The 10 Best Fictional Detectives (Who Aren’t Sherlock or Poirot)

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The 10 Best Fictional Detectives (Who Aren’t Sherlock or Poirot)

Everyone knows the superstars of detective fiction. There’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and his 7% solution, and Agatha Christie dreamed up Hercule Poirot and the little grey cells along with Miss Marple’s patented harmless old lady act. Many of the detectives who followed take their cues from one of those three archetypes. The oddly-behaving detectives (who may or may not be explicitly “on the spectrum”), like Professor T and Astrid, are the heirs of Sherlock. Knives Out’s Benoit Blanc is a blonde Poirot with a Foghorn Leghorn accent. And Jessica Fletcher inherited her sweet old woman brand straight from Marple. 

But those are not the only detectives solving murder mysteries on the page (or on the screen). And while comic book heroes like Batman and Jessica Jones would technically fall into these categories, their criminal masterminds and feats of derring-do put them in a different category. From actually accredited detectives to wealthy dilettantes to those in business for themselves, there are plenty of detectives for fans to check out when they get tired of Doyle and Christie and need something more than imitations.

Here are some of the greatest detectives from the literary world that mystery lovers should make sure they’ve read for well-rounded crime solving.


Peter Wimsey Mysteries Whose Body cover

Lord Peter Wimsey

Dorthy L. Sayers may not be at the same level of household name as Agatha Christie, but her Wimsey novels are not to be missed, and neither is her detective, Lord Peter (who eventually becomes the 17th Duke of Denver). Wimsey is of the amateur detective school of crime solving and the model of every wealthy detective of means getting down in the dirt and blood to solve a murder. 

From his initial bumbling onto the page in 1923’s Whose Body? to his love affair with the brilliant Harriet Vane and their not-so-murder-free marriage in 1937’s Busman’s Honeymoon, this ten-book series is a delight for anyone who loves a spot of literary romance with their crime.


No 1 ladies Detective Agency cover

Mma Precious Ramotswe

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series (which was adapted into a TV series in 2008) is currently at 23 books and counting, having slowly become a sleeper hit since they were first published in 1998. The heroine, Mma Precious Ramotswe, may have just opened the first private detective agency run by a woman in Botswana, but this is no period piece. These contemporary-set novels center themselves in a young country and a culture that most white American readers would do well to learn more about. 

Ramotswe opens her agency after she loses her child and her husband leaves her. Her cases are just solved by women, but for women, with most cases rooted in the unfairness of the patriarchal culture, where mysteries involve missing husbands and sons who disappear without a word or girls who are kidnapped. 


Fadeout cover

Dave Brandstetter 

Joseph Hansen’s hardboiled private eye Dave Brandsetter is outwardly everything you’d expect from a detective introduced in the 1970s, an era of Clint Eastwood asking punks if they felt lucky and Charles Bronson opting not to waste his breath with such questions. Brandsetter is old-school, sardonic, brash, and violent, like Bogie in The Maltese Falcon. He also just so happens to be LGBTQ+.

Not only is Brandsetter gay (Hansen clearly despises that term, using “homosexual”), but he’s out to everyone, not bothering to hide it from his clients, family, and colleagues. (Technically, he’s an “insurance investigator,” but somehow that means solving murders too.) The early works are pre-AIDS and reflect an LGBTQ+ society that’s now somewhat forgotten. In contrast, the later ones, including his final Brandsetter book, 1991’s A Country of Old Men, are a reminder of what it was to live through the crisis and award winners for a good reason.


Still Midnight cover

Alex Morrow

Denise Mina’s female detective Alex Morrow is not a loner, a damaged person, or bitter toward society. She’s a proud working-class Scottswoman who loves her family, with a husband and kids at home. She just also happens to solve crimes as her day job. Though considering that the lines between criminality and legality sometimes depend on just how much money the suspect has. 

The Alex Morrow Series, which begins with Still Midnight and consists of five books so far, also isn’t a typical crime-solving set of stories. These books study society’s underclasses, how the social safety net can fail, and how those who slip through the cracks get by. But it’s worth it to see the world through Morrow’s eyes. 


