Required Reading: Fictional Detectives Who Won't Bore You to Death


As with all popular detective stories — whether published or televised, self-serious or haplessly stoned — Bored to Death’s success rides on the charm of its central hero. Although the ever-bumbling Jonathan Ames (the character, not the author) lacks the stern masculinity of the fictional icons he emulates, he nonetheless embodies his forebears’ creative complexity — albeit with more neuroses and postmodern angst. With the premiere of Bored to Death’s second season newly behind us, here’s a chronology of past fictional detectives worth following in the future.

C. Auguste Dupin

Although the word “detective” had not yet been coined, Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin was arguably the first fictional character to fit the mold — and thus, to define the archetype. Born into a wealthy family but leveled to more humble circumstances by undisclosed forces, Dupin is a master of deductive reasoning, fan of hieroglyphics, knight in the Legion d’honneur, and observant to a point of seeming supernatural acuity. His adventures are narrated by his close friend and side kick, whose identity remains anonymous in all the stories. Recommended Reading:

Monsieur Lecoq

French author Emile Gaboriau developed Monsieur Lecoq as a Gallic counterpart to Poe’s Dupin. A professional policeman, Lecoq is passionate about his work but can nonetheless be hampered by his professional ambitions and inevitable fallibility. That said, he is a master of disguise and equates the detail-oriented precision of detective work with that of a naturalist. Recommended Reading:

Sherlock Holmes

That the character most closely identified with detective fiction is a cocaine-addicted, morphine-using, chain-smoking eccentric with superhero-like martial arts and weaponry skills speaks volumes about the genre’s character-driven mystique. And yet, despite his pop culture ubiquity, Sherlock Holmes remains an endlessly nuanced and engrossing character — an independent mystery for anyone willing to take on his personal case. Recommended Reading: A Study in Scarlet

; The Hound of the Baskervilles

; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Arsene Lupin

A corruptible Robin Hood of sorts, Arsene Lupin was, like Lecoq to Dupin, roughly the French equivalent of Holmes. A gentleman thief, he is defined by his cunning and wit, often escaping retribution due to pure panache. Although Lupin is technically on the wrong side of the legal system, his intentions are ultimately good and those who he defeats are always the truer villains. Recommended Reading: The Confessions of Arsene Lupin; The Woman with Two Smiles

Thorpe Hazell

Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch’s Thorpe Hazell is as far from Holmes as his author could conceive. An amateur detective, railway expert, and vegetarian, he is less glamorous than his wily brethren — most likely the result of his author’s ecclesiastic occupation — but no less absorbing. Whitechurch’s Hazell stories appeared in several magazines but the character didn’t enjoy the widespread prolificacy and afterlife of his contemporaries — or progeny for that matter (see Lord Peter Winsey). Still, Whitechurch was meticulous about his plotting, even submitting his manuscripts to Scotland Yard to confirm their factual accuracy. Recommended Reading: Concerning Himself

Hercule Poirot

The most prominent character among Agatha Christie’s prolific mystery canon (closely followed by her amateur investigator, Miss Marple), Hercule Poirot is an enigmatic Belgian detective whose physical features almost trump his deductive powers. Stout with an egg-shaped head, dandyish to a point of comedy, and distinguishable by a trademark upward curled mustache, Poirot is less concerned with escaping notice than with maintaining his fastidious tidiness. He is, nevertheless, astute and persistent, making him a successful psychological investigator on both the police force and as a private detective. Recommended Reading: Murder on the Orient Express; Cards on the Table; Death on the Nile; Five Little Pigs

Lord Peter Wimsey

The son of a duke, educated at Eton, and descended from a prominent crusader, Lord Peter Wimsey brings a bit of blue blooded nobility to the shrewd bunch of private eyes on this list. After serving as an Intelligence Officer on the Western Front during WWI, Wimsey sustained an artillery injury and later shell shock, which landed him back at his ancestral home and eventually on his own in a London apartment. His detective work is occasionally shadowed by hallucinations and flashbacks, lending a character-driven psychological nuance to his work. Recommended Reading: Whose Body?; Strong Poison; The Five Red Herrings

Sam Spade

Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade marked a departure from the riddle-solvers of earlier crime fiction. Sleekly gritty and coldly detached, he is more concerned with seeking redemptive justice than with running the intellectual marathons of his forebears. His blemished idealism is a contradictory distillation of his reserved yet ruthless manner. Spade stands in bleak contrast to Hammett’s other crime-fighting duo, the comedy-prone husband-and-wife team, Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man. Recommended Reading: The Maltese Falcon; A Man Called Spade

Philip Marlowe

Raymond Chandler candidly admitted to cannibalizing his early stories for later books, drawing on early sketches of characters who were eventually pieced together as the iconic Philip Marlowe. At once hard-drinking yet philosophical, wise-cracking yet appreciative of chess and poetry, Marlowe is at ease on the extremes and dedicated to a strict code of honor. Although Bored to Death’s pitiable protagonist models himself on Marlowe after rereading Farewell, My Lovely in the show’s pilot episode, any further resemblance is lost on anyone but Jonathan Ames’ fevered imagination. Recommended Reading: The Big Sleep; The Long Goodbye; Farewell, My Lovely

Mike Hammer

While Spade and Marlowe have no shortage of cynicism, Mike Hammer steps up the negativity quotient with a dangerous trinity of rage, misogyny, and outright misanthropy. Judgment is his only moral code — making the legal system a mere hurdle in his quest to uphold a personal definition of justice — rendering Hammer more of a vigilante figure than even a rule-bending lawman. Passionately patriotic, anti-communist, in love with his secretary, and armed with a .45 Colt named Betsy, Hammer is the quintessential rough-and-tumble bad boy of detective fiction. Recommended Reading: I, the Jury; The Big Kill; Kiss Me, Deadly

10 Other Detectives to Call On:

Name: Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke Author: R. Austin Freeman Recommended Reading: The Red Thumb Mark (1907)

Name: Father Brown Author: G.K. Chesterton Recommended Reading: The Innocence of Father Brown


Name: Philo Vance Author: S.S. Van Dine Recommended Reading: The Benson Murder Case (1926)

Name: Inspector Joseph French Author: Freeman Wills Crofts Recommended Reading: Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927)

Name: Ellery Queen Author: Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky Recommended Reading: The Roman Hat Mystery (1929)

Name: Albert Campion Author: Margery Allingham Recommended Reading: Mystery Mile (1930)

Name: Dr. Fell Author: John Dickson Carr Recommended Reading: The Hollow Man (1935)

Name: Roderick Alleyn Author: Ngaio Marsh Recommended Reading: Enter a Murderer (1935)

Name: Nero Wolfe Author: Rex Stout Recommended Reading: Over My Dead Body (1940)

Name: Lew Archer Author: Ross Macdonald Recommended Reading: The Moving Target (1949)