100 Greatest Literary Detectives (2018) ed. by Eric Sandberg

Source: Review Copy (Rowman and Littlefield)

This is a book which I have been eagerly waiting to read for quite some time, intrigued to see which sleuths did or did not make it the list – oh and I did get to contribute a chapter as well on Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu. So yes a modicum of personal bias. However, as my review will hopefully reveal some there are many reasons why this is a great read and in the main I’d say it was entertaining, informative and a significant contribution to the growing body of academic work on the mystery genre. Big words indeed, but I think they’re justified.

My enjoyment of this book began from the very first page, in fact the very first sentence, as I loved how Eric Sandberg begins his introduction to the collection:

‘If you love crime fiction, you will hate this book. Why? You will hate it because a list of the hundred greatest fictional detectives will almost certainly be missing one, if not several, of your favourite hard-boiled private eyes, dedicated police officers, or amateur sleuths.’

It’s great how passion for the genre is encouraged from the very beginning and I agree that crime fiction is ‘a form worth getting angry over,’ or at the very least worth enthusiastic discussion. Sandberg then goes on to tackle the title’s most slippery word: Greatest, acknowledging its subjectivity, unreliability and liability. Yet as he goes on to say value judgements are not wholly avoidable, though the rest of his introduction perhaps implicitly and explicitly advocates not treating this book as a 100 best list, but more of a celebration of and re-evaluation of fictional sleuths and detectives from around the world. This mind set worked for me very well and to be honest a few characters in I was quite oblivious to this book being a list – but more on that later.

Before moving onto the body of the book, I also want to flag up some of the interesting points Sandberg makes on characterisation and detective fiction. I was initially surprised by his assertion that academia has been slow to recognise the significance of characterisation in this genre, preferring to focus more on the social and political implication of such works. One example of this that he highlights concerns Northrop Frye who was of the thought that: ‘If the author of a crime story is compelled to conceal or withhold key information about one, and often more, of the characters in their story in order to serve the plot, she inevitably damages the work’s capacity for characterisation.’ Moreover Frye went as far as defining crime fiction as a ‘pure caricature of the novel form,’ since ‘the novel is designed to reveal character, the detective story to conceal it.’ This idea by Frye has definitely stuck with me, certainly got me thinking and would definitely be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on the matter. Nevertheless the introduction culminates with the question of ‘how […] does character function in crime fiction?,’ a question I think this book poses many and varied answers to.

So on to the entries for the 100 sleuths. On first glance at the contents pages I have to admit that nearly 50% of the character names did not ring a bell. Yet ironically this is part of one of the main reasons why I really valued this book, as it does much to avoid ethnocentrism, in particular there is no imbalanced positive bias towards Western authors and their creations. I was impressed that outside of England and the USA, the collection houses sleuths from 27 other different countries. However, don’t panic Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Augustus Dupin did make the cut, but this book strongly testifies to the fact that there are a whole host of other fictional sleuths beyond the Western mystery fiction canon as it were, who are similarly well-known, loved and valued. Byomkesh Bakshi might not be a sleuth which readily comes to mind when I think of greatest detectives, (though I have read one short story featuring him), yet as Anindita Dey points out in her entry he ‘has been a significant figure in Indian popular culture for eighty five years’ and has featured in TV and film adaptations. Yet in a way, hopefully not contradicting myself too much, this is a collection of sleuths which also shows that significance and contribution to the genre do not always equate to popularity. Finally the diversity of this book can also be seen in the time periods the entries cover with the book featuring a number of authors from the 19th, 20th and 21st century. There is perhaps a slight leaning towards male sleuths, in terms of numbers, but given the mammoth nature of the task and how it needed to be put together this is not an unforgivable imbalance.