Father Brown Detective Mysteries cover

Father Brown

One of the few detective series that’s lasted over a century, Father Brown, the crime-solving Catholic priest dreamed up by English author G. K. Chesterton, is another archetype many have followed since his debut. Though he might be a bit Holmesian in his powers of deduction, there’s nothing worldly or drug-addled about this detective. His innocence is part of why he finds humans so fascinating.

Originally published between 1910-1936, Father Brown novels are not just books made into multiple TV series; they’re also perfect period classics for other detectives to read, whether they’re working in the 1920s or the 2020s. The solidly written stories and surprise twists are why these books are still popular today.


Kate Delafield Detective Mysteries

Kate Delafield

The Kate Delafield Series by Katherine V. Forrest perfectly encapsulates later Los Angeles set-noir, debuting in the mid-1980s. The Canadian-born Forrest’s LAPD Detective is a tough-as-nails ex-Marine and was thoroughly brought up to buy into the American belief in The Law. The fact that she’s LGBTQ+ during the height of the AIDS crisis and homophobia in America is just a tiny fact she keeps on the down low from her mainly male colleagues.

However, Forrest doesn’t keep Kate’s sexuality off the page. These are no chaste drawing room mysteries, as Kate gets down a surprising amount over the ten-book series. Her books have also been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award almost every year she published since it was founded, and in 1999, she took home its Foundation’s Pioneer Award.


Dalgliesh Detective cover


Adam Dalgliesh

P.D. James is, at this point, almost as well known as Agatha Christie is in the U.K., but her detective novels have never quite found the same foothold in mainstream American culture. However,  most readers have probably at least heard of her poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, whose stories have been adapted multiple times for television by the BBC. 

Starting in 1962, James wrote fourteen mysteries featuring Dalgliesh and his poetic sensibilities. Like Sayers, her books are more drawn from literary tropes and fun for the bookish nerd to dive into as much as the mystery one. 


The Surgeon Rizzoli.& Isles mystery cover

Rizzoli & Isles 

Most people have only heard of Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles via the Turner Network series that bears their names, but long before they hit TV, the Boston-based detective and medical examiner were the stars of a series of novels by Tess Gerritsen. They still are, in fact! Though Gerritsen tried to retire in 2017, she wound up just writing new stories “at a reduced pace,” with her latest pandemic-inspired mystery, Listen to Me, arriving on bookshelves in 2022.

Isles may be from the Holmes school of odd personalities, but like any gender-flipped take on the famous detective, making her a woman. In this case, a doctor changes the model enough to feel fresh and interesting. Pairing her off with the bold and angry Rizzoli created a dynamic that practically jumps off the page.


Murders in the Rue Morgue cover

Auguste Dupin

Most people (wrongly) assume that Sherlock Holmes was the first detective in fiction. He’s undoubtedly the earliest that most people have heard of, but he was predated. The first detective in literary fiction to wander abouit solving crimes was Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. The character first debuted in the 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (which is considered by most to be the first detective fiction story) and went on to star in two more of Poe’s tales. 

Dupin supposedly came from wealth but now lives in “reduced circumstances” in Poe’s telling. He is not a detective; the word was not yet used as a noun or a vocation at this point; it wasn’t until 1850 that it began to be used the way we think of it today. Instead, his talent is in “ratiocination,” which combines intellect with imagination to put himself in the mind of the criminal. Criminal Minds would be so proud.


Report for Murder cover

Lindsay Gordon

Val McDermid is one of the most influential crime writers working today, to the point that she claims the Agatha Christie estate threatened to sue if she let anyone call her “The Queen of Crime.” Several of her detectives, from clinical psychologist Tony Hill to DCI Karen Pirie, have even made it to the small screen. However, her first crime solver, journalist-turned-PI Lindsay Gordon, resonates most off the page.

In her 1987 debut in Report for Murder, Gordon is described as cynical and “a socialist lesbian feminist.” However, the character is, in fact, profoundly empathetic and spends as much time working at solving murders as she does questioning the moral decisions her job demands. It’s a delicate balancing act, and her six stories deserve an adaptation or two of their own. The least anyone can do while we wait is read them.

Ani Bundel is an Associate Editor at PBS/WETA’s Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by Anglophiles for Anglophiles. A self-taught journalist from the school of hard knocks, Ani came up blogging in the fast-turn-around era. Ani’s other regular bylines can be found on CNN, NBC News, and more.

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