Top 10 Nominees for Best Detective in the Mystery Fiction Genre

Apr 15, 2021

I’ve always loved mysteries – even fashioned myself a Trixie Belden-like girl detective who could solve every one of them.  Probably, even, my zeal for mystery-solving led me to becoming a librarian, charged with answering any and all questions brought by trusting  library users – because all the clues are there.  Here is my list of best book-detectives in ascending order from #10 to #1.

10. V.I. Warshawski by Sara Paretsky                             

Hard-boiled Chicago private eye, Vic Warshawski, has soft-spots, too, and it shows in the cases she takes on to help family, friends, and her many acquaintances.  Her investigations take her to so many recognizable Chicagoland haunts that you will feel like you never left the Windy City. 

BlacklistVic uncovers a cold-case mystery from the McCarthy era that still has connections to current Chicago scions – a “red scare” blockbuster that resonates with still unanswered politically-charged questions.

Also available as an ebook on Overdrive.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

9. Philip Marlowe  by Raymond Chandler

Deemed by many to be the father of the hard-boiled detective, Chandler has given us Marlowe, private eye, specializing in the seedy side of California of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s.  Interestingly, it has been suggested that Hammett’s Sam Spade was the prototype for Philip Marlowe, and it may true as they are contemporaries – let’s just say that Marlowe picks up where Sam Spade left off.

The Big SleepMarlowe is hired by a wealthy client to deal with a blackmail attempt made on his wild, young daughter.  Secrets abound as Marlow discovers that nothing he learns can be trusted.

Also available as an ebook on Hoopla and Overdrive.

8. Siri Paiboun by Colin Cotterill                     

 In the newly-formed, communist Lao People’s Democratic Republic of the late 1970s, Dr. Siri Paiboun is reluctantly recruited to be the Laotian National Coroner where he undertakes to solve suspicious deaths and attempts to dodge political connections with his country’s communist party.  With wit, mysticism, and considerable forensic deduction, 72-year-old Siri sleuths out the answer with a humanity that does more than establish the cause of death.

 The Coroner’s LunchWhen three bodies, recovered in a reservoir, are found not to have died from drowning Siri travels to his birthplace to unravel the mystery.

Also available as an audiobook on Hoopla.

7. Martin Beck by Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo

In this meticulously written police procedural, Martin Beck, Swedish homicide detective, exposes a sociological examination of Swedish society, 1965-1975.  Amid uncovering grim facts relating to the crime there are some sudden hilarious, even slapstick, passages involving his team, contrasted with the thoughtful, methodical, and sympathetic approach exhibited by Martin Beck, himself.      

The Laughing PolicemanA mass murder committed on a Stockholm bus included a young detective under Beck’s charge – never believing in coincidence Martin and his partner Kollberg oversee a manhunt that combs the country and uncovers some surprising facts.

6. Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout                                             

 Author, Stout, has given us 47 books in this series dating from 1934-1975, but his characters never age – Wolfe remains in his 50s and Archie stays an energetic 30-something.  Ensconced in his New York City brownstone, beer-aficionado, lover of gourmet dishes, and orchid-grower Wolfe, uses deduction and brainy intuition to satisfy his clients while being offset by his action-oriented leg-man, Archie Goodwin.    

Too Many CooksWolfe is pulled out of his comfort zone – but for an acceptable reason – when he and Archie travel to a spa in West Virginia to preside at a cooking convention featuring American cuisine.  During the course of delectable dishes and cooking demonstrations, including one notable tasting contest, murder is committed – and Wolfe, himself, becomes the target of another attempt.

5. Mma Ramotswe by Alexander McCall Smith

A “Gentle Read” (the only one on the list) on a gentle person, Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective, takes on cases solely to help people, regardless of pay or no pay.  Surrounded by her amusing co-workers, who are also her family and friends, and fortified by Clovis Andersen’s “Principles of Private Detection”, Mma Ramotswe sets things right for those who are hurting.

The Full Cupboard of LifeWith Grace’s assistance, Precious undertakes to determine the true intentions of her wealthy client’s suitors while, at the same time, trying to understand Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s marriage intentions toward her; Mma Potokwani involves a reluctant Mr. Matekoni in a parachute-jumping scheme for charity.  Africa- Africa Africa- Africa Africa Africa- Africa Africa- Africa

Also available as an audiobook on Hoopla and as an ebook on Overdrive.

A Catskill Eagle by Robert B. Parker

4. Spenser by Robert B. Parker                        

Boston ex-cop turned P.I., Spenser, though tough and of the hard-nosed variety, forms complex bonds with the people most important to him.  To observe how Spenser develops these partnerships begin at the beginning with “The Godwulf Manuscript”; but for a thrilling ride to the culmination of the Spenser/Hawk/Susan trifecta try this one:

A Catskill EagleSharing a deep commitment to Susan Silverman, Spenser and Hawk risk a coordinated attempt to rescue her from a dangerous entanglement with the son of a scurrilous mobster.

