We all love Sherlock Holmes, but maybe by now we’ve loved him enough. There are many great detectives out there. If you’re looking for an eerily intelligent fictional detective who isn’t propping up a deerstalker hat, check out a list of the other best sleuths the world has to offer.
Alex Cross, the protagonist of a series of novels that begin with Along Came A Spider, is the most soft-spoken member of a list that includes several little old ladies. His hobbies include playing the piano, owning a contented cat, and quietly observing social injustice. Choosing to live in the area of Washington populated by the Have-Nots, he spends much of his time as a consulting detective and a psychologist working on the operatic crimes perpetrated on, and by, the Haves. Both dogged and empathetic, he proves that you don’t have to be a jerk to be a great detective—even when people give you every reason to be a jerk.
Peter Wimsey was created, in part, as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. When Dorothy L. Sayers, a scholar and essayist, was feeling depressed about her material circumstances, she would write a scene or two in which the amateur detective sips the finest wine in his opulent townhouse as a prelude to driving out in his 1927 Daimler to attend an auction of ancient documents—or solve a murder. Rich and lighthearted, though burdened with lingering shell-shock due to his time in World War I, Lord Peter Wimsey seems frivolous until he does something spectacularly brilliant. In Whose Body?, the first book in his series, Wimsey’s best moment comes not when he’s squaring off with the murderer, but when he invites a medical student (who unknowingly witnessed part of a crime a week ago) over for dinner. With wine and conversation, he expertly guides the man’s mind back so that he can competently remember a crucial moment, all without letting the guy know he witnessed a crime.
Founder of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana, Ramotswe may be this list’s only real extrovert. For a while her optimism, energy, and kindness blind the perpetrators, and even the reader, to how well she can work out confusing situations. Her books might be too light for people who expect their detectives to constantly find themselves in the middle of sordid, simmering family feuds or become the target of fiendish and well-connected criminal masterminds, but Ramotswe lacks drama, not brains, courage, or talent.
Yes, I know, Batman is the “World’s Greatest Detective,” but anyone can give themselves a title. Does Batman have a magic nose that smells when something is wrong? No. Did Batman keep on detecting, in ghost form, after he was dead? No. Does Batman get hired by J’onn J’onzz, a Martian who works on Earth as a detective, to be a detective for him? No. So Batman loses this one. Ralph Dibny is literally a detective’s detective. Suck on that, Batman.
Charlie Chan is a controversial character. His comic strips, his books, his movies, and his radio shows are very much “of their time”; Chan often speaks in broken English, has a perpetual grin, and won’t stop with the aphorisms. But in 1925, when The House Without a Key came out, he was the most positive Chinese character ever yet introduced to American and European audiences. Since then, Chan has inspired interpretations through five decades and on three continents. What’s more, he was based on a real guy. Chang Apana was an American detective working in Hawaii. Smart and badass (he sported a bullwhip), he inspired Earl Derr Biggers to write someone other than the typical British gentleman detective. There’s no denying that the works are offensive, but Chan is still smart and capable.
Fat, fussy, and set in his ways, Nero Wolfe doesn’t do much except eat and think. But then, he doesn’t have to do anything else, because he does both of those things so well. Do not, under any circumstances, open a book about him without having something to eat in front of you. Doing so means torturing yourself with descriptions of shad roe and roast duck and big breakfasts.
Wolfe is the closest detective on this list to the Holmesian model, in that we can never see him except through the eyes of his chronicler, Archie Goodwin. Unlike Holmes, though, we expect no feats of strength or derring-do from Wolfe. He talks, he listens, he thinks, and the case is solved.
Jessice Fletcher is the old lady we all want to turn into. She has plenty of money to travel around the country, fame due to her writing career, professional contacts in every police department around the world (and meets Tom Selleck during a crossover episode with Magnum P.I.), and she lives in a town in which all her annoying neighbors get murdered.
Fletcher is one of the more stripped-down detectives on this list. Other than being a writer, she doesn’t have too many eccentricities. She doesn’t fall for the wrong person. She doesn’t waste her time with meaningless drama. She doesn’t burden herself with eccentricities of dress or manner. She just gets the damn job done. Compared to Jessica, Sam Spade is a drama queen.
This guy could be lost among the slew of other fastidious detectives with their eccentric ways and their long, suspense-filled speeches in the drawing room at the end of the book. Through some alchemy, though, Poirot manages to distinguish himself. Perhaps it’s the fact that he appeared in the incomparable Murder on the Orient Express. Maybe it’s the fact that the mustache and accent made him an instant icon, which every single detective spoof can reference easily. Mostly, though, he’s one of the few detectives deliberately meant to look silly—not silly from our perspective, or silly from our time, but just silly. The combination of grandiose ego, low-grade pissiness, good heart, and mangled English grammar makes every moment in a Poirot story a giggle, even when he’s astonishing you with his brilliance.
In a genre that deals very much with the physical, it’s nice to have at least one metaphysical detective. Dirk Gently is, in a way, the anti-Holmes. He explicitly rejects Holmes’ famous maxim, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Dirk does “not want to eliminate the impossible,” and makes a clear case for why. He would rather stretch his mind around seemingly impossible concepts (which, according to him, just means admitting there might be a few things we don’t know about physical reality), than believe in things that seem to run entirely contrary to human nature. Look, it makes sense when he explains it. Or maybe it doesn’t make sense, but he’s still right in all the books.
What makes Miss Marple stories interesting, especially the ones told in the television series, is the contrast. Miss Marple is the sweetest and most grandmotherly lady anyone could possibly wish to have tea with. She travels to the most picturesque villages in England. And as she chats with people over crumpets and jam, she reveals the roiling cauldron of resentment, pain, murder, abuse, and incest that lies just under the surface of every town she visits. Every single one of this woman’s vacations have her stumbling over things that Rust Cohle only comes across once a decade. How she doesn’t start burning herself just to feel something is beyond me. But no, she just knits in her train car on the way to the next atrocity.
Smart, tough, and preternaturally cocky, Veronica Mars is the teenager we all wanted to be—even those of us who are adults. But she isn’t just the perfect teenager for the audience to project themselves onto. Mars has the knack of maintaining flaws—being too mouthy for her own good, always going for the wrong guy, taking advantage of her friends without a second thought—that we can recognize as problems, but that we are unable to condemn her for. As for her particular strengths, while all the characters on this list are clever, only Veronica Mars really delights in her cleverness, and how she can use it to set traps for the jerks she goes up against. No other detective on this list had that much fun being that mean.
Oh, and just one more thing.
Listen there’s one more thing.
There is just one more thing.
I’m sorry, just one more thing.
We could listen to variations on that sentence for years.... and we did. There’s really no one better than the avuncular detective who lets his subjects breathe easy for one moment before wheeling around and pinning them to the wall. It’s not just substance that puts a detective on a list of the world’s greatest detectives—it’s style. And this guy’s style dictated the climax of every story. We sat through the rest of the story, on the edge of our seats, just to get to the part where he would casually mention “one more thing.” And then we knew that he had won.