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The Classic Detective Novel (and Film)

Updated on May 7, 2016
Who's your favorite gumshoe? by rlz
Who's your favorite gumshoe? by rlz

Are you hooked on Law & Order, C.S.I., Criminal Minds or Numb3rs? Have you always figured out whodunit moments before the detectives cracked the case? Eager for even more great sleuthing? Then come with me as I guide you through the best classic detective novels (and films) of all time!

Begin your enjoyment with the most well-known detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes, and his creator, British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). Colorful in his own right, Conan Doyle trained as a medical doctor, studying nerve degeneration, and was a football (soccer) goalie, ophthalmologist, pacifist, cricket player, spiritualist, avid golfer, political activist, and pamphleteer. (He'd have fit right into rickzworld.) Sir Arthur was also a prolific writer who produced scores of works of science fiction, plays, poetry, historical fiction, romances and non-fiction. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (1887), he introduced Sherlock Holmes, who, accompanied by his friend Dr. Watson, relied on astute observation, inference and deductive reasoning to solve crimes. Holmes was also fond of playing the violin, donning disguises, smoking his pipe, and maintaining an erratic lifestyle, including doing hard drugs. Throughout the following 40 years, eight additional volumes of Holmes stories arrived, including ‘The Sign of Four’, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, and ‘The Valley of Fear’. In addition to offering detailed insights into turn-of-the century British life and customs, the Holmes canon also established many of the characteristic plot twists, stylistic elements, and tropes of the ‘modern’ detective story. Although Sherlock Holmes is one of history’s most-portrayed fictional characters, it is the striking portrayals by Basil Rathbone throughout 14 films and Jeremy Brett throughout four seasons of British television shows that fans and critics typically praise.

Next, turn your attention to the American author Dashiell Hammett, and his creations, Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles and The Continental Op(erative). Described as “the dean of the . . . ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction” by The New York Times, Hammett (1894-1961) was himself a private detective with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in his early 20s. Throughout his writing you’ll experience all of the classic elements of noir detective mysteries: the clipped prose, the laconic heroes and anti-heroes, the fast and duplicitous women, the sudden capricious violence, the double- and triple-cross, and the harsh realism. His best works have become great films and TV adaptations — witness Sam Spade in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1930), Nick and Nora Charles in ‘The Thin Man’ (1934), and The Continental Op(erative) in ‘The Dain Curse’ (1929). Like some of his protagonists, Hammett was a smoker, heavy drinker and serial philanderer. The 1941 film version of ‘The Maltese Falcon’ featured Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, with Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. William Powell and Myrna Loy played Nick and Nora Charles as romantic detective-comedians in the 1934 film of ‘The Thin Man’. A 1978 TV-miniseries adaptation of ‘The Dain Curse’ starred James Coburn, Hector Elizondo and Jean Simmons.

Then move on to the writer whom many consider the natural inheritor of Hammett’s mantle: Raymond Chandler (1888-1959). Chandler, too, was a heavy drinker and a serial philanderer, with a propensity to depression and suicidal thoughts. Like Hammett’s, his writings were typically fast-paced and harsh, but Chandler also had a distinct knack for the well-turned, memorable, even poetic, phrase. Check out his classic Philip Marlowe adventures, ‘The Big Sleep’ (1939) and ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1959), as well as his fine screenwriting for such films as ‘Double Indemnity’, ‘The Blue Dahlia’, and ‘Strangers on a Train’. Two strong film versions of ‘The Big Sleep’ were produced, in 1946 starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and in 1978 starring an aging Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles.

Follow the threads of abrupt brutality and overt sex to the pulp writings of Mickey Spillane (1918-2006). Born Frank Morrison Spillane, the creator of detective Mike Hammer — as well as Mike Danger and Mike Lancer — had an early career as Gimbel’s salesman and comic book writer, before scoring big with ‘I, the Jury’ in 1947. The novel was made into a film in 1953, as were several additional Spillane books, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ in 1955, and ‘The Girl Hunters’ in 1963. The prolific Spillane’s novels have sold over several hundred million copies worldwide.

For more layered and psychologically intriguing detective stories look to the works of Canadian-American author Ross Macdonald (born Kenneth Millar) (1915-1983), and his gumshoe, Lew Archer, modeled on Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Throughout dozens of novels and short story collections like ‘The Moving Target’ (1949), ‘The Drowning Pool’ (1950) and ‘Archer at Large’ (1970), Macdonald expanded on the terse style of Hammett and Chandler with insights into the workings of the characters caught up in his complex plots. Paul Newman starred as his detective, renamed Lew Harper, in two film adaptations of Macdonald’s work, ‘Harper’ (1966) and ‘The Drowning Pool’ (1976).

Lastly, turn to the Grand Dame of British Mystery Writers, Agatha Christie (1890-1976), and her two most famous fictional detectives, Miss Jane Marple and Inspector Hercule Poirot. Dame Christie is acknowledged as the best-selling writer of any kind, being outsold worldwide by only The Bible. She also produced successful plays, most notably ‘The Mousetrap’ which has run for more than 20,000 performances in London. Her Belgian dandy of a detective, Poirot, appeared in 33 novels and 54 short stories, and presented a prim and priggish perfectionist who never failed to pry open the puzzling crimes to pin the perpetrator. Marple, the seemingly dotty elder spinster lady detective, appeared in fewer than half as many tales as Poirot, but was much more Christie’s favorite, being modeled in part on Christie’s own grandmother. Her works are often slow-paced, convoluted and ingenious, with growing psychological suspense. You’ll be sure to enjoy her meticulous plotting and deft characterizations. Some of the most popular film adaptations of her work are ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ (1957), ‘And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians)’ (1974), ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974), and ‘Death on the Nile’ (1978).


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    • rickzimmerman profile image

      rickzimmerman 5 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks, Dominique! (It helps to have read all of them cover to cover.)

    • DominiqueCM profile image

      DominiqueCM 5 months ago from Montreal, Canada

      You definitely named some of the best ones out there. Thanks for sharing!

    • rickzimmerman profile image

      rickzimmerman 5 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks, GRP! For an unusual sci-fi take on the noir detective story, give the movie 'Blade Runner' a try some time (or the Philip K. Dick story it was based on , 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?')

    • GlstngRosePetals profile image

      GlstngRosePetals 5 years ago from Wouldn't You Like To Know

      Very insightful on the detective history in movies and shows i remember the drowning pool , and death on the nile. and yes i love to watch C.S.I. Awsome read! Voted up