My Favorite Fictional Detectives

The Devil's Cave is the fifth novel in the series of Bruno Courrèges, chief of police in the small town of St Denis in the Périgord, the gastronomic heartland of France. A passionate cook who spends his spare time teaching the schoolchildren to play tennis and rugby, Bruno almost never carries his gun, loves his horse and his basset hound, and aches for one of the women he adores to agree to settle down and raise his children. In the meantime, he tackles murders, terrorists, Chinese gangs muscling into the truffle trade, dirty work in the vineyards and enforces the town's parking laws.

It is striking how closely literary fiction echoes real events. The trenches of the First World War gave us the anti-war novel. The Cold War gave us the golden age of spy stories, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The West had James Bond and John le Carre's Smiley while the Russians had their Julian Semyonov. More recent events have given us the terrorist novel, with Tom Clancy straddling the sub-genres of terrorist nukes and terrorist bio-weapons.

But of all the genres, the detective story seems the most durable, perhaps because the tales are less about crime, more about character. For every cunning murder we recall, from death by icicle which melts to leave no traces to tea being stirred with an oleander twig, it is the detectives and the killers who stick in the mind.

From Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty to Hannibal Lecter and Clarice, the dance of detection is part of a dynamic that goes back to the dawn of humanity. The killer starts by being the hunter and then becomes the hunted.

Almost as important as the characters is the place. The fogs, street urchins and Hansom cabs of Queen Victoria's London are as much a part of the magic of Sherlock Holmes as the upstairs rooms of 221b Baker Street. The Stradivarius violin will be leaning against the armchair, the tobacco will be in the Persian slipper on the mantelpiece, the Times will be opened to the personal column and Dr Watson is galvanized into action by the immortal cry, "The game's afoot!"

For many of us, Los Angeles will always be the city of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Can there be any more classically English village than the St Mary Mead of Miss Marples? We need only to hear the lapping of canal water against the ancient stones of Venice to know we are on a case with Donna Leon's thoughtful Commissario Brunetti. If an old Citroën saloon is pulling up to the kerb in Paris's Quai des Orfèvres, then Inspector Maigret will soon descend. And if it's a glass of Highland Park whisky in the Oxford Bar, we know we are in the Edinburgh of Inspector John Rebus.

And if the tale includes the prehistoric paintings in the Lascaux cave, the glowering medieval castles from the Hundred Years war and the small Resistance memorials that read Fusille par les Allemands, then you are in the Perigord region of south-western France with Bruno, chief of police. And a glass of Bergerac wine and a dinner of roast duck with truffles will shortly be coming your way, while a basset hound will be gazing mournfully at you, hoping for scraps from your plate.

Here are my favorite fictional detectives:

Great Fictional Detectives