When you think of detective fiction, you will likely imagine Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ or Agatha Christie’s ‘Poirot’. Although these 20th-century stories are classics, they’re also dated and there is a whole wealth of literature out there for readers who prefer something modern. From historical to comical detectives, the following novels feature iconic characters who have become staple heroes in the genre.
John Rebus in ‘Knots and Crosses’ (Ian Rankin)
Known for his heavy drinking, the gruff Edinburgh detective may well be the most famous character on this list due to the book-to-television adaptation featuring John Hannah and Ken Stott. The series established the former SAS operative John Rebus as one of the most popular characters in detective fiction and offered a closer look into the unseen, unsightly underbelly of Scotland’s capital city.
Set in Edinburgh in the mid-‘80s, the city is rocked by the abduction and subsequent murder of two young girls. Assigned to the investigation is Rebus, yet his lack of success results in the disappearance of another two women. With the killer always two steps ahead of Rebus, hints to the detective unconsciously being the murderer pay homage to ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by fellow Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson.
It is not until Rebus confronts his traumatic past through hypnosis that he realizes the connection between the wave of crime and his military past, a realization that allows him to face his own demons, and the killer.
Marie Mitchell in ‘American Spy’ (Lauren Wilkinson)
Lauren Wilkinson’s novel certainly pulls no punches – on the first page, the protagonist is attacked in her own home, leaving her with superficial injuries and her assailant dead. The book is framed as a letter from Marie to her twin sons in the event that something even more sinister should happen to her.
Relying heavily on a fluid time frame, scenes take place in the modern-day, Marie’s childhood, and her time working for the FBI; all of which detail the struggles and obstacles she had to overcome as a young black woman in a predominantly male environment. This provides a welcome juxtaposition from the usual Cold War stories often fueled by testosterone, with the lead characters thinking only in black and white. Unlike these, Marie’s point of view reveals the moral quandaries she faces in all kinds of situations.
Playing on racial and gender issues in the nineties, American Spy isn’t condescending or preachy, and Wilkinson isn’t afraid to take risks, offering readers a new take on a classic trope.
Dirk Gently in ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’ (Douglas Adams)
Douglas Adams is world-renowned for ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, but his lesser-known work is just as well-crafted, and possibly more entertaining!
A self-titled ‘holistic detective’, Gently believes in the ‘inter-connectedness of all things’ and relies on signs from the universe to point him in the right direction, leading him to operate on (to the outside observer) flights of fancy that take him deep into the tropics and other extravagant locations around the globe.
Chiefly occupied with messy divorces and missing pets, Gently takes on the task of tracking down shark-like businessman Gordon Way. What starts as a seemingly normal investigation ultimately involves time machines, aliens, and a religious robot who believes in seemingly random facts, like all tables being intersex and God needing vast sums of money sent to certain addresses.
If Doctor Who was written by Terry Pratchett, ‘Dirk Gently’ would be the result. The book offers a refreshing change from the grim atmosphere of traditional detective fiction and is guaranteed to bring you tears of laughter.
Kinsey Millhone in ‘“G” is for Gumshoe’ (Sue Grafton)
The 7th installment of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mysteries, ‘“G” is for Gumshoe’ is the story that made Grafton’s hero, Kinsey Millhone, famous. The 25-part series (the author passed away before completing the ‘“Z is for’ volume) follows the Californian private detective, with her goal in this story to track down the elderly Agnes Grey.
During her investigation, Millhone discovers that a previous acquaintance has hired hitmen to ‘take her out,’ narrowly surviving an attempt on her life. With her fellow PI Dietz acting as her bodyguard, she finds the missing Agnes but uncovers a greater mystery surrounding the woman in the process, involving the Grey sisters and a vast sum of money from suspicious life insurance policies.
Grafton’s work is praised for introducing a self-reliant female investigator into a genre commonly understood as a ‘boys club’. While it isn’t necessary to read the books in chronological order, many choose to begin at ‘’A is for Alibi’ and work their way down to ‘’Y is for Yesterday’, left to ponder how the series could have ended.
Brother Cadfael in ‘The Leper of Saint Giles’ (Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter)
It is unusual for a popular detective series to take place in an earlier setting than Holmes or Poirot, but the hugely successful Cadfael Chronicles is set in 12th century Britain and follows the adventures of a Benedictine monk.
Edith Pargeter, who took on the male pen name Ellis Peters, shares the fascinating tale of Cadfael, who joined the monastery in his forties after a life as both a soldier and sailor. The protagonist has a wealth of life experience that the average monk does not, including being adept at herbalism, a skill he picked up in the Holy Land.
The fifth volume in the series, ‘The Leper of Saint Giles’ is considered Pargeter’s best novel, ranking 42nd in the Writer’s Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. The plot begins with a cruel, elderly lord, due to take a young noblewoman as his wife. However, shortly before the wedding, the groom is found murdered and the bride-to-be? Nowhere to be seen.
Accusations are flung at almost every character with only Cadfael keeping a cool head to hunt down the killer, all the while investigating the cloaked figure who lurks in the shadows of the nearby leper colony. As all the storylines intertwine and characters long thought dead return, you’ll be hooked until the last word.