The Situation: So, you have a problem and the cops aren’t really being much of a help. Hey, it’s understandable. They have an entire city to look out for and you’re just one person with one problem. Thankfully, you open the phone book, flip to the “Private Investigators” section, and try a few numbers.
The Criteria: This is a tough one. Most of my favorite fictional characters are detectives of one kind or another, and they’re all pretty damned good at their jobs. But, since I could only pick four, I had to find a way to narrow the field. First, they had to be civilians–which rules out Law & Order: Criminal Intent‘s Bobby Goren and C.S.I.‘s Gil Grissom (I know, not technically a detective, but can you tell me he wouldn’t get to the bottom of things?); it also sort of rules out Adrian Monk, since about 98% of his income comes from the SFPD. The next criteria was style. Some people prefer the genius detective over the two-fisted, hard-boiled type. I think both methods have their pros and cons. Finally, and this wasn’t a conscious decision, each of these four detectives began in print and then spread out to other media.
1. Sherlock Holmes
C’mon! He’s the grand-daddy of all private detectives–well, if you want to nit-pick, technically ol’ Holmes was a “consulting detective.” Holmes could look at you from three blocks away and–based on the way you were walking, the state of your clothes, and the mud on your shoes–tell you where you were five days ago. Holmes might not be a people person (that’s Dr. Watson’s job, after all), but his tenacity, keen observation skills, and analytical mind make him an amazing detective.
2. Philip Marlowe
When I think hard-boiled, I think Philip Marlowe. Sure, he might not be as tough as the Continental Op or Mike Hammer, but Marlowe has something that other tough guys don’t: heart. Marlowe was the closest thing the 20th Century had to a knight: morally upright, philosophical, and able to handle himself in a tight spot.
3. Nero Wolfe
There are times that Nero Wolfe makes Holmes look downright personable. Weighing in at a seventh of a ton and refusing to leave his Manhattan brownstone under all but the most dire of circumstances, Wolfe can be a pain in the ass to criminals, cops, and clients alike. But, like Holmes, Wolfe’s gruff demeanor hides an amazing analytical mind and, once he’s on the trail, Wolfe’s too stubborn to give up until the guilty party is revealed. Of course, when you hire Wolfe, you also get his assistant and legman, the wisecracking Archie Goodwin, and Wolfe’s trio of operatives: Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather, and Fred Durkin.
4. Harry Dresden
Similar in many ways to Philip Marlowe, Harry Dresden often lets his heart and morals get him in deeper than his brain, fists, or endless stream of pop cultural references can get him out. But, like Marlowe, Dresden will run himself to exhaustion if he’s trying to help the helpless, and he’s not afraid of going up against thieves, murderers, gangsters, vampires, werewolves, or ghouls. Oh, didn’t I mention that Harry Dresden is also the only professional wizard to advertise in the Chicago Yellow Pages?