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5 of Our Favourite Famous Fictional Private Detectives & Investigators

Inspired by famous private detectives from real life, such as Eugène-François Vidocq, fictional detectives capture the imagination of readers and audiences like no other characters. Detective fiction is so popular that it forms its own genre of literature.
There are some significant differences between fictional private eyes and real-life investigators, particularly concerning legal limitations. Still, we’re not sure that the industry would have survived to this day without the captivating image of PIs that comes from popular works of fiction.
Because of this, we think it’s only right that we pay homage to the great detectives of fiction with an article. Here’s a quick rundown of our favourite PIs in literature, film, and television.

Sherlock Holmes

Created by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most universally recognised private detective of all time. Accompanied by his friend and assistant, Dr Watson, Holmes works to solve mysteries for the powerful elite of London. The character appears in 56 short stories and 4 novels, and there are over 250 major adaptations of these stories. In 2012, Guinness World Records honoured the character as the “most portrayed human literary character in film and television.”

Sherlock Holmes is a character ofgreat contrast. Between frantic bouts of near-frightening genius, he demonstrates profound human fallibility. Analytical but chaotic, detached yet affectionate, duty-bound but self-serving, Holmes’ great inconsistency has permanently endeared him to English readership.

Given the overwhelming amount of choice, it’s hard to pick a favourite adaptation, but the wildly popular Steven Moffat creation, Sherlock, has a special place in our hearts. The BBC television series sees Benedict Cumberbatch accurately capture the true, maverick spirit of the character.

Sam Spade

Sam Spade is a character created by Dashiell Hammett for his novel The Maltese Falcon, first released as a serial in a pulp magazine. Though not as famous as some of the other detectives on this list, he is the first real example of the archetypical private detective in fiction.
Sam Spade has many vices, which, although now played out cliches, were then more unique and original. He’s shown to be a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking womaniser with a quick wit and a sharp tongue. It’s clear that these almost genre-defining attributes have heavily influenced hundreds of fictional detectives that have followed.
The character is best remembered by Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal in the 1948 adaptation of the novel. Playing Spade’s character clearly positively affected Bogart’s later portrayal of Philip Marlowe in the film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
The novel doesn’t describe the thoughts, feelings, or motivations of its characters, instead focusing solely on actions, words, and appearances. This means that the character of Sam Spade was open to a more significant degree of interpretation than most characters, which may explain why the first two film adaptations were such box-office failures.

Magnum PI

The character of Thomas Magnum has a cult status that survives to this day. Tom Selleck portrayed the flawed everyman in the TV series Magnum, P.I., which ran from 1980 to 1988. The series serves as a staple of 80s television and provides one of the most compelling depictions of a fictional private investigator of all time.
The character was initially conceived with the same strength and machismo as other fictional detectives, like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. However, after consulting with Selleck, producers decided a more ordinary characterisation would improve Magnum’s mass appeal. The character’s thoughts and feelings are revealed through voice-over narration, helping audiences identify with him, and often providing comedic relief in otherwise tense situations.
Keeping Magnum grounded proved to be an effective strategy. Although he gets involved in dozens of high-drama cases, he maintains his appeal as an average man. The identification that viewers felt with the character has left the programme beloved by millions across the world.

Mma Precious Ramotswe

Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series provides the only female character on this list. A welcome relief from the nauseatingly masculine cliché of the private detective, Mma Precious Ramotswe establishes her private detective agency to help her female peers in Gaborone, Botswana.
In the novels, Mma Ramotswe works with her loyal and dedicated secretary, Mma Grace Makutsi, to solve cases much closer to the ones we see in real life. The novels portray investigation in a decidedly feminine way, with the cases serving as facilitators to character exploration rather than glorifying one male protagonist.
Mma Ramotswe is depicted as an intelligent, headstrong, patriotic woman with a tragic past. She treats her clients with dignity and takes a gentle, intuitive approach to solving cases. Although she behaves in accordance with her strict moral principles, she has a somewhat lax view of the law.

The BBC produced a television series based on the novels, which was broadcast in 2009. It was well-received by critics but was cancelled after just one series.

Hercule Poirot

For British audiences, Hercule Poirot is one of the most recognisable private detective characters of all time. Created by prolific writer Agatha Christie over 100 years ago, Poirot has been depicted in over 80 different works of fiction. The stories form the basis of the ITV programme Agatha Christie’s Poirot, which ran from 1989 to 2013 and is considered by many to be a cultural staple of British television.

Poirot is depicted as an elderly, Belgian, moustache-toting ex-policeman. He’s intelligent, well dressed, and politely mannered. The character’s likeability was unintentional, with Christie describing him as a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.” Still, the character’s popularity with the public ensured his survival as a mainstay of fictional private investigation.

Honourable Mentions

Paul Drake

Paul Drake is the droll fictional private detective in the Perry Mason novels and short stories. Although not quite unique enough to warrant a spot on the list, Paul Drake is a popular, well-developed character created by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys

Created by the Stratemeyer Syndicate in the late 1920s, these characters were introduced to sell detective fiction to children. Despite their wild popularity and prominent position in US culture, the characters don’t quite make our list because of their hollow corporate origins. The books are still in print, being ghostwritten by several different authors.

Philip Marlowe

Philip Marlowe is by far the most popular character we’ve left off the list. In fact, he’s so popular that he’s already been mentioned twice in this list, which deliberately tried not to mention him. Created by Raymond Chandler and immortalised by Humphrey Bogart, Marlowe is one of the most famous fictional detectives of all time. 

We felt he was too similar to Sam Spade for us to include both characters in the list. Unfortunately for our friend Phil, Sam got there first, so we decided to include him instead.

At Private Investigations UK, we love detective fiction, but we love real-life investigation more. For free, confidential advice, please call 0800 002 0898. Alternatively, please fill out this contact form, and one of our agents will get back to you today.

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