Friday, November 05, 2010

Top 10 Fictional Detectives

Mystery is one of the earliest genres of fiction that I grew to love (The first, aside from comic book or cartoon themes, would be fantasy.  Then again, fantasy also has elements of mystery).  I would grow to love most genres, but the mystery genre is special.  There is always something exciting and thrilling from the suspense brought by the unknown.

The mystery genre heavily romanticized the detective character.  Their observational, deductive, and analytical skills seemed to be superhuman. They made the solution to a difficult problem that baffled us – the audience – seemed so obvious and logical that it made us slap our foreheads and say, “Why did I not think of that?”  Moreover, we envy them for the adventures and excitement they enjoyed on their cases.

I have some favorites from these bunch of romanticized detectives.  As I’ve said, I love the mystery genre, thus, I am exposed to many of these characters in pop culture.  However, there are a lot of them, thus, I am also unexposed to heaps more of them.  Many say that Monk (from the TV show of the same name) is one of the best, but I can’t tell since I wasn’t able to watch him in action.  Same goes with a boy named Encyclopedia Brown.  I was not able to read his books.

Nevertheless, from the collection of fictional detectives that I am familiar with, I pick a ten.  Here you go:


Even if I have more “Hardy Boys” books than “Nancy Drew” ones, even if I’m a boy, and even if I enjoyed the stories about the Hardies than Nancy, I pick Nancy over the Hardy Boys.  No, it’s not because this list is made up of almost entirely of male characters and I have to add at least one female. No, not that reason.   Why then?  Well, I find that the Hardy Boys have the advantage of being able to work on a case together.  And two heads are better than one.  Still, Nancy had her successes with no partner at all.  So one way we can interpret this is that Nancy’s smart enough for two Hardy Boys.  It is also advantageous to face the danger when there are two of you, and Nancy – a girl at most – faces it alone.  Nothing against girls, but boys are physically (and, often, psychologically) stronger and more durable.  So it is impressive that even if she is limited by her sex (physically), she boldly jumps at mystery and danger. 

Not convinced?  Well, okay, I admit.  I added Nancy Drew because this list needs at least one girl.  The 10th spot can go either way, to the Hardy Boys or to Nancy.  But, I still think Nancy has an edge.  By a hair (and a pretty reddish-blonde hair at that).


Yes, I have read more “Nancy Drew” and “Hardy Boys” books than “3 Investigators” books, but I think that the 3 Investigators – made up of Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews – are better detectives than the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew… put together.  Really.   

Usually, I find that Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys solve their cases more by the help of lucky coincidences rather than awesome detective skills.  Sure, Nancy and the Hardies are cool with all that sleuthing, but I see them lacking in analytical skills.  3 Investigators, however, have the combination of energy for sleuthing and rad analytical skills.  Or at least Jupiter Jones.  Jupe is actually the one among the three that has the admirable detective mental talents.  He’s smart; has great stock knowledge and observational and logical talents.  The other two – Pete and Bob – are more of “enablers” when Jupe is thinking, the muscles when the going gets tough (mostly Pete), the cheerers, or data gatherers (Jupe, then, would analyze the data).  Nonetheless, they are a great team and deserve my number nine spot in this list.


I was not able to read even at least one of Donald J. Sobol’s award-winning “Encyclopedia Brown” books, but I did read his “Two-Minute Mysteries” books, in which a case follows the same format of an Encyclopedia Brown case but shorter (can be read in two minutes) and are more for teens and grownups (as Encyclopedia Brown was for kids.)  The hero of these two-minute mysteries is the famous Dr. Haledjian, a brilliant criminologist.  He is smart and sharp, who has an amazing talent for noticing the details and has knowledge on many facts.


The main protagonist of Psych is a unique detective (at least, the first I encountered in fiction).  As a child, his father – a cop – trained him extensively on observation, memory, and deduction.  Thus, he grew up to have genius-level detective skills: great observation skills, an eidetic memory (which revealed later on as something he inherited from his mother, and not really from the exercises), and deductive skills.  He is able to quickly logically interpret what the data he got from his observation mean (like being able to describe a person or past event accurately).  With these skills present, he often made tips to the police hotline, until the police started being suspicious, thinking that the information he gave at one time is so clear that they presume he was an inside source.  To avoid getting himself into police custody, he pretended that he was a psychic.  This would ultimately lead Shawn – with his bestfriend Burton Guster – to form a psychic detective agency called “Psych” (for the kicks of the adventures it can bring).  From then on, police regularly ask “Psych” as consultant in some of their cases. 

Shawn is always wacky and joking around, and seems to be solely motivated by the fun a case or activity can bring.  However, this actually helps him think and helps get rid of the pressure (as shown in the first “Mr. Yin/Yang” episode).  Moreover, as one character implied, Shawn is ashamed of the great intelligence he has and that’s why he acts juvenile.    

Intelligent but tinges of childishness, irresponsibility, clumsiness and immaturity.  This is the most interesting thing about Shawn.


Shinichi Kudo is a 17-year old high school student and a famous amateur detective.  He was able to solve difficult cases that even professionals were not able to solve.   Then at one time, while he was on an investigation, he was assaulted and was forced to swallow a pill that turned him back to a child.  Being transformed into a child, he took the name Conan Edogawa (combination of two detective writers’ names) on himself.  He now lives with Ran Mori (Kudo’s love interest and friend), who has a private detective as a father.  Her father, Kogoru Mori, is greatly incompetent in deduction.  However, as Conan tags along with his cases, Conan would solve the cases behind the scenes and then he would give the credit of the solved cases to Mori.    

