Famous Private Detectives of the Decades

Sir Arthur Conan DoyleThere are plenty of fictional private detectives that we base our idealism about private detectives on. These are the figures of our childhood and adulthood, both from book and television that we have come to depend on as super sleuths, radical private investigators that provide bone chilling suspense on a whodunit premise.

Undoubtedly, when you say ‘PI’, ‘private investigator’ or ‘private detective, the first name that jumps to your lips is Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes was a fictional private detective of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes describes himself as a consulting detective, someone who is only used when other private detectives can not break the case. Often, Holmes solves the case without ever leaving his home. His astute observation techniques and keen logic solved many cases created by author Doyle. However, contrary to popular belief, Sherlock Holmes did not give birth to the genre of murder mystery. The character Holmes and the private detective story line were inspired by Auguste Dupin, a fictional character created by Edgar Allan Poe, and Dupin’s techniques for solving crime. Our favorite private detective from 221 B Baker Street in London will undoubtedly give rise to any conversation when private detectives are mentioned.

Another fantastic character from the early 20th century that is popularly known as a keen private detective is Sam Spade. Spade was the leading character in The Maltese Falcon, a novel and later, a movie. Created by Dashiell Hammett, the author of the original novel, Spade grew to popularity and is most commonly associated with actor, Humphrey Bogart who played Spade in the third film version of the novel. While Bogart did not fit the appearance of Spade as depicted in the novel, it has come to pass that Bogart’s features have come to be the archetypical private detective which has affected the genre ever since.

Philip Marlowe will certainly go down in the history books as another famous and fictional private detective created by Raymond Chandler in a series of novels, including The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep. Grouped in with other cynical and pessimistic fictional private detectives like Sam Spade, it is their demeanor which appeals to the reader of the mystery genre of novels.

Charlie Chan, an off the wall fictional Chinese-Hawaiian private detective appeared in 6 novels from 1925 to 1932 written by Earl Derr Biggers, but became the private detective hero of many books and movies since. Even syndicating into an animated series called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan in the 1970s by Hanna-Barbera Productions.

Another popular fictional private detective lends the mind to Nero Wolfe, created by author Rex Stout of the 1930s and featured in dozens of short stories and books, many of which were later collected into books. Wolfe is probably the most well known private detective after Sherlock Holmes.

Agatha Christie was a popular mystery genre writer, and her key private detective characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Poirot appears in over 30 of Christie’s books and preferred looking towards the psychology of a crime as opposed to the legwork of finding clues while crawling around on the ground. Poirot has appeared numerous times as a character on both stage and screen.

Miss Marple appears in many of Christie’s novels as well. The typical ‘spinster dressed in tweed’, when it comes to being a private detective, she is sharp as a tack and cunningly logical. Often, Miss Marple can be found in her rolls in Christie’s books, embarrassing local police.

Perry Mason, created by Eale Stanley Gardner, has been a popular fictional private detective icon of many decades. Perry Mason began as a television sitcom starring Raymond Burr from 1957 to 1966. Another attempt, which failed miserably, was The New Perry Mason, which aired for only one season in 1973 and starred Monte Markham. Perry Mason became a popular hit again in made-for-television movies, starring Raymond Burr from 1985 to 1993.

Who can forget Peter Falk as Columbo when discussing famous private detectives? Columbo aired regularly from 1971 to 1978 and again sporadically from 1989 to 2003. Columbo was perceived as a slow-witted police detective, although his character was sharp as a tack when it came to solving crimes.

Dick Tracy is an icon in American pop culture as a highly intelligent police detective that reflected the violence of Chicago in the 1930s. Tracy was created by Chester Gould, a cartoonist, in 1931 for a newspaper comic strip. The strip was written and drawn by Gould until 1977.

A popular mystery series for girls, Nancy Drew was wildly popular series of books created by Edward Stratemeyer in the early 1930s. The character and story-lines evolved over the years, especially in the 50s by Stratemeyer’s daughter, Harriet. In the early 1990s, The Nancy Drew Files was born as a new series of books for girls by Simon & Schuster.

Also created by the Stratemeyer Syndicate was the popular boy’s series, The Hardy Boys, written by Franklin W. Dixon. The Hardy Boys were private detective brothers Frank and Joe Hardy solving crimes together with their super sleuthing abilities. Copies and reprints of the original books are still being produced today