Grab your magnifying glass and get ready to investigate as Mashable uncovers Big/Little Mysteries.
Who doesn’t like a good fictional detective? The genre, which sprang out of nowhere in the 19th century, has become arguably our most enduringly popular over the last 120 years. Sherlock Holmes spawned armies of imitators, many with quirks as curious as his coke habit. The amateur sleuth begat the PI, the superhero detective, and more police inspectors, pathologists and lieutenants than you can shake a rumpled trenchcoat at.
Personally, my tolerance for detective fiction is limited. I can take a story or an episode at a time — but in a binge watch or binge read, the unreality of endless mysteries leaves me cold. How many murders are taking place in this sleepy town? What grim dystopia is this, with crime rates far higher than our real-world average? Why we love paranoia-inducing stories about nice people turning out to be stone-cold killers: this itself is a mystery.
But hey, since we’re apparently never going to lose the cultural obsession, why not lean in and celebrate the bload-soaked ridiculousness of it all? What follows is a kind of fictional detective Olympics. Here we award medals to the meddling kids and other gumshoes who achieved the most unrealistic superlatives: worked for the most decades, solved the most cases, found themselves dealing with the most inexplicably large body count over their inexplicably long careers.
Using the little grey cells
We examined dozens of beloved and historically important detectives from TV, movies, books and comics over the last 180 years. Our definition of detective: a main character who investigates crimes. Yes, Batman fans, this includes the superhero who got his start in Detective Comics and styles himself the “world’s greatest detective;” whether his Olympic performance lives up to the hype remains to be seen.
Where a detective is popular in multiple media, which is pretty much all of the heavy hitters, we’ve entered the version with the most stories or episodes into consideration. (For example, Agatha Christie wrote 88 novels, plays and short stories featuring Hercules Poirot, which beats the 77 episodes of the Poirot TV show.)
But let’s begin at the beginning, with a winner you’ve probably never heard about.
The first detectives
Gold medal: C. Auguste Dupin (1841). Silver: Sherlock Holmes (1880). Bronze: Father Brown (1910).
Timeline featuring a sample of our contenders: Detective books and shows are a mostly 20th-century phenomenon.
Credit: BOb Al-Greene / Mashable
Sorry, Sherlockians. Arthur Conan Doyle may have created the best-known detective in history (with 60 stories and novels to his name, plus dozens of TV adaptations and movies), but an American author got there first.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote his short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, in which a Frenchman named C. Auguste Dupin methodically solves the grisly killings of a mother and daughter in a room that was locked from the inside. That plot isn’t the only element that sounds like it was ripped from today’s crime dramas: there are also clueless police officers, a wrongful arrest, and a twist ending. (Spoiler alert: An orangutan did it.)
These days, Poe’s pilot would have networks scrambling to pick it up for a full season. As it was, he penned just two more Dupin tales before he died. But the stories influenced Conan Doyle, as well as fellow Victorian author G.K. Chesterton, who created the crime-solving Catholic priest Father Brown (53 stories, expanded to 80 by a BBC adaptation in 2012).
What’s way before Watson? Brother Cadfael (left, played by Derek Jacobi in the ITV adaptation)
Credit: ITV PLC
Honorable mention: Shout-out to Cadfael, a murder-solving monk from the 12th century. He’s far from the first in our world (Historian Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, created him in 1977). But he is first in the fictional timeline of detectives, beating Friar William of Baskerville (played by Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose) by all of two centuries.
Longest detective careers, immortal character category
The Hardy Boys in their very first adventure, 1927. Franklin Dixon is a pseudonym for many authors over the years.
Credit: penguin group
Gold medal: Frank & Joe Hardy (94 years). Silver: Nancy Drew (91 years). Bronze: Dick Tracy (90 years).
Here’s the first event where you might expect Batman, created 82 years ago and still not looking a day over 30, to romp to victory. Bad news, Bats: There are four detectives as ageless as you, who started life before you did, and have also been solving crimes constantly ever since. Some small consolation for Bruce Wayne: he comes in fourth rather than fifth, because two of the characters ahead of him are effectively joined at the hip.
We speak of course of the Hardy Boys, those forever adolescent sleuths from the fictional town of Bayport. Their multiple book series’ began in 1927, and haven’t slowed down since; even in the 21st century, Hardy Boys adventures sell more than a million copies a year. Nancy Drew was created by the same publisher in 1930, and has also starred in endless books, some of them co-starring her elder crime-fighting brethren. But Nancy was no mere knock-off. She went on to appear in more TV and movie adaptations than the relatively bland brothers, and became far more of a cultural icon.
And then there’s Dick Tracy, the daily comic strip character created by Chester Gould in 1931. One of the earliest fictional police detectives, Tracy was created as an homage to real-life Chicago investigator Eliot Ness. But he soon became known for his array of crime-fighting technology, years before Batman arrived on the scene. And as if to rub it in the Caped Crusader’s face, Tracy’s most famous gadget actually anticipated the future. That two-way wristwatch radio is very Apple Watch.
Longest detective careers, mortal category
Retired and loving it: David Suchet, the longest-running Poirot on screen.
Credit: lwt / photoshot / getty images
Gold medal: Hercules Poirot (59 years). Silver: Sherlock Holmes (34 years). Tied for bronze: Philip Marlowe and Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (29 years).
Sometimes, fictional detectives actually grow old and die — even when their age stretches beyond the bounds of reason.
Case in point: Hercules Poirot. Agatha Christie’s fastidious Belgian investigator first appeared in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920 but set in 1916. A World War I refugee, Poirot was already supposed to be retired at this point. But he went on to assist the British police (and to solve murders whenever he went on vacation, on the Orient Express, on the Nile) for decades in real time until the publication of Curtain in 1975, where Christie finally killed off the detective she’d come to loath. “What a mistake I made there,” the author said of Poirot’s first retirement, admitting that it made him well over 100 years old at his death.
At least Christie wasn’t forced to bring her creation back. That was famously the fate of Conan Doyle, who bowed to public pressure and brought Sherlock Holmes back after sending him to his apparent death at Reichenbach Falls in 1893. Holmes would go on to investigate cases through His Last Bow, a series of stories set during his retirement. Though we never see Holmes’ actual death, His Last Bow ends in 1914.
We also never saw the ends of our bronze medalist book detectives, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. Mosley, at least, is still alive, and once suggested he’d bring Rawlins’ story (which so far covers 1939 through 1968) closer to the present day. If he does, Rawlins — America’s most famous African American detective — could slide past Marlowe in the longevity stakes, moving up to challenge the most famous detective of all.
Munch and Benson: Longest careers, TV detective subcategory.
Credit: Will hart / NBC universal
Honorable mentions: On the television side of detective…
Read More:Fictional detective Olympics: The oldest, the best, the most murdery