One of the key ideas which ran through many of the entries for me, was how the culture within which the sleuth was being created impacted how they were formed, as in many ways these protagonists were a response to the changes writers saw going on around them. This is particularly apparent in Satomi Saito’s entry on Rampo Edogawa’s Kogoro Akechi. I’ve read a couple of short stories featuring this character, but Saito’s entry was really helpful in giving the bigger picture, discussing how Akechi developed and changed over the years to fit in with the changing nature of Japan. It was also interesting to read that the cartoon/comic series, Case Closed is potentially part of the ‘broader legacy of the iconic Akechi and the Boy detectives.’ Another sleuth who responds to the culture he was created in is Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi, whose fictional adventures began in the 1930s and as they progressed in to the 40s and 50s, readers can see how he responds to and negotiates big events in the real world such as the Independence of India and the separation of India and Bengal. Equally both of these characters mentioned above are good examples of sleuths interacting with/ writing back to icons of Western mystery fiction, in particular Sherlock Holmes. One final note on the Japanese entries in this book is how they come from varying time periods, meaning for me at any rate that I got a better idea of how the figure of the sleuth evolved over time in Japan.

The relationship between culture and literary creation though is not one sided as at times countries have appropriated literature for cultural and political reasons. An interesting example of this which I came across in this book is from Switzerland, as Friedirch Charles Glauser’s Fahnderwachtmeister Jakob Studer stories were used almost as a cultural weapon by the Swiss government in their ‘state sponsored […] spiritual defence of the homeland,’ which sought to evidence the divergence between Switzerland and Germany during the 1930s; a time period in which Hitler ‘expansionist rhetoric intensified.’

Given the wide diversity of the sleuths contained in this book, you won’t be surprised to read that I enjoyed coming across new fictional creations, of which I have shared a few below (in a list of my mine own aptly enough):

  • Arthur Conan Doyle is not the only one to have to bring a fictional sleuth back from the dead as Mexican writer, Paco Ignacio Taibo II had to resurrect his creation, Hector Belascoarian Shayne, due to public outcry.
  • I might be the last person to the party on this particular fact, but apparently Ed McBain was reluctant to make Steve Carella into a lead character in his 87th Precinct series. Carella was supposed to be fatally shot in the 3rd novel, but McBain’s editors insisted that this had to be changed.
  • In Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Gardener’s Song (2007), the author spoors Lewis Carroll’s poem, ‘The Mad Gardener’s Song’ – a juxtaposition I find very intriguing and I love how Felicity Hand says in the entry that ‘the unpredictability of modern Mumbai life is reflected in the Victorian poet’s nonsense verse.’ Certainly not a sentence you come across every day.
  • Although I was familiar with the name of the sleuth Don Isidro Parodi, being mentioned in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017), I didn’t realise that he solved his cases, whilst confined to a prison cell, having been wrongfully sentenced for a crime he did not do.
  • Cheng Xiaoqing’s Huo Sang, who featured in stories in the 1920s and 30s, was not a character I was familiar with, but what really intrigued me about this entry firstly were the comments made on translating crime fiction, as apparently there is only one English translation of these tales, (correct me if I am wrong), but unfortunately this edition radically alters the context, meaning and significance of the original texts’ language. Whilst I am familiar with this happening to English texts, such as Christie’s novels, it was interesting to see this phenomena happening in reverse. On the plus side Sang sounds like an engaging sleuth, whose personality is not simply being a copycat of Sherlock Holmes, instead fusing Western and eastern elements in a complicated and conflicting relationship.
  • Not sure if I already knew this but then forgot it, but also included in this top 100 is Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins’ Venus Johnson, the first fictional African American detective and Hopkins’ herself was one of the earliest black American writers to produce crime fiction. Interestingly Johnson’s sleuthing role comes through her job as a maid, ultimately saving her employee’s daughter when they are kidnapped. She appears in Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice, which was serialised in 1901-1902. Suitably intrigued so may need to give this book a go.
  • Finally another new sleuth to me is Judith Lee, who uses her lip reading skills to foil criminal plots. She was created by Richard Marsh and appeared during the Edwardian era. One thing I have enjoyed about this book is how it has shown the wide variety of sleuths pre-the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Yet even with authors I am familiar with I still came across some new information, such as the signifance of Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket, as well as the fact that Mary Elizabeth Braddon in 1860-1, published The Trail of the Serpent which includes a mute sleuth who uses sign language to his own advantage in capturing crooks. I have also often wondered if I should give Wilkie Collins’ The Law and the Lady (1875) a go, but I think Joanna Ella Parson’s entry on Valeria Brinton, the story’s lead, has definitely given me the additional nudge that I need.

