Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Question of the Week: Who is your favorite fictional detective?

Let’s face it: As big nerds, we all live in our mom’s basement, eat far too much Taco Bell, rarely interact with non-nerds, have crippling anxiety around the objects of our romantic desires, and hardly ever change out of our sweatpants. Living the dream, baby! So we live vicariously through fictional characters, and while superheroes are the standard, we know we’re probably not going to get bitten by a radioactive spider and given powers, as that would entail leaving the house. But we could be a detective, because we are, after all, so very smart (sitting inside and reading all the time instead of making friends will do that to you), and so we like detective fiction. You know you do!

I have always been a big fan of detective fiction – I used to read a lot more of it than I do today, but I still watch a lot of it on television. I love when Batman actually uses detective skills to solve crimes rather than just scaring the crap out of bad guys. I hardly ever figure things out before the detectives do, but I don’t really consume detective fiction to “figure it out” – I’m perfectly content to float along, enjoying the clue-gathering and shocking twists until the bad guy is revealed. I get annoyed with detective shows on television, as my wife and I always yell “Just arrest that person!” at the first person a detective interviews (even if they’re not a suspect), because it’s always that person!!!! But I still love them. So the Question is: Who’s your favorite?

I’m going a bit out of the box with this. I instantly thought of the Three Investigators, because I loved the Three Investigators when I was a youth, devouring the books over and over. My mom still has most of the ones I read in her house; one of these days I’ll collect them! I haven’t read them in years, though, so I don’t know if I’d still love them as much as when I was but a lad. In the same vein, I have read almost all of the Hercule Poirot mysteries, and I love them – Murder on the Orient Express remains one of my favorite murder mysteries, and Curtain (the final Poirot book) is a wonderful send-off – but I like the books, and not, necessarily, Poirot, who’s kind of a dick. I mean, the Question doesn’t really mean “Who’s the detective you’d most like to hang out with?” but there’s a bit of an element in it, at least to me, and while I like Poirot’s books, I’m not the biggest fan of Poirot himself. If that makes sense.

I don’t count Batman (although I wish I could), and Holmes is fine, too. There are so many television detectives, and many of them are memorable. There are a lot of comics detectives, too, and I dig them, too – the Dibnys come to mind, as do Jennifer Mays and Gabriel Webb – and I like movies with detectives, too, and if I wanted to go even further out of the box, I’d say Daryl Zero is my favorite (I’m not the only one at this blog who digs him). But I’m not going to. I’ve thought about this, and I think my favorite fictional detective is Shawn Spencer.

We loved Psych when it was on, and a big part of that is thanks to James Rodriguez’s portrayal of Shawn. The cast is great – Dulé Hill as Shawn’s put-upon best friend is wonderful, Maggie Lawson as a Santa Barbera cop whom Shawn loves is excellent, Timothy Omundson as Lawson’s straitlaced partner is very funny, and Kirsten Nelson as the cop boss and Corbin Bernsen as Shawn’s father are very good, too. But Rodriguez is so good as Shawn the man-child, who uses his brilliant observational skills to pretend to be psychic, which allows him to live in a fantasy world where he never has to grow up because he’s too busy doing things he (and many nerds) dreamed about when they were kids. Shawn is a huge nerd, mind you, and the fact that he’s more immature than most fictional detectives and therefore the show is about him learning how to be an adult as much as it is about him solving crimes make him much more fascinating. A lot of fictional detectives come fully formed, but not Shawn. The show originally presents him as such, but we soon realize how immature he really is and how much he needs to change. It’s a hilarious show, of course, and it never stays too heavy for too long, but it’s impressive that the showrunners were able to do what they did without making it too dark. Rodriguez is terrific – he’s funny, witty, mendacious, guilt-ridden, smitten, blasé on the surface, loyal, and usually the smartest person in the room, and all of this makes him a fascinating and complex character. Like most television shows, the mysteries can be simplistic at times, but unlike a lot of detective shows, Psych used interesting structures for shows, leaned hard into 1980s nostalgia (because Shawn grew up in the ’80s and, as I noted, never really grew up), and had absolutely superb guest stars, and Rodriguez adapts easily to it all, keeping Shawn “Shawn” but also letting us in on the jokes. It’s harder than it looks, I should think.

