Murder Room Guide: Detective

There’s no denying that when we think of crime fiction, the first image that comes to mind is that of the central figure of the genre, the Detective.

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Whether it features a world-weary policeman, such as Rankin’s Rebus or Connelly’s Bosch, driven by justice; a paid professional like Holmes, Poirot or Marlowe, who live for the thrill of the chase and the solving of the puzzle (or just the cold, hard dollar, in Marlowe’s case); or the everyday (but oh-so-clever) amateur like Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, the detective novel is the crime novel.

Taking us by the hand and leading us to places we never thought we’d see, from city slum to politician’s boudoir, it shows us the cracks and the alleys that we seek out avidly in fiction but in our day-to-day lives would go out of our way to avoid.

The detective novel dates back centuries, but although the clothes, the technology and the settings have changed, at its heart is the timeless thrill of a crime solved and a criminal brought to justice . . . or not. Here’s our guide to some of the finest detective fiction, both classic and recent.

You all know his sleuth lawyer Perry Mason, but Erle Stanley Gardner’s Cool and Lamseries is often rated even more highly by those in the know. The Bigger They Come introduces Bertha Cool, the greedy, dishonest, foul-mouthed, 200-pound battering ram and Donald Lam, the sleazy pint-sized lothario who would have been in the morgue long ago except that he can think faster than the next man. Their first outing together is the case of how a man can commit a brutal murder, confess and get away with it!

For fans of the master of whodunits Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen is both novelist (via his various ghost writers) and hero of The Player on the Other Side, and is an institution of the pulp magazines that spawned the hard-boiled detective. With a high-tension plotline and unexpected but foreshadowed twists, this classic hard-boiled novel pits Ellery Queen against a brilliant, sick killer whose only clue to his identity is the signature he leaves before murdering his victims.

For readers who like their detectives to be more gung-ho (David Baldacci fans, we’re looking at you), we recommend Hell is a City by Maurice Procter. In this fantastic thriller set in the grimy backstreets of Manchester, Inspector Philip Martineau must track down his childhood friend, escaped convict Don Starling, in a game of cat-and-mouse that will end in violent confrontation.

On to one of the most popular police procedural authors of all time, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinctnovels are the ideal fit for fans of the classic television series Hill Street Blues. In Fiddlers, join Steve Carella and the boys as they chase the ‘Glock Killer’, but always seem to be just a few steps behind. With a narrative as relevant now as when it was first written, and a strong ensemble cast, Fiddlers is a brilliantly twisting puzzle of a book.

And finally we present J. J. Connington, one of the foremost practitioners of Golden Age detective fiction who inspired, among others, Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr. Debuting in Murder in the Maze, Connington’s great series detective, the assertive and acerbic Sir Clinton Driffield, alongside his ‘Watson’ Squire Wendover, must confront some diabolical schemes, including the poison dart murders at the centre of a country estate’s maze. The novel was praised by no less than T. S. Eliot, who described it as ‘a really first-rate detective story’. And who can argue with that?