Favorite Fictional Detectives

During a recent panel event at BookPeople on private detective fiction, we were asked to list some of our favorite characters in print and television/movies.  While it was difficult to narrow down, here are a few of my few favorites.  If you haven’t read Lisa Lutz, Sara Paretsky or Laura Lippman, I hope you’ll make a beeline for your favorite bookstore and give one (or all) of them a read.  I think you just may find your next favorite series.

Isabel (Izzy) Spellman: Isabel Spellman has been described as “the love child of Dirty Harry and Harriet the Spy,” which is one of the many reasons I love this character. As a licensed investigator in her family’s firm, she’s extremely capable and sharp, even as she navigates the pitfalls that come from working with her dysfunctional family. Her cleverness has an edge that keeps me turning the pages, and her sarcasm always sticks the landing. 

Tess Monaghan:  I discovered Tess during a time when my career required a great deal of travel. I picked up Baltimore Blues and never looked back. Tess’s investigative journalism background and her balance of strength and compassion compelled me to continue with the series. Laura Lippman gives us such a layered and authentic view of Baltimore through Tess’s eyes. And Tess ventured to go where few female detectives have dared—motherhood.

V I Warshawski:  I’m drawn to a strong and complex female protagonist, and VI absolutely fills this role. Sara Paretsky was one of the first authors to introduce a complicated and fully formed female private investigator, and readers will be forever grateful. Vic doesn’t apologize for who she is and how she makes her way in the world. She’s skilled in a street fight, appreciates Torgiano red wine and doesn’t suffer fools. What’s not to love?

TV:  Jim Rockford:. When I think about private detectives on television, my mind always goes to Jim Rockford. Maybe because he kept me company in my childhood. An ex-con who served time in San Quentin and then was later pardoned, he ran his investigative business out of a mobile home in LA and preferred fishing to most other pursuits. His father never felt being a PI was a real job, and the fact he was often getting shorted by clients didn’t help his end of the argument. Jim Rockford was fallible times, skilled at working cold cases but not always coming out on top in a brawl. He rarely used his gun. He was human, and I find that particularly appealing. And that theme song is pretty catchy, too.

Mary Shannon/In Plain Sight: I’m going to color a little outside the lines on this one. Mary Shannon is a U.S. Marshall working for the Federal Witness Protection program, not a PI, but she’s a skilled investigator with a highly tuned (and hard-earned) understanding of human nature. Her complicated family backstory (her father is on the FBI’s most wanted list) informs her views on her cases and charges, but she’s first and foremost an outstanding hunter and protector. And her banter with her partner, Marshall, is pure gold.

What about you? Who are your favorite series characters? What keeps you turning the pages or tuning in? –Laura Oles

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