If you sat me down and asked me for some of my favorite fictional detectives, I could list a bunch without even breaking a sweat – the ones I’ve already mentioned, but dozens more, as well – but I think Shawn Spencer is still #1. Let me know yours in the comments. And put some pants on, man!


  1. humanbelly

    Oh, really solid question, this– ’cause it spans SO MANY popular genres, yeah? And while it’s a tough call to single one out, I think Bob Bailey’s long tenure as the titular Johnny Dollar in YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR radio program (which ran for about a zillion years), wins just by a nose. Sherlock Holmes would rank a darned close second, though, as he has stayed relevant through about a zillion iterations for nearly 150 years now. The fact that there continue to be successful television series (SHERLOCK; ELEMENTARY) and movies featuring this singular character puts him in a class entirely his own. Dash Hammett’s Continental Op (who was never, ever named in all of his many, many self-narrated cases is probably third in line. And a strong pack following up would be Monk, Columbo, Shawn Spencer, Poirot, and possibly Harry Dresden– (though the “detective” aspect of his stories seriously wanes after the first few books. . . ) Plus a big shout-out to Vincent Price as THE SAINT on that particular radio serial. . .


  2. Holmes, absolutely.
    Perry Mason was my first fictional adult detective, when I read my visiting great-aunt’s copy of “Case of the Duplicate Daughter,” so I’m very fond of him too.
    Edmund Crispin’s Gervaise Fen books are a lot of fun too, with a lot of meta jokes (“It’s called the hook, line and sinker knot because the reader has to swallow it.”).

  3. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

    Any time Frank Mackey shows up in a Tana French book, I get excited.

    I was raised on the Harry Bosch books (was a little too young when I read them).

    I’ve only read a couple of the books, but the Jack Reacher show was an absolute delight.

    As comics go, it’s probably Slam Bradley and Crispus Allen.

  4. Le Messor

    Tracer Bullet.

    we’re probably not going to get bitten by a radioactive spider and given powers, as that would entail leaving the house

    You clearly haven’t seen the spiders that get into houses around here.

  5. Tim Rifenburg

    Great Question. Too many answers for me to whittle down to one. A few were mentioned above.

    TV- I grew up on the TV detectives and Cop dramas so there are so many and a lot of my love for them is tied up into performance. But the two that kept coming back to me were Colombo and Jim Rockford. (Banacek, Thomas Magnum, Gil Grissom were others I kept returning to.)

    Comics – Batman – first one that comes to me even though the detective aspect has been under used in the last 20 years. When done right he is still the best. (Jennifer Mays, Ms. Tree, are high up as well.)

    Books – Most of my choices are modern because I haven’t read enough of the classic detectives to have a read on enough of them. Nero Wolfe I have read more than other classic detectives. Out of the series and characters I followed and read Robert B Parker’s Spenser and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone are the two that embodied the detective aspect wrapped with character and setting.

    Ask tomorrow and I would answer differently.

  6. Edo Bosnar

    Don’t know if I’d pick Shawn Spencer, but I agree that Psych is a really fun and deceptively brilliant show.

    Personally, I’m not really sure I have an absolutely favorite detective; I do like a good detective/crime/thriller story, but often I like the writing more than any of the individual main characters (e.g., Hammett is probably my favorite writer in that genre, but none of his detectives, like Spade, the Continental Op or even the quite personable Nick & Nora Charles, stick in my head as favorites).
    Ultimately, I think I’ll have to go with detectives who are likeable and memorable characters as well as capable detectives. The first is one I discovered pretty recently, thanks to a recommendation from Greg Hatcher: Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, the private detective operating in Santa Theresa, CA (a thinly disguised Santa Barbara) in the 1980s. As Tim indicated above, she’s a great character: tough and intelligent, but not a force of nature like Batman or virtually uncanny super-sleuth like Holmes, and she has a lot of endearing quirks, like occasionally munching on peanut butter and pickle sandwiches.
    The second is Columbo: I’ve always loved the way he pretty much figures out who the likely culprit is right away and then lets whoever it is tie their own noose. There’s also the added factor that I learned to appreciate later: a rumbled, unassuming guy from a presumably working class background who outsmarts mainly rich entitled sociopaths.