It goes without saying really that when it came to some entries on authors and characters I do know very well, I didn’t always agree with everything written about them. Then again I think this book is designed to and actively encourages debate and discussion. For instance I probably wouldn’t agree that the interwar period was ‘an era of detection defined by its interest in the “why” rather than the “how” of crime,’ nor do I think Albert Campion was a ‘ground breaking character [who] would become the archetypal gentlemen detective.’ After all Lord Peter Wimsey did appear many years before him. Equally probably wouldn’t agree on there being equal partnership between Campion and Lady Amanda Fitton, leaning more towards Megan Hoffman’s reading of the pair. However, having contributed an entry of my own I do appreciate how difficult it is to really explore a fictional detective in less than 1000 words. Even more difficult perhaps when you are dealing with a more well-known character especially.

Sometimes you can identify a book as a good read based on what happens once you’ve finished it and this is definitely one of those reads, as not only has it made me want to re-read certain authors, but it has also pointed me in the direction of new titles to try and above all given me a much deeper appreciation of crime fiction globally. So for me this book is far more and far better than a mere list of names, instead providing much fuel for future reading and future discussions. Unsurprisingly I highly recommend this given how much it has to offer crime fiction fans.

Rating: 4.5/5

21 comments

    • You like to ask the hard questions! Well I think it would have been nice if Akunin’s Sister Pelagia and Hans Olav Lahlum’s Patricia could have been included. Though Akunin’s Fandorin was included which was good. Case could also be made for the likes of Roger Sheringham, Miss Pinkerton and Nurse Keates as well. In fairness though there are characters in mystery fiction which I love, such as Delano Ames’ the Browns and Craig Rice’s Jake and Helene novels, but I’m not sure the Greatest Literary Detectives is their best fit. Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure Man Dies is also an important contribution to crime fiction in my opinion but again how easily it would fit into the premise of this book I do not know.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. This sounds like a wonderful reference volume. I do appreciate any works that seek to break out from the same familiar names and faces to introduce readers to some new works. One for the Amazon wish list!

    Liked by 1 person

      • I shall plan on leaving printouts of its Amazon listing in strategic locations around the house in November and December and shall talk of little else in the hope that loved ones pick up on my hinting… 😉

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  2. Yes, Byomkesh Bakshi is a very popular detective in India, especially in Bengal. So far, there have been 6 TV series and 17 films on him with 3 more films in the offing.
    The most popular of the TV series was that in Hindi shown in 2 seasons (1993, 1997), with Rajit Kapur playing the part of Byomkesh Bakshi. Even today, when people see Rajit Kapur, they say,”Look, there goes Byomkesh Bakshi!”

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  3. Sounds like a good approach to a necessarily controversial list and especially like that it includes non-Western cultures. Hope you enjoy Law and the Lady. Valeria is a great character though you might end up wondering what she sees in her husband.

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  4. One of my many Christmas self-presents on the basis of your review. I haven’t yet read the book in its entirety but I checked the list of the “guests” and I’m glad that it includes more than the usual suspects, with one glaring omission though: Roderick Alleyn! How can it be? I have long thought that Marsh was the least critically acclaimed of the Crime Queens and this seems to confirm this view.

    Regarding the Northrop Frye (I hope it was a pseudonym) quote, it reminds me of Thomas Narcejac’s stance that the detective novel wasn’t a “real” novel because you know characters in “real novels” are free to act as they choose whereas the detective novel has them constricted by the mechanics of the plot. I found this argument unconvincing then and I still do today. Also, I’m very skeptical of anyone claiming to know what a novel is designed for or what a writer is to do or not to do; alas there have always been and still are many such people around here.

