Who are the greatest fictional detectives?

From Poirot and Maigret to Montalbano and Wallander: Mark Lawson picks his seventeen supersleuths...

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Who are the greatest fictional detectives?
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An enjoyable pastime for sports fans in every country is second-guessing (and mocking in hindsight) the selectors of national teams. But during the past few months I’ve developed sympathy for those who choose a squad of talent from a much larger pool. How do you pick the most innovative, influential fictional detectives ever created?

The task most resembled captaining Europe in the Ryder Cup, in that the selection had to come from European crime fiction and represent different generations while avoiding duplication of skills. I had to omit major British talents (Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel and Peter James’s Roy Grace) to give weight to Spain, Italy and other claimants.

The team was also restricted to detectives, public and private, which ruled out unofficial investigators such as Miss Marple. Sherlock Holmes was also omitted as the main focus of Radio 4’s series is post-Second World War.

So here’s my team of great European sleuths. Whatever arguments arise, these players would give a close fight to an American team (Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Jessica Fletcher etc) in any Ryder Cup of detective fiction.


1 & 2. Poirot & Maigret

Belgium may be an often neglected nation but it's the motherland of detective fiction. Two key early figures - Hercule Poirot, who appeared in print from 1920 to 1975, and Jules Maigret (1930-72) - were, respectively, a Belgian created by an Englishwoman (Agatha Christie) and a Frenchman created by a Belgian (Georges Simenon). Following Holmes in being cerebral and pedantic, Poirot and Maigret epitomised the investigator as an outsider who sees through all levels of society.

3. Hans Bärlach

Switzerland's Bärlach (1950-52), created by Swiss-German writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, made the later crop of unhappy, unwell middle-aged male cops seem almost jaunty by comparison. He appears in only two books and has been diagnosed with terminal cancer in the first. Bärlach and Dürrenmatt explore themes of Second World War guilt, of which German writers were wary at the time.

4. Lieutenant Boruvka 

Lt Boruvka (1966-80) of the Prague Homicide Department is notorious for his "mournful demeanour". He's sad because he's a policeman in a police state (Czechoslovakia), whose Soviet-controlled bosses don't really want the cases solved. Writing first under censorship in Prague then in exile from Canada, Josef Skvorecky gives a brilliant portrait of Communist-occupied Eastern Europe.

5. Van der Valk 

Created by English expat Nicolas Freeling, Commissaris Piet van der Valk (1962-89) topped ITV ratings in the 1970s (with the series starring Barry Foster) and was number one in the UK pop charts (with the theme tune Eye Level). The stories explored the drugs trade and Second World War collaboration in Holland.

6. Martin Beck

Sweden's Martin Beck (1965-75) was created by journalist couple Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Beck set the template for many subsequent, invented cops by being depressed, divorced, at odds with his bureaucratic superiors and taking on cases that expose social shifts, such as immigration, the sex trade and the gap between rich and poor. (Steven Mackintosh stars in The Martin Beck Killings, a five-part series, starting next Saturday, 27 October, on Radio 4) 

7 & 8. Adam Dalgliesh & Reg Wexford

Two brilliant Englishmen created by two brilliant female members of the House of Lords: Adam Dalgliesh (1962-2008) from the pen of PD James and Reg Wexford (1964-) from Ruth Rendell. They chart social, politicial, sexual and religious shifts in the UK since the 60s, representing the British tradition of the detective as a force for moral good.

9. Inspector Rogas

Rogas (1971) was the invention of Leonardo Sciascia, a former Sicilian politician who was the first crime writer to tackle Mafia influence in Italy. Alongside Georges Simenon, he's the author most cited as an influence by other European crime writers.

10. Pepe Carvalho

Employed by his creator Manuel Vázquez Montalbán to depict Spain's transition from Franco's dictatorship to King Juan Carlos's monarchy, Detective Pepe Carvalho (1972-2004) was brought to life in a series of books that vividly dramatise Spanish food and football. 

11. Jane Tennison

All male tecs so far, but the selectors could only pick from what was historically available. However, Jane Tennison (ITV 1991-2006), created by Lynda La Plante and played by Helen Mirren, revolutionised crime fiction - setting examples of female power and correct police procedure that have been copied ever since. The most influential detective since Sherlock Holmes.

12. Salvo Montalbano

A second Sicilian on my list, Montalbano (1994-) appears in a long series by Andrea Camilleri and in TV versions (Saturdays BBC4). Named in homage to Montalbán (no 10), he continues the pursuit of Mafia influence on Italian life begun by Camilleri's literary hero, Sciascia. Comic and sensual, the books also chart the bunga-bunga years of Silvio Berlusconi.

13. Kemal Kayankaya

Jakob Arjouni's private dick, Kemal Kayankaya (1985-), is the child of Turkish immigrants and so is a classic outsider cop, seeing crimes and signs that the German police ignore.

14. John Rebus

In writing about Scotland's John Rebus (1987-), Ian Rankin uses the background of a nation re-examining its relationship with the UK to create books that examine terrorism, immigration, nationalism and corruption through a classic example of a cop with a bad liver and conscience but an ultimately honest heart.

15. Kurt Wallander

A close relative of Martin Beck in psychological profile and social concern, Henning Mankell's Wallander (1991-2009) began Scandinavia's rise as a crime-fiction superpower and analyses the paradox of why a region seen by foreigners as a paradise has suffered political violence, including the assassination of the Swedish PM.

16. Harry Hole

A similar enigma (how Norwegian idealism was brutalised by Anders Behring Breivik's massacre of 77 citizens) can be tracked through the super-selling books of Jo Nesbo. Harry Hole (1997-) is a classic addictive, depressive but hyperintuitive heir to Sherlock Holmes.

17. Erast Fandorin

Russian crime fiction has struggled with censorship and publishing problems under both Soviet and post-Soviet regimes. Perhaps sensibly, Boris Akunin uses the past to illuminate present tensions (gangsters, billionaire oligarchs, dictatorial politicians) through his 19th-century detective, Fandorin (1998-).

Foreign Bodies is on Radio 4 Monday - Friday at 1:45pm