seeing how intricately the crimes were conceived, tracks covered, clues uncovered and misdirects given is a mark of a good crime writer for me.

But how to choose my top five? I set myself three rules:

Firstly, and most importantly, I’m not counting police procedurals this time out – there are too many Detective Inspectors in my reading list to narrow them down successfully.

Secondly, I’m looking at the character as portrayed in the books, a rule which acts both as a positive as well as a get out where TV and film adaptations have made, shall we say, alterations which are not always enhancements.

Lastly, I’m looking at “the detective” as a character, not any individual story that they appear in, as some stories are, of course, better than others so it’s an over all feel from a series of books that I’m considering.

Bearing all that in mind then, here are my top 5 favourite Book Detectives. I know that there are some obvious ones missing from the list and you will be shouting at me about not including them so do let us know your own top fives:

Dogstooth tweed patterned book cover

5 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes

I know, I know – it’s a bit predictable, given that * spoiler * he was voted best TV detective on ITV last night, however I do seriously enjoy the books more than any of the film or TV iterations – although Basil Rathbone and Jonny Lee Miller are both very entertaining in their interpretations. But I find the descriptions and atmosphere of the books and the coldly clinical nature of the character in those books an irresistible draw.

Plain green book cover with a black bowtie on the front

4 Ellery Queen

Ellery Queen is both the detective and the writer of the books, in a way, as it is the nom de plume of a pair of cousins who wrote the novels between them. Queen comes across as pretty much an early 20th century American version of Sherlock Holmes – learned and logical, detached and generally unemotional – who only solves cases that intrigue him, and what cases they are. Some may call the books a little formulaic in that the clues are presented to both detective and reader at the same time, peppered of course with red herrings and highly demanding of astute deductive reasoning of intricate plotlines before reaching the “Challenge to the Reader” which is almost always a single page near the back of every book, where the clues are pieced together and Queen announces whodunnit. Highly frustrating and highly satisfying in equal measure for me and regular re-reads. 

3 Mario Giordano's Auntie Poldi

Auntie Poldi is a relative newcomer to my list of favourite literary detectives and I am bending my own rules a tiny little bit to include her because there have only been three books so far but I identify so much with her ethos and attitude that I had to include her. You can read my review of Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions here and, really, there’s nothing more to add – it’s basically a German Jessica Fletcher in Sicily but cleverer, wittier, more sarcastic and with a healthy obsession for morning drinking - therefore I’m hooked and waiting with 'bated (prosecco) breath for next May and book 4.

2 Koko and Yum Yum (with Qwill) from The Cat Who books of Lilian Jackson Braun

Koko and Yum Yum are (unlike the cat on the book covers) Siamese cats. They stay with James Qwilleran, a crime reporter turned investigative journalist who is also a recovering alcoholic who survived a near miss with a train before getting sober, living and working first in the antiques quarter of “the city” and then out in the middle of nowhere in a converted barn in Moose County, as a condition of a fortune he inherits, and the three of them solve local crimes together. Well, Qwill does most of the legwork, and all of the talking, but Koko and Yum Yum hint at clues, yowl at bad guys and add cat hair to everything. There are around 30 books in the series and I think I own 27 of them, I’ve actually lost count. 

stylised side on silhouette of a woman smoking and half a face of a man in a fedora hat

1 Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

For me, there could be no other winner for favourite book detective; I’ve read and re-read these cases since I was able to reach the library shelf that they were kept on. I know Mickey Spillane’s books are not high literature but his characterisation of beaten down private eye Mike Hammer is brilliant. It’s proper pulp fiction too, with femmes fatales, fist fights and vicious violence meaning that every page is action packed, all told through Hammer’s world weary voice over style narration. The best thing though is that Mike Hammer’s character has survived a change of pen incredibly well, with Max Allan Collins taking over the reins as officially appointed successor to Spillane a few years ago and the new stories are just as engaging as the originals. Oh, and if I was doing a list of my favourite TV detectives, Stacy Keach’s portrayal of Mike Hammer is pretty near perfect so would be my number one.

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