What Makes a Good Fictional Detective?

So you’ve probably noticed my worship of crime fiction and during this time, I’ve noticed that my favourite detectives all have the same key attributes so I thought I’d just share what I think makes a good fictional detective.

Given the situations that private detective encounter, they’ll generally have the same core strengths and weaknesses but it’s a matter of how it’s written and how they are adapted to the crime that is what separates the stand out detective from the ordinary. A good private detective needs grit, realism, and attention to detail bordering on the OCD, something that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot famously encompasses. If the book is action-based, then the detective, at the very least, needs to know how to fight and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe still sets the bar for me that all other detectives are measured against. All in all, private detectives need to be savvy.

But one of the most important skillset that a good detective has is a respectable general knowledge, allowing seamless integration into any crime scene. Generally speaking, private detectives need to be able to handle a variety of situations in an unorthodox fashion. The fact that they are not bound by the same legal bureaucracy as the police allows them this flexibility and is part and parcel of the enduring attraction of crime fiction. But the risk is that every time a new situation presents itself to the private detective, he or she is suddenly an expert with a very contrived explanation for it (‘Oh I happen to know a lot about this one obscure industry because I once had a neighbour who was the industry expert’).

The only detective I can think of that was able to successfully pull this off was Sherlock Holmes but this character was a noted cocaine-addicted lunatic who was obsessed with his craft and famously didn’t know basic information that he didn’t deem useful like the fact that the Earth revolved around the sun. And because this genre could not be any more over-saturated, not every fictional detective can have this trait without it getting dull.

And this is where the sidekick comes in handy. It’s almost a cliché for detectives to have a sidekick but this is actually a very important element in crime fiction for a few reasons. The first is that a sidekick can be used as a proxy by authors to help explain key evidence to the readers without it causing plot-hole problems. The second advantage is that the detective simply can’t do everything without it looking unrealistic; the detective really does need someone to support them, physically, emotionally and intellectually. With that being said, the sidekick needs to be of reasonable intelligence; unless it’s a satire, they can’t show up the detective.

And this is because despite all this, the detective still needs to be a force of nature and to be able to carry the plot. Weaker detectives rely too much on external assistance and lucky breaks, or the biggest crime of all, passively wait for the denouement to be provided to them by the gloating antagonist. They get lost in the details and end up chasing red herrings whilst the criminal is pulling all the strings behind the scenes. For me, Cordelia Gray from P.D. James’ Skull Beneath the Skin comes to mind. Unable to solve the multiple deaths at Courcy Castle, she allowed the antagonist to patiently explain to her the how’s and why’s of the crime. Also if at any point, the detective was able to solve the crime via supernatural means, like via a dream, then that detective is a piece of shit.

Writing a detective is a delicate balance in itself. It’s easy to pass of the private detective as some kind of genius superhero but then the story becomes no fun since you always know how it’ll end up. On the other hand, a detective can’t be defeated by crime too easily, otherwise there’s no point in the story.


What do you all think? Who are your favourite detectives and which ones bore you? Does my theory stand?



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