Saturday morning, my folks and I spent the morning at a bookfair sponsored by our local library association.  I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday, and all three of us came away with a tote-bag full of books each. Mine were half 1940s mystery novels. In addition, I’m working on making a t-shirt  design featuring literary detectives. Beyond that, the novel I’m working on is a mystery. Needless to say, I kind of have detectives on the brain, so I thought it would be fun to list some of the qualities of a great detective(coincidentally using most of the detectives that are going on the shirt).


1. The Hardy Boys~A great detective is likeable.


In my younger years, these guys were my favorite detectives. They were smart, capable teenagers who got to go off on adventures, crack amazing cases, and had an uncanny ability to recover from getting conked on the head at least twice every novel. They got to do essentially everything the average kid wants to do with his/her life.


Cover of the revised edition of The Tower Trea...


I know that an anti-hero works just as well or better than the classic heroic crime-solver in many cases, but even the worst reprobate of a detective needs to have some quality that your audience can love.


2. Nero Wolfe~A great detective is unusual.


Rex Stout’s mysteries are one of our family’s primary sources of road trip entertainment(audiobooks–relax, no one was reading while driving). Nero Wolfe has always been a favorite, mostly because there’s no one else even remotely like him. He’s a brilliant private detective who never leaves his brownstone, collects all evidence and clues through his hired help, has an immense collection of orchids which is matched only by his impressive poundage, and is easily the most snarky, disagreeable, and cranky character I’ve ever read. And yet, for some reason, he’s still likeable.


Publicity photograph of Maury Chaykin as Nero ...

Publicity photograph of Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe in the A&E TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the points I keep coming across for writing good mysteries is that you must always have a hook, and I can actually agree with the general wisdom for once. Without some sort of unusual quality, most detective protagonists fall flat and lose readers within pages of their introduction. The quality itself doesn’t matter; the more creative and off-the-wall, the better, as long as you can make the reader believe in it–and your character.


3. The Saint~A great detective is himself a mystery.


I confess that I have not actually read any of the actual books featuring Simon Templar. They tend to be rather hard to find, unfortunately. All I’ve been exposed to is the 60’s TV show, but I did love that. Simon had a definite air of mystery in whatever he did, and I found that intriguing. It helped keep me hooked on the show.


Many Saint novels were reprinted in new editio...

Many Saint novels were reprinted in new editions in the 1960s to capitalize on the popular television series, starring Roger Moore. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, this isn’t a hard and fast rule (since when is anything in writing?), but almost all of the best written detectives I’ve come across have something about them that the audience doesn’t know, but is dying to find out. A secretive past, a shady past-time, a great tragedy from long ago–the possibilities are endless and they can add a tantalizing depth to your characters.

4. Sherlock Holmes ~ A great detective is versatile.

Do I even need to explain Sherlock? He’s fantastic, he was one of the original fictional detectives, he’s one of my fictional crushes, HE IS THE ULTIMATE DETECTIVE!

And he’s also an expert swordsman, boxer, master of disguise, chemist, and he writes about various types of ash in his spare time. See what I mean about versatility?

English: Sherlock Holmes (r) and Dr. John B. W...

Having your detective specialize is great. It helps pinpoint your target audience, determine facets of the protagonist’s character, and just generally helps with the details of writing a decent character. But don’t let him/her get pigeonholed into one specialty and never leave it. A forensic scientist at the top of her field is great, but make sure she has skills outside of categorizing stab wounds and classifying the stages of rigor mortis.

  5. Hercule Poirot ~ A great detective is brilliant.

Hercule is one of my favorite characters of all time. He was sophisticated, endearingly arrogant, unintentionally funny, and, above all, brilliant. Kinda reminds me of a cat I had once. He was both intellectually superior and common-sense smart. He knew both facts and human nature. That’s what made him dangerous as a detective and awesome to read.

Hercule Poirot

Hercule Poirot (Photo credit: elena-lu)

Every character, detective or not, should be brilliant in his or her own way. There are far more varieties of brilliance than garden-variety smarts. Some are people-brilliant, some are book-brilliant, others are nature-brilliant, others still tech-brilliant. Whatever their area, make sure your detective shines.

Hey, guys! I’ve been fiddling with the blog again (now you’ll know why, if it suddenly decides to go haywire). Please note the new suggestion page and feel free to add one!


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  1. Pingback: The Life of a Gumshoe | Cheri Speak

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