Private eyes are fascinating characters in detective fiction. They don’t have the advanced support that their fictional police counterparts have, but they rely on a mix of charm, smarts, and a bit of luck to solve a tough case. Whether we are fascinated by their investigative methods, deductive skills, colorful personality, or their checkered past, we can’t help but turn page after page to follow their exploits.
Some of them have become so iconic that when we think of “Private Investigator” we immediately come up with an image of that character. The following is a list of some of the most famous fictional private investigators in English literature.
Sherlock Holmes – Since we are talking about famous investigators, Sherlock Holmes has to be included. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and first appearing in “A Study in Scarlet”, Holmes is supremely confident, highly logical, and often depicted as emotionally detached. To this day, Holmes has been the center of numerous stories written by authors other than Conan Doyle, making him a world famous icon for over a hundred years now.
Philip Marlowe – We often have the image of the private investigator as a hard drinking, wise-cracking tough-guy. This image was popularized by Philip Marlowe as he was depicted in the various hardboiled detective novels set during the US Prohibition period. Marlowe is cynical but is also idealistic, philosophical, and has an interest in chess. Raymond Chandler first introduced Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” – a morally upright PI during an age of violence and immorality.
Sam Spade – Created by Dashiell Hammett in the novel “The Maltese Falcon”, Sam Spade as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart on the silver screen crystallized our image of the PI in a trench coat and fedora. The character inspired a lot of detectives that came later. While Humphrey Bogart’s depiction of Sam Spade was contrary to Dashiell Hammett’s vision, both depictions did have a keen eye for details, grit, and determination.
V.I. Warshawski – Sara Paretsky’s “Indemnity Only” introduced us to one of the famous female PIs, V.I. (Victoria Iphigenia) or Vic. V.I. is very independent, idealistic, and has been known to be able to protect herself with karate and a gun in her purse. Specializing in white-collar crime, she often ends up getting mixed up in murders connected with those crimes.
Kinsey Millhone – Sue Grafton’s no-nonsense and very pragmatic Kinsey Millhone is probably one of the best female investigators in detective fiction. Introduced in “A is for Alibi”; Kinsey Millhone’s varied set of idiosyncrasies make for an interesting read as she displays her dedication to her clients.
Mike Hammer – Mike Hammer first appeared in Mickey Spillane’s “I, the Jury”. As a character, Mike can only be described as “extreme” – as in extremely violent and extremely angry. While other fictional investigators may bend the law, a lot of times Mike sees the law as a barrier to justice. However, while we cannot recommend having such an angry investigator working your case, the novels did sell very well with over 160 million copies sold (some sources claiming 200 million).
Lew Archer – In the beginning in “The Moving Target”, Lew Archer was homage to the earlier fictional private eyes: Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Through several novels Ross Macdonald (a.k.a. John Macdonald, John Ross Macdonald) was able to develop Archer into his own character and helped define detective fiction as a genre. Unlike his predecessors, Archer is more openly sensitive and empathic, making him a more likeable character. If you like detective fiction, you’ll have to read the Archer novels.
If you love reading detective fiction, then you can’t go wrong with looking for books with these protagonists. These characters have created some amazing stories throughout the years and will continue to entertain old and new readers alike for many more to come.