Personally, I find the show’s theme of “hero being turned into a child” completely unnecessary.  Why not just make an outright detective anime?  Something without ridiculous “pills-that-can-make-one-a-child-again” elements. Make the hero either a teenage detective or child detective and not a teenage detective turned child.  However, the Japanese anime “Detective Conan” is one the most entertaining animes ever created since the cases are interesting and it is fun to watch Conan in his investigations.


He would have ranked higher in this list if he appeared in more than just three short stories by Edgar Allan Poe.  Dupin is definitely one of the models from where Sherlock Holmes is conceptualized (by Conan Doyle) from.  He is not a full-time detective, but rather just tackled cases that caught his fancy (i.e. why there are only three stories).  Moreover, the word “detective” was not yet coined when Poe wrote about him.  

He is extremely smart; can absorb and retain data extremely well and has good analytical skills.  In fact, he even “read minds”, just by observing behavior (pretty much like Sherlock Holmes) to the astonishment of the one being observed. 

His detective method is by logical science and creative imagination.  A sort of combination of the objective and the speculative type of reasoning.  An illustration of this creative imagination is when he put himself in the mind of the criminal.  Like Sherlock Holmes, Dupin is portrayed as an ultimate logical and analytical thinking machine that is devoid of any emotion.


I have yet to read an Agatha Christie mystery that involved Miss Marple – the legendary elderly spinster turned amateur detective.  All the Christie books I read involved the equally legendary Hercule Poirot.  Poirot is smart and sharp (yeah, yeah, this description is getting clich├ęd since all of these detectives in this list are).  He works efficiently with logic, piecing together all available information and turning it to a coherent solution.  This would involve analyzing all the suspects and possibilities.  Instead of directly accusing the culprit of the crime, he would, one by one, using a logical-type of reasoning, make the case for the suspects. He would enumerate the logical arguments that presume a suspect is guilty, and then make the counter-arguments against it.  It was as if he is the affirmative and negative sides of a debate rolled into one.  He would analyze the culprit for last. 

Poirot establishes himself as a psychological detective, as he deals more with the people – the suspects and witnesses – rather than the hard evidences (i.e. crime scene).  He is a master manipulator, and often would find a way to make people talk.  To get himself underestimated or to gain these people’s confidences, he would resort to different methods like portraying himself as a sympathetic confidant or telling them lies.   Aside from his detective skills, this ability for grifting or fraud is his greatest asset.


Elijah Baley is the agoraphobic hero of three of the four “Robot” novels (which, though it has several underlying themes, at the core, is a mystery novel in a sci-fi setting) written by Isaac Asimov.  He is a plainclothesman (homicide detective) and was paired with a “humaniform” robot (a robot with human  appearance) named R. Daneel Olivaw (who was first of his kind) to solve a murder.  Being an Earthman, Baley is prejudiced against robots.  However, he had made a strong lifelong friendship with Daneel. 

Baley is an excellent detective.  His methods are very much the same as Hercule Poirot: the use of psychology and logic. He analyzes and discusses all the points of the case – from different perspectives, presenting both arguments and counter-arguments for the guilt of a suspect – in an efficient logical manner.  

Yes, he makes mistakes in his conclusions sometimes.   But the train of logic to that conclusion never breaks.  His arguments are always valid – in a logical sense (since in logic, valid and true does not need to be the same).  In one instance, Baley built a perfect argument against Daneel’s claim that he is a robot.  Since Daneel is the first of his kind, Baley found it hard to believe that such human-like robot is a robot.  Based on a previous experience and other facts as premises, Baley deduced, in a perfect logical context, that Daneel is a human, and what the latter said about being robot was a lie.  Baley was only convinced fully when Daneel finally revealed his interior that proved that he is a machine.


Batman is more known as a badass superhero/vigilante, but he operates in a detective manner.  That’s why one of his comic books is named “Detective Comics” and one of his nicknames is “The World’s Greatest Detective”. As a detective, Batman has proven to be an outstanding observer, proficient investigator and cold, logical thinking machine.         

I already wrote about his character in the previous top 10 list (on comicbook characters), where he was also number two.


No surprise.   Sherlock Holmes gets the first spot on this list.  A long time ago, he became my most favorite fictional character as soon as I read his stories (written by Dr. Watson/Conan Doyle).  His powers of logic, observation, and deduction amazed me.

Holmes considers himself a “consulting detective”, the person Scotland Yard detectives ask for advice when they are stumped by a case.  And, usually, Holmes let the police detective who asked him for advice to have the credit for the solving of the case if it is too easy for his standards (though the detectives who consulted him find it very difficult).  These puzzling mysteries are “elementary” to him.  He also accepts cases from the public, as long as it's unusual and challenging enough to catch his interest.   

Holmes is a better version of C. Auguste Dupin as a dehumanized logical thinking machine.  He strongly scorns emotion, since it can cloud sound judgment.   He gives more importance to the deductive or analytical reasoning, since he claims that deduction is more difficult than induction (but he’s great at both types).  Holmes possesses great observational skills, attention to details, and quick analytical skills to create a train of logical reasoning which arrives at a solution or conclusion.  His most famous analytical dictum is “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”, which I find a very effective advise in elimination of factors.
Aside from his detective skills, he is very versatile and multi-talented.  He is a skilled combatant; an expert in fencing, boxing and baritsu (bartitsu).   He’s a great actor and master of disguise.  He’s an expert in forensic science and chemistry.  He is multi-lingual.   He’s a competent cryptanalyst.  He has a wide scope of interests and knowledge on different subjects.  He loves art and literature (particularly, of the sensational genre, though he also referred to works like the Bible and Shakespeare).  He loves music, and can play the violin.  He also has authorship of several monographs on different subjects.   

His great intellect and versatility makes him a very interesting character and, hands down, the best detective in fiction.

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