In the first of our new series, we present our Top Five Sagacious Sleuths. These are the sleuths who stand out the most in literary memory: the detectives who don’t give up and who approach each case with their own eccentricity and quirks.
1. Hercule Poirot
‘I do not need to bend and measure the footprints and pick up the cigarette ends and examine the bent blades of grass. It is enough for me to sit back in my chair and think.’
– Five Little Pigs, 1942, Agatha Christie
A world-renowned Belgian detective, Poirot is easily identifiable by his ambitious moustaches and ego-filled affirmations. He features in 33 original novels, 59 short stories, and one play all by Agatha Christie, as well as two continuation novels by Sophie Hannah. He has been portrayed in TV and film by actors including David Suchet and most recently Kenneth Branagh.
Poirot favours reason and his analysis of human behaviour over evidence sweeps. His ever-impressive psychological rationale, impeccable dress sense, and decade-spanning presence easily grant Hercule Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’ a spot in our top 5.
2. Sherlock Holmes
‘I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.’
– The Sign of the Four, 1980, Arthur Conan Doyle
Globally respected and possibly one of the most loved literary characters of all time, Sherlock Holmes first appeared on the page in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 short story ‘A Study in Scarlet’. The infamous detective has gone to feature across a range of media, popularised in recent years by the BBC series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character.
Sherlock uses his powers of deduction and logic to solve huge scale criminal operations. His shrewd observations and oft-manic disposition work in tandem with a man trying to place himself in a less-than-sympathetic world. His cross-generational fan base even confuses some into believing Sherlock to be a real, historical figure.
3. John Rebus
‘Fifteen years and all he had to show were an amount of self-pity and a busted marriage with an innocent daughter hanging between them. It was more disgusting than sad.’
– Knots and Crosses, 1987, Ian Rankin
One of the nation’s ‘hate to love’ detectives, brash and stuck in his ways, John Rebus is quintessentially difficult. Ian Rankin’s famed Scotch character has enough flaws to match his undeniable talent. In interviews, Rankin speaks of Rebus as a character out of his own control; one whose destiny isn’t planned or even considered until it is written.
Readers of Rankin’s stories are drawn in by Rebus’ wit and descriptions which are like a film over the surface of Rebus’ bleak reality. Though the detective struggles with his demons throughout each case, he makes it a personal venture to uncover the truth in a desperate and seemingly endless search for balance in his topsy turvy life.
4. Philip Marlowe
‘I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.’
– The Big Sleep, 1939, Raymond Chandler
The archetypal private eye, Raymond Chandler’s noir detective Philip Marlowe easily enters this list. A romantic bachelor dominated by his own pride, the Marlowe character began under various aliases across several short stories.
Marlowe’s traits are replicated time and time again in almost pastiche fashion. Quick with his wit and smart with his judgement, Philip Marlowe – who you may picture exclusively in black and white – approaches every case gradually, usually ending up deeper than anyone would expect. Though the brooding and debonair detective is far from a contemporary portrayal, we will always be intrigued by the greatness and cynicism of Philip Marlowe.
5. Jules Maigret
‘The inspector knew the mentality of malefactors, criminals and crooks. He knew that you always find some kind of passion at the root of it.’
– Maigret Stonewalled/The Late Monsieur Gallet, 1931, Georges Simenon
Rounding off our top 5 sleuths is Georges Simenon’s Commissaire Maigret. A strong-willed man with a prevailing presence, Maigret’s is called upon for both physically gruelling and psychologically taxing cases.
Maigret’s solutions come out of lengthy investigations during which he explores the history of suspects and victims, focusing on identifying the motives behind the crimes. Featuring in over 75 novels as well as many short stories, readers are able to follow the character as he is fleshed out into a sympathetic and multifaceted human. Far from a caricature detective, Simenon’s unravelling portrays Maigret as a fallible man with traits recognisable in each one of us.
If you want to delve further into the world of sleuthing, then check out our huge selection of crime fiction. Find old classics alongside modern-day detectives and try to battle their wits to solve cunning crimes.
Do you have a favourite detective who didn’t make our Top 5 list? Know of any forgotten classics that fit the ‘sagacious sleuth’ title well? Let us know in the comments below.