    And I’ll give an honorable mention to Max Allan Collins’ Quarry, the former hitman who made a career switch and now takes out other hitmen. There’s always detective work involved, because in most of the novels he has to figure out who ordered the hit.

    1. conrad1970

      I love the fact that Columbo was the first detective series that let the audience know who the murderer was from the get go. Think the producers also though it was going to fail because who would watch a show where the killer was revealed at the beginning.
      Actually I can’t recall any other series that has followed up on that idea.

    2. Greg Burgas

      Really, the only problem I have with Columbo is that he literally never has any hard evidence – either he just has suspicions or very circumstantial evidence, and he just lets the bad guy confess and damn themselves. I mean, come on, bad guys!

  7. conrad1970

    I love the fact that Columbo was the first detective series that let the audience know who the murderer was from the get go. Think the producers also though it was going to fail because who would watch a show where the killer was revealed at the beginning.
    Actually I can’t recall any other series that has followed up on that idea.

  8. humanbelly

    Oh, good call Eric van Schaik on Tom Barnaby (I assume the original lead in that series is yer favorite? I’m still plenty fond of his. . . cousin?. . . John, make no mistake). I plumb forgot to take all of the British television detective fare into consideration-! And while a lot of those may fall into a grey area between Detective shows and Police Procedurals, my take is that if the formula usually leans into a big solution/reveal at the end (a whodunnit) or a miscreant being identified and snared via investigation and clue-gathering (a howcatchem), then it counts as a detective story. AND since Greg cited The Three Investigators early in his post, I’ll take that as putting the Team model on the table for consideration, SO— I’m going to put the much-missed NEW TRICKS ‘way up high on my personal list. Even though there’s not an individual detective to pull out as the “favorite” exactly. In fact, given that the four lead characters in the final season were not the same ones we’d started with 10 years prior, I’d say the concept, the gestalt, and the casting director might have combined to become the Favorite Detective in that instance.


      1. humanbelly

        Heh– “HB” being short for “Humanbelly”, naturally— which was a name I came up with on the fly pretty much just to bug my daughter as she was helping me figure out my first commenter-profile, like, 12 years ago. You can still hear the echos of her eye-rolling around the house late at night. . .

        And yeah– while I respect the Inspector Morse series well enough– and will watch it in a pinch– it doesn’t grab me as much as it does my wife. It can be ASTONISHINGLY slow-moving an awful lot– and not in a suspenseful or moody or poignant way. Just. . . . ponderously slow-paced.


  9. tomfitz1

    BURGAS: The movie, Zero Effect, is one of my favorite films, brilliantly played by Bill Pullman and his sidekick, Ben Stiller.

    I often wished that they did more movies together.

    As for tv, MONK, was awesome. Funny, serious, and sometimes, sad. Tony Shalhoub nailed his character.

    As for comics, The MAZE AGENCY, was also well written by Mike W Barr, and tons of awesome artists.

  10. Chris Schillig

    Great post, great comments!

    I have to go with Sherlock Holmes, just because he’s the template for so many others (and because Conan Doyle’s stories are consistently solid).

    In the comics realm, I loved the RUSE series from Crossgen.

    Because I’m watching Chinatown right now, I also have to throw the name of Jake Gittes into the mix.

    I’m currently reading the second Archer novel by David Baldacci and enjoying it.

  11. jccalhoun

    I’m not much of a mystery reader. I’ve read a few Sherlock Holmes and a couple Agatha Christies. On tv I rewatched the Rockford Files a few years ago and enjoyed it.

    I also liked the Three Detectives as a kid.

    I think my favorite, although I’ve only read the first novel, is Nero Wolf. I’ve been listening to the radio show New Adventures of Nero Wolf when I’m having trouble sleeping and although it only ran one season and some of the mysteries aren’t great, I really enjoy the characters of Nero and Archie and their interactions.