3. Bernadette Manuelito by Anne Hillerman                           

Drawing on her dad’s Leaphorn and Chee creations, Anne makes a definitive move to bring Officer Bernie Manuelito to the forefront of her continued series of the Navajo Tribal Police.

Spider Woman’s DaughterIn this debut novel, all of the elements of the Four Corners Navajo detective mysteries are here:  delving deep into the Navajo culture; experiencing the stunning, iconic geography of the region; revisiting a thrilling case from the past that leads to a heart-stopping finish – all with Officer Bernadette Manuelito taking the lead.  Newly-wedded Bernie and Sgt. Jim Chee together crisscross the mesas and backroads of the Reservation in search of more pieces of the puzzle to solve the crime.

Also available as an audiobook on Hoopla and an ebook on Overdrive.

2. Inspector Gamache by Louise Penny

Armand Gamache seems always to be several chess moves ahead of everyone but it is his deeply complex psyche and immensely kind nature that sets him apart.  That being said, to interact with him, the author has created the most human characters in Three Pines and among his Montreal team that you will ever want to meet.  The village of Three Pines is a character all by itself – the fictitious town located in southern Quebec Province near the Vermont border is a place that I actually set out to find on my last road-trip north of the border.  Start with “Still Life” to get the full dose of the characters and the unfolding mysteries; but my favorite page-turner is this one:

How the Light Gets In – Chief Inspector Gamache and his team investigate a murder that unearths mysteries surrounding the Ouellet quintuplets more than 50 years ago while an insidious plot within the Surete du Quebec is realized in Montreal.  Gamache draws on his close relationships with his Three Pines “family” to bring this story to its shocking conclusion.

Also available as an audiobook on Hoopla and both an ebook and an audiobook on Overdrive.

1.  Leaphorn & Chee by Tony Hillerman

It’s not just the breath-taking landscape and the unusually puzzling mysteries that puts this on the top of my list – I must admit, Lt. Joe Leaphorn is my hero.  Yes, his colored pins stuck all over his wall-sized map of the Res and adjacent areas appeal to my ingrained sense of organization, but what draws me to him most is his deep sense of history and his vast familiarity with his environment, all of which contributes to his quiet intelligence that he applies to every puzzle.  And what’s not to like about Jim Chee?  Brave, smart, and sometimes reckless he is always willing to put himself at risk to save those endangered by the perpetrators he intends to apprehend.  When Leaphorn and Chee team up they cannot be beat.

A Thief of TimeNavajo Tribal Police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee set out to find a missing archeologist on the Navajo Reservation and end up uncovering secrets from a long forgotten cold case. This story sets a poignant atmosphere that evokes sadness and joy, simultaneously, and keeps the reader wondering how the mystery will unfold right up to the exciting finish.

Also available as an ebook on Hoopla.

Honorable Mentions:

1.  Just missing my top 10 but maybe high on the lists of many readers, are two Dashiell Hammett detectives, The Continental Op and Sam Spade, both private eyes based in the San Francisco Bay area of the 1930s.  Not for the faint-hearted, try “Red Harvest” for a gritty and cynical entanglement of the Continental Op with an insidious criminal organization that reads more like a horror story than a mystery.  For a dose of Sam Spade’s detached brand of his own justice, read “The Maltese Falcon”, and don’t just settle for the movie even though Bogart’s iconic portrayal of the hard-boiled P.I. is spot on.

2.  I’m sorry these two police detectives, both creations of Stuart Kaminsky, did not make the list: a. Abe Lieberman, an honorable man investigating dark and dishonorable crimes in contemporary Chicago that highlights the brightest and grimmest spots in that toddlin’ town.  Try “Lieberman’s Law”, wherein Abe helps his wife, Bess, save a north-side synagogue after an egregious attack. b. Moscow Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov, an honest policeman, attempts to solve crimes in a continuously corrupt era that spans the pre- and post-Soviet Union while, at the same time, trying to avoid running afoul of the dangerous powers that be.  Read the Edgar award-winning “A Cold Red Sunrise”, then go back and read the rest.

3.  For an insight into the seamy side of Amsterdam, follow the investigations and activities of police detectives Grjipstra & de Gier but be prepared for some sudden forays into eastern philosophy and mysticism.  A good place to start is with “An Outsider in Amsterdam” by Janwilheim Van de Wetering.

4.  I know what you’re saying – Sherlock Holmes NOT on the list?!  Of course, he is, it’s just that there are so many versions and incarnations of this iconic master of deduction in books, movies, and TV series that it was hard to zero in on one.  So we should just start with his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, and read “A Study in Scarlet” which is the origin story of how Holmes and Watson became a team, and Scotland Yard consultants in 19th Century London.  However, I must give a loud shout-out to the Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman BBC TV series which successfully fast-forwards Holmes & Watson and a whole slew of A. Conan Doyle’s original characters to modern-day London along with intriguing updates of many of the original mysteries.




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