We love reading mystery books for the intrigue, the suspense, the puzzles—and yes, also for the characters. Here are eight classic mystery characters who keep us returning to sleuth alongside them, again and again.
Auguste C. Dupin
Though Dupin only appears in three short stories, Edgar Allen Poe’s brilliant creation pretty much kick-started the genre of detective fiction. A nobleman fallen on hard times, the Chevalier lives in Paris in a grand, decaying house in which the drapes are always shut and ventures out onto the city streets only after night has fallen (For, like all true Goths, Dupin despises sunlight). He solves crimes—including the original “locked room mystery” "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841)—using a process Poe dubbed “ratiocination”, which is the application of logical thought to the evidence. The original hyper-intelligent amateur sleuth, Dupin sparkles on the page like moonlight on water.
Arthur Conan Doyle had a Victorian attitude to sex and it features only very obliquely in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Quite a surprise then that, in Irene Adler, Sir Arthur should more or less have invented that classic crime staple the femme fatale. Seductively beautiful, fiercely intelligent and – by the standards of Britain at the time—overtly sexy, the former operatic diva from New Jersey appears in just one story "The Scandal in Bohemia"—but her presence lingers at 221b Baker Street like a musky waft of perfume. Adler haunts Holmes’ dreams and he becomes uncharacteristically fuzzy whenever he recalls the person he refers to simply as “The Woman”.
Miss Jane Marple
Every English village has its busybody, generally a retired, white haired lady who knows everything that is going on, gathering information from visitors over scones and tea and connecting the dots. Christie turned this staple figure of English life into a memorable master detective. Miss Marple’s shrewd eye for human weakness and folly is first exercised on her neighbors in St Mary Mead in the 1927 short story "The Tuesday Night Club", but she’s soon solving crimes all over England, tackling even the most ruthless criminals with nothing more than a steely gaze, moral certainty and a hat pin. Never far from a slice of fruitcake and a chintz armchair, Miss Marple is the Godmother of cozy crime.
Agatha Christies’ Murder on the Orient Express is arguably the most famous classic mystery of all time. The most memorable character in it—Samuel Ratchett—is actually dead for most of the book. In creating the monstrous Ratchett, Christie borrowed from Charles Dickens and gave her hideous creation a suitably ugly name (it’s hard not to think of the equally gruesome Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Ratchett first appears in the novel as a fearful businessman seeking Hercule Poirot’s assistance, but he’s soon murdered and, as the luxury train rumbles onwards into the snowy Alps, the true awfulness of the victim becomes apparent. Ratchett is the most memorable corpse in all of crime fiction.
Rex Stout’s gloriously eccentric private eye—who made his first appearance in 1934—is the very opposite of an action hero. Wolfe is in late-middle age, weighs 272 pounds and is reluctant ever to leave the made-to-measure armchair in his luxurious New York City brownstone. Instead he relies on others to do his legwork, while he concentrates his brilliant mind on the crime at hand. An enthusiastic gourmet, champion orchid grower, expert darts player and a connoisseur of beer fifty years before hipsters discovered hop varieties, Wolfe is always entertaining company—the private detective you’d most like to have dinner with (especially if it’s prepared by his personal chef, Fritz Brenner).
Raymond Chandler’s classic noir PI, embodies a particular kind of hard-boiled male romanticism. Wearing a sharp suit, with whisky on his breath and a wise crack on his lips, he is fearless and uncomplaining, untainted and unafraid. Bruised and cynical, Marlowe views loneliness and heartache as trophies from a life well lived. He is a sleuth who gets results more through his determination and willingness to get whacked over the head with a sap every once in a while than by any Holmesian display of genius. Marlowe is the ultimate chivalrous hero for mean streets and dark times.
A number of fictional detectives were based on real-life people, but John Dickson Carr’s fabulously funny creation—who made his debut in 1933—is the only one based on another writer of detective fiction: GK Chesterton, author of the Father Brown stories. Like his inspiration, Fell is corpulent, wears a cape and a large hat, walks with the aid of sticks and is uproariously good company. When not solving mysteries that have baffled the police (the locked room variety are a specialism), Fell likes to hang out in pubs, claiming he is researching a book on the history of English drinking habits (though strangely this great work never actually seems to get written). He is a fine man to share a beer with.
As well as being a cunning and empathetic solver of crimes, George Simenon’s charmingly rumpled French police inspector also immerses the reader in Parisian life. In almost every novel he leads us from café, to corner bar, to restaurant, pausing in them all to chat with the locals about horse racing or soccer, point out the little details of everyday life in the French capital, and drink one of the bewildering variety of beverages that take his fancy (Suze, for instance, a bright yellow aperitif flavored with the roots of gentian violets!). When his day is through he returns to his cozy apartment where his lovely wife, Louise is certain to have a fine French dinner (blanquette de veau, poulet au vinaigre and so forth) waiting for him. Maigret is the best tourist guide in crime writing.