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    • Unusually for me I am about to take an opposing view to you. I don’t think Marsh has been overlooked. Alleyn for me lacks literary merit, I don’t even find him that interesting or entertaining. Certainly struggling to see what he adds to the genre, that others weren’t already doing. If he were a colour he would be beige. If he had never been created I don’t think it would have been any loss.
      Still reading? I’ll be interested to see what merits you think he deserves as a character!
      And I do hope you enjoy the book as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have no problem with you disagreeing with me, especially when I am right. 😉

        More seriously, you are right that Alleyn is not a particularly colourful character. Lord Peter or Sir Henry Merrivale he definitely ain’t. Where I (mildly) disagree with you is that I think that it is actually his strength.

        Most Great Detectives are fantasy figures; you believe in them while you’re reading and you like them like old friends but at the same time you know they are a minima improbable characters. Alleyn, because of his relative blandness and limitations, is a different article. He is *almost* a regular human being (I’m using the qualifier “almost” because of his aristocratic lineage) or at least he acts like one. His relationship with Troy is less romantic than the Wimsey/Vane romance but it is also more realistic. Also he is not a supermind – his gets to the truth most often through police routine and common sense rather than flamboyant deductions. This I think makes him special, if not entirely unique, among GAD detectives – though I understand some may find him tedious.

        Also, I disagree that the genre would’ve been the same had he not existed. He’s actually had a posterity though interestingly his influence was never or rarely recognized. Adam Dalgliesh and Thomas Lynley owe him a lot.
        So I think he’d deserve a slot in an eventual future augmented edition and I’m volunteering to write his entry (no, I’m kidding)

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      • I will concede the point that Alleyn paved the way for Dalgliesh and Lynley. However I disagree as to his value of being bland and using hard work to solve cases. There were many other sleuths around at the time which were already covering this base, such as Inspector French, so since it is not unique it isn’t really special. Also I find Alleyn is neither one thing nor the other. He is not an ordinary policeman, but nor is he a fully fledged aristocratic sleuth.
        Finally if the literary world lacked Dalgliesh and Lynley I again would not really miss them.

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      • Finally if the literary world lacked Dalgliesh and Lynley I again would not really miss them.

        Neither would I, especially Dalgliesh.
        I agree that Alleyn was neither the first or the only “bland” detective and French was certainly a more groundbreaking character in that respect. I think his greatness or lack of thereof ultimately boils down to a matter of taste, as is the case with Marsh’s work overall. She’s certainly the weakest link of the Crime Queens, the one whose critical standing is the most fragile – and I wouldn’t be surprised she loses her title someday.

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      • I think she stands between Christie and Sayers. She is perhaps more streamlined in her prose like Christie, but at the same time tries to attempt some elements of novel of manners, like Sayers. However I think she does not achieve either position well. Unlike Christie her investigations are one long series of interviews, which are not particularly interestingly written, her pacing is wobbly at times (great beginnings but treacle laden middles) and her sparse writing doesn’t always hold the gems Christie does. Equally she doesn’t reach the depth and richness of say a Sayers or Allingham novel from the 30s.
        * goes to hide in an undisclosed bunker before the swarms of rebuttals begin*

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    • I can’t see how any character is “free” as the author must be in control of what is happening. I can see that in a detective novel, plot should trump character, but at the same time characters still need to act consistently with information that has already been presented about them. I suppose that in other writing the author may start with a character and see where that takes them, but they still need to form that into a plot, and the character still can’t divert from what has already been written about them.

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      • I can’t see how any character is “free” as the author must be in control of what is happening.

        That doesn’t make sense to me either, but I know of several writers saying that their characters take a life of their own and full control of the story, so that the author ends a spectator of what he’s writing, not knowing in advance where it will lead. I for one find it a terrible way to work and not surprisingly books composed this way are usually bloody messes, no matter how “literary” they are supposed to be. This is I think a legacy of romanticism, with its emphasis on “inspiration” over plan. For the record, Gustave Flaubert spent three months plotting Madame Bovary while on the opposite end Stephen King made up The Stand and most of his books as he went along. Surely a system that brands Stephen King a better writer than Flaubert has some issues to say the least.

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