Top Ten Mystery Sleuths
I’ve been reading mysteries nonstop since I was a teenager and have, of course, accumulated my own favorite top ten mystery sleuths. Here they are, in no particular order except for my number one.
- Didius Falco: Lindsey Davis’s smart-mouthed sleuth from Ancient Rome always makes for a fun read. The books cover topics that are far from light-hearted, and Falco goes through suffering and loss, but he manages with his dry, sharp-eyed sense of humor to get through and survive. Davis flavors this series with in-depth detail of Imperial Rome, making for a long series of good reads, now continuing with the series starring Falco’s daughter.
- Lovejoy: As a feminist, I know I’m not supposed to like Lovejoy, the self-professed misogynistic con man. But Jonathan Gash is a fantastic writer who shows us a Lovejoy that Lovejoy himself doesn’t want us to see: a man who is kind to animals and children, is a romantic about antiques and their window into the past, stands up for the underdog, and truly loves women, in spite of his protestations to the contrary. His adventures, usually spurred by an antique-related detail missed by all others, are a fascinating mix of the past and present. I like that the series is based in Essex and Norfolk (though Lovejoy travels elsewhere in pursuit of killers and thieves), so we see a glimpse of England that isn’t as familiar to most Americans.
- Guido Brunetti: Commissario Brunetti of the Venice police is not the stereotypical hard-boiled cop detective. He has a happy marriage and loves his wife and children, eats very well, and returns every night to his comfortable home. No sitting alone at bar brooding about his lonely existence for Brunetti. I love a good setting, and Donna Leon’s Venice is painted in all its colors. I enjoy Brunetti’s interactions with his intelligent and opinionated wife, Paola, his conversations with Signorina Elettra, his boss’s secretary, and his fencing with his not-too-bright but well-connected superior, Patta. The series is ongoing—plenty of books for a new reader to pick up and enjoy.
- Mma Ramotswe: I’m seeing that setting is a pattern with me, as well as interesting and out-of-the ordinary sleuths. I first of read Mma Ramotswe in The Kalahari Typing School for Men, which I picked up because of its intriguing title. I liked her so much I went back to start with The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency. These books are not so much mysteries as character studies, a vivid sketch of life in Botswana. The characters become old friends, and it’s always a pleasure to revisit them. The latest book in this series (#18) was out in November 2017.
- Peter Wimsey: I can’t remember if I’d already read a Dorothy Sayers Peter Wimsey book before I saw the TV series with Edward Petherbridge, but I know that soon after I had read every single book in the series. The television drama focused on three books featuring Harriet Vane, but I went back to the beginning (Whose Body) and became charmed by Peter and Bunter, Peter and his family (especially his mother). These good, old-style whodunits had a bit more depth than the throwaway mystery paperbacks of the day.
- Horace Rumpole: Rumpole was first introduced on television in a standalone play and then in the well-known Rumpole of the Bailey series by John Mortimer, with Rumpole so well played by Leo McKern. This is another character-driven series, nominally a mystery, but the main draw is the hilarious barristers in Rumpole’s chambers, Hilda, his formidable wife, and the judges Rumpole faces in court. Happily, John Mortimer continued to write Rumpole stories and books after the television series ended, and all have found a home on my shelves. There’s nothing better for shutting out a stressful day than a Rumpole story.
- Matsuyama Kaze: Dale Furutani wrote only three books about this lordless samurai wandering Japan in 1603 on a mission to find a missing girl and solving a few mysteries along the way. The books are well written, and the history of Japan in its transition to the Tokugawa period is fascinating. Kaze is honorable, intelligent, generous, kind, and most of all, determined. He’s now ronin, not the best situation to be in, but he handles it with stoic sensibility. The books in this trilogy went out of print, but fortunately, Dale Furutani re-released them himself, so new readers can grab them in e-book or find them used in print.
- Phryne Fisher: One of my closest friends thrust a book at me one day and said, “Have you read Phryne?” I took home book 1 of the series by Kerry Greenwood, devoured it, and bought more. While I now enjoy the television series, with Phryne played so wonderfully by Essie Davis (plus a great supporting cast), the books allow time for more depth and character development. Again, I’m a sucker for a great setting, and life in 1920s Melbourne is colorful and interesting. I also love fearless Phryne who is the female version of the playboy gumshoe, toting a pistol, taking lovers, going anywhere and everywhere, never worried about her reputation. Her courage and smarts, as well as Kerry Greenwood’s handling of situations of the day, make the series shine.
- Sherlock Holmes (the original): In spite of the many interesting portrayals of Sherlock Holmes (the most recent in the British series Sherlock and the American series Elementary), I like going back to the original stories of Arthur Conan Doyle for my dose of Sherlock Holmes. While he’s been portrayed as increasingly eccentric, the nineteenth-century Sherlock Holmes was a little calmer and more methodical and also more sympathetic to the victims of crimes. You can see this come out in Jeremy Brett’s portrayal, probably my favorite Holmes dramatization to date. Some of the stories, while plausible in the late nineteenth century, can read as bizarre to us now, but I like to go back to Holmes’s roots and how his character and Watson’s were first developed by the author.
- Hercule Poirot: My number-one favorite sleuth is Hercule Poirot, no question. First, because the very first murder mystery I ever read was Murder on the Orient Express—I was sixteen and I was hooked. I lived in an apartment building with a library on the first floor (how great is that?), and by the time we moved out, I’d read almost every Poirot mystery Agatha Christie penned. I’ve been told repeatedly that Miss Marple should be my favorite Christie sleuth, but Poirot will always win with me. He’s unusual, he’s brilliant, he loves comfort (good chocolate, liqueur, central heating, fine clothes), and he’s kind-hearted. He is most interested in a good puzzle, but he’s truly interested in helping people, though it might not be obvious at first, at least not to Captain Hastings. One of my best friends growing up was from Belgium, which also increased my fondness for Poirot. I did graduate eventually to Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (my second-favorite Christie sleuths), but Poirot will always be first in my heart.