  12. Darthratzinger

    The Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr. Great whodunits in a fascinating setting which Kerr absolutely nails (the first novel is partly set in my hometown and he gets the historical characters absolutely right).
    Honorary mentions go to Travis McGee (Greg Hatcher`s repeated praise turned me onto the books and I devoured them in one summer. It´s a good sign if I´m sad after finishing the last novel) and John Rebus (a very similar read-through except during fall/winter which is more appropriate for the scottish setting).
    When it comes to TV shows the first one that comes to mind is Foyles War. So so good. I´m just a sucker for WWII settings.

  13. Jeff Nettleton

    I haven’t read a ton of detective fiction (Holmes, a little Hammett, a couple of Spillane, some of The Saint, some odds & ends); but, I have read a bit of the “weird detective” subgenre. For that, I would say it would be the agents of Kim Newman’s Diogenes Club: Charles Beauregard, Kate Reed, Edwin Winthrop, Catriona Kay, Richard Jeperson, Vanessa and associate Sally Rhodes. Mostly, it would be the vampire Genevieve Dieudonne, who has aided the Diogenes Club, across the decades, as well as fought the machinations of Vlad Tepes, in an alternate continuity. She has done some detective work there (as has Kate Reed and Charles Beauregard) with an alternate Diogenes Club, as well as on her own, in the Los Angeles and Baltimore areas.

    As for tv, it is first and foremost Lt Frank Columbo, followed by private investigator Jim Rockford. Both were extremely well written, with great character actors in the roles, and terrific supporting casts and guest stars. Columbo was brilliant because you saw how the crime occurred, then watched Columbo find a thread, a flaw, pull on it, and unravel the mystery. Rockford was the ever put-upon, lied to, and generally annoyed private eye, who still managed to come out on top, without sticking out his neck too much.

    On the other side of the pond, it would by DCI (later DCS) Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren. Tennison is like a dog, gnawing on a bone until she gets at the truth, never letting up, always piecing together slivers that her smarmy male colleagues miss and then pursuing the suspect, no matter their political or social connections. Tennison has sacrificed her personal and family life for her career and she is nearly a trainwreck, by her last case, but she finds her way through. I wish they would return for one last special, with her in retirement, maybe having found a measure of stability and happiness.

    The other would be DCI Jack Frost, played by David Jason. Frost is much like Columbo, though more of a plodder, who meanders around a bit, but gets there in the end. Jason is terrific and makes Frost a real person, playing both his noble and negative qualities with equal gusto,. Of course, he was also the voice for The World’s Greatest Secret Agent, Danger Mouse!

  14. Lee

    I think I’ll go with Ellery Queen — there’s something I really dig about the author and the character having the same name (I know the author wasn’t *really* named Ellery Queen, of course). And the Ellery Queen brand obviously has a long life, from books, to kids books, to a radio show, to a TV series, to the Mystery Magazine.

    And an honorable mention goes to the first fictional detective I encountered when I was just a kid: Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, in the series of books by Donald J. Sobol.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      There was also the Adventures of Ellery Queen radio show and the Ellery Queen Minute Mystery. The earlier show would feature guest “detectives,” who would hear a mystery played out, then offer their solution, before Ellery Queen would give the correct solution.

      The later show was a short piece, syndicated at various radio stations, where they would play the initial mystery description, and a caller would try to solve it, for a prize, then Ellery would give the actual solution and resolution. My local radio station ran this, when I was a kid, in the 70s. I usually got the answer correctly 2/3 of the time.

  15. humanbelly

    Checked in with my daughter– my long-time television mystery watching cohort, and she surprised me! I was expecting Shawn Spencer, because PSYCHE is pretty much her favorite show of all time– but her immediate response was Johnny Dollar-! And then she waffled a bit, ’cause she also wanted to say Nick & Nora Charles from the THIN MAN film series. I cannot express how much that tickles me. ‘Cause my daughter is only 22, but has this HUGE appreciation for Golden Age entertainment—

    HB again–

  16. John King

    my favourites would be Jim Rockford, Adrian Monk and Conan Edogawa

    One thing that annoys me in Detective stories is when the detective dismisses out of hand the person who to me is obviously the killer … such as one episode of a TV series in which only one suspect has a significant history with the victim which possibly includes a guilty secret linked to an earlier murder … and the detective accepts her claim that she was the intended victim (until after the second murder)

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