Lieutenant Columbo

My Favourite Five Fictional Sleuths

I’m often asked about my favourite fictional detectives and sleuths.

It comes with the territory when you write murder mystery novels. Readers want to know which writers and detectives you like and why, whether they inspire or influence your writing.

The five I’ve chosen have all inspired and influenced me and what I write. They have all provided me with hours of terrific viewing and reading. They still do, which is always a good indicator of how much you like someone. Best of all, I often find something new or something I missed before.

They also have one thing in common – apart from being on this list. They were all originally released before the millennium. It doesn’t mean I haven’t liked anyone since then. I simply haven’t found anyone that can match my favourites, though I live in hope.

That’s enough scene setting for one day. Let’s get straight into the list with my all-time favourite TV detective.

1. Lieutenant Columbo

Lieutenant Columbo

From the moment this scruffy, seemingly aimless detective joined the action in Prescription Murder I was hooked. Apart from being unique in crime drama, Columbo has all the dogged characteristics needed to solve a complex murder.

That he can do it while looking like he has no idea of what he is doing, is genius. It’s almost as good as watching him unsettle suspects and crush their egos as they fall over themselves to help and misdirect him.

Columbo concentrates on the little details – the ones that are out of place, which deviate from habit, routine and the norm, which show subtle changes of behaviour. He takes these loose threads and tugs them, slowly unravelling the perfect murders created by the killers.

He often persuades killers to help him unravel the mystery. Many of them are so keen to help, they dig themselves into holes and keep digging.

It’s compulsive viewing.

Yet Columbo can also sympathise and even like some killers, though it won’t stop him from arresting them.  There’s also a great deal of humour, self-deprecation and empathy in the character and a beautiful relationship with his totally laid back, adorable Bassett hound.

Columbo happens to be my sleuth’s favourite detective. He taught me and Kent Fisher to focus on the little details that don’t fit, to pick away at them until they become a loose thread. Kent’s also not the best dressed man on the block, but he also has a cute dog – a West Highland white terrier called Columbo, of course.

2. Kinsey Millhone

Sue Grafton

The private investigator in Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Murder series, ended her investigations in Y is for Yesterday, due to the author’s untimely death in December 2017. Sue Grafton showed me how to write crime fiction with her feisty, gritty, no nonsense PI. Kinsey narrates her investigations with a sharp tongue, a dry, pithy humour, and an empathy that often gets her into trouble. She’s smart, streetwise, cynical, untrusting and vulnerable. All the qualities you need to be an objective and tough investigator. But she’s also brave, creative, fun and caring, making her one of the most rounded characters I’ve come across.

She’s more than a match for any male PIs, and adds a very different spin to the hard-boiled PI of old. Sue Grafton’s great skill was getting the reader to enjoy the novel’s gentle pace, thanks to the character of Kinsey.

The first person narration, social commentary, the detailed, but sharp descriptions and humour gave me a template for Kent Fisher, who enjoys nothing more than a few hours with Kinsey, especially when he’s struggling with a case.

3. Inspector Morse

Inspector Morse

The romantic, scholarly detective, who used his intelligence and intellect to solve murders, goes against all the modern police procedurals. He’s a romantic, a scholar who belongs in a different world. In reality, he would never survive in a modern police force. Colin Dexter knew this only too well, and Morse compensated for all his faults by being a brilliant detective.

Hopeless in love and old fashioned, he preferred a pint or four and the Times crossword to friends. His love of opera helped him relax. But at work, he’s irascible, apt to speak his mind and make enemies, but tireless and inspirational, forever seeking perfection in his job and in the women he falls for.

The complex, convoluted plots set a standard I wanted to follow and hopefully rival. Kent too is something of a loner, preferring animals to humans, seeing a world he’s not too fond of.

4. Miss Marple

Agatha Christie’s most unlikely but clinical sleuth, also deduces the identity of the killer, using her observational skills, understanding of human behaviour and village parallels from St Mary Mead. While she may not have the support of other officers, like Morse, they both have the ability to see all the possibilities, sift them and home in on the details that give the killer away.

In many ways, Miss Marple is the epitome of cosy mysteries. Yet there’s nothing cosy about the brutal murders and complex plots she unravels. On screen, she was brilliantly portrayed by Joan Hickson, who showed Marple to be a sharp, often caustic social commentator, who’s unshrinking in her pursuit of justice.

But I prefer the Miss Marple in the novels. She’s smart, fearless and ruthless in pursuit of the truth and the killer. Like Morse, she has to unravel some of the most complicated and twisting plots imaginable, often berating herself for not seeing the truth sooner.

The plots, the way Agatha Christie places clues in plain sight before taking you on a journey of red herrings and dead ends, make up the legacy that I try to bring to my novels.

5. Scooby Doo

Scooby Doo

Scooby Doo may be a cartoon dog, but the impression he made on me as a wide-eyed twelve year old boy, who’d just got his first typewriter was immense. This was mystery solving with humour, giant snacks and lots of running from danger before solving the case at the eleventh hour.

My introduction to mysteries began with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Scooby Doo followed the format, but set the most loveable Great Dane at the centre of the action. With a heart as big as his appetite, a nose for self-preservation, and a complete coward, he always managed to overcome his fears, find the missing link and triumph.

When the series first aired in the UK, I was hooked, laughing at every joke, every fumble and every Scooby snack. While every episode was essentially the same plot, the imagination from the creators showed this was a series with strong characters, great stories and a hero of a dog.

Scooby Doo Shaggy and Robert Crouch

In 2004, while on holiday in Florida, I had my photograph taken with Scooby and Shaggy, much to the amusement of all the children and their parents, who were waiting their turn. It was one of the highlights of my holiday and a moment that still makes me chuckle.

What did Scooby Doo teach me? There’s nothing wrong with being scared, laughing at yourself and being cute as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously.

Scooby Doo is fun, entertaining escapism, which ultimately is what I hope my novels and series offer readers.

In a crowded crime fiction market, dominated by derivative police procedurals with traumatised detectives, we need something a little different to offer us an escape, some relief from serial killers and the endless cups of coffee consumed by detectives.

The sleuths who shine a fresh light on the traditional murder mystery and classic whodunit offer us different perspectives on the world and our lives. We need these credible characters that have their own ways of delivering justice.

Kent Fisher is an environmentalist. He runs and animal sanctuary. He cares about his health and fitness, watching what he eats, running to stay fit. He doesn’t drink. But he shares the same dogged determination of my favourite sleuths. He has the same sharp, often irreverent sense of humour that lightens the murders and mysteries he investigates.

This didn’t happen by accident. I learned from these great sleuths.

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