Round 1

Pick the best fictional detective

Updated April 5 at 10:49 a.m.Originally published March 25, 2021

In the beginning, there was C. Auguste Dupin. When Edgar Allan Poe first unleashed the amateur detective on a crime scene in 1841’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the author cracked the case of what book lovers want most to read. In the years since, fictional detectives have multiplied, and readers have done their best to keep pace. But which of these sleuths is the greatest? That’s the mystery we’re here to solve.

In our bookish version of March Madness, you’ll find a bracket with 32 possibilities, selected with the help of our Book Club newsletter readers and our frequent contributors. The characters are broken into four categories: classic sleuths (who have been at it for 50-plus years), modern masters (the leads in at least 15 novels), international gumshoes, working across the pond and beyond, and game changers or newcomers who have given new life to the genre.

Make your selections, and we’ll award one point to each first-round pick, two for second-round picks and so on, all the way up to your winner, who will receive five points. After you’ve completed your bracket, you can see how other readers voted. As of April 5th, 2021, Armand Gamache is the top detective.

As an astute detective once said, the game is afoot.

Round 1 |
Match up 1/0.5
Choose a character to advance. The winner of this match-up will receive 1 point.

Sherlock Holmes

Cunningly attuned to the tiniest details, this 167-year-old London detective is still hard at work, using logic to expose the truth.

Creator: Arthur Conan Doyle
Get to know the character: “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Philip Marlowe

This chess-playing, Camel-puffing California loner is as adept at wisecracks as at solving cases, never letting a dame distract him from the task at hand.

Creator: Raymond Chandler
Get to know the character: “The Big Sleep”

Nancy Drew

A teen prodigy, Nancy employs her amateur sleuthing prowess to unmask jewel thieves, reunite families and assist her lawyer father.

Creator: Carolyn Keene (a pseudonym for many writers, including Mildred Wirt Benson and Leslie McFarlane)
Get to know the character: “The Mystery at Lilac Inn”

Lord Peter Wimsey

This wealthy British aristocrat, afflicted with Great War flashbacks, takes up detective work as an entertaining hobby before becoming an invaluable asset to Scotland Yard.

Creator: Dorothy L. Sayers
Get to know the character: “Gaudy Night”

Hercule Poirot

The persnickety, mustachioed Belgian detective strategically uses his “little grey cells” — and the occasional fabrication during interviews — to ferret out the killer(s).

Creator: Agatha Christie
Get to know the character: “Murder on the Orient Express”

Miss Marple

Underestimated as an old biddy with a love for knitting, the most famous resident of St. Mary Mead uses her unassuming identity to her advantage.

Creator: Agatha Christie
Get to know the character: “The Body in the Library”

Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones

The only Black police detectives in their NYPD precinct are infamous on the streets of Harlem for going easy on petty criminals and roughing up violent offenders, adhering to their own brand of justice.

Creator: Chester Himes
Get to know the character: “A Rage in Harlem”

Alan Grant

This Scotland Yard inspector is married to the job, spending even his medical leave unraveling mysteries about long-dead royals, all without ever leaving his bed.

Creator: Josephine Tey
Get to know the character: “The Daughter of Time”

Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch

He may not respect authority, but this detective has an unwavering moral code and a dogged desire to solve murder cases, stemming from his own tragic history.

Creator: Michael Connelly
Get to know the character: “The Concrete Blond”

Spenser

This Boston-based former boxer turned in his state trooper badge for a private-eye license, but don’t be fooled by his tough-guy exterior; he’s as thoughtful as he is funny.

Creator: Robert B. Parker
Get to know the character: “The Godwulf Manuscript”

Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins

Easy may have stumbled into sleuthing because he needed the money, but he’s a quick study, especially when it comes to resolving complex cases involving Los Angeles corruption and social injustice.

Creator: Walter Mosley
Get to know the character: “Devil in a Blue Dress”

Kinsey Millhone

Quirky but pragmatic, this Southern California private eye has a knack for taking on seemingly easy-money cases only to have an alphabet soup of complications arise.

Creator: Sue Grafton
Get to know the character: “A Is for Alibi”

Armand Gamache

A kinder, gentler brand of detective, the chief inspector of Quebec’s provincial police force has seen some terrible crimes but never lets cynicism cloud his humanity.

Creator: Louise Penny
Get to know the character: “The Beautiful Mystery”

Alex Cross

Cross, a D.C.-based former FBI agent and psychologist, spends most of his days tracking down serial killers but still finds time to volunteer at the local soup kitchen.

Creator: James Patterson
Get to know the character: “Kiss the Girls”

Victoria Iphigenia “V.I.” Warshawski

This former public defender turned private detective pays the bills thanks to well-heeled clients, leaving her free to solve more pressing cases for the kinds of victims who can’t possibly afford her rates.

Creator: Sara Paretsky
Get to know the character: “Hard Time”

Joe Leaphorn

This pragmatic lieutenant for the Navajo Tribal Police, often working with the more spiritually minded officer Jim Chee, has a gift for seeing links between seemingly unrelated cases.

Creator: Tony Hillerman
Get to know the character: “Dance Hall of the Dead”

Maisie Dobbs

A former nurse during World War I, this London P.I. learned from the best and always maintains her cool, especially during a climactic race against the clock.

Creator: Jacqueline Winspear
Get to know the character: “Maisie Dobbs”

Vera Stanhope

This Northumberland detective inspector isn’t fashionable or fit — and she always speaks her mind, especially when she’s in pursuit of a killer.

Creator: Ann Cleeves
Get to know the character: “The Darkest Evening”

Precious Ramotswe

The founder of Botswana’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency employs unorthodox methods and keen intuition but also realizes there’s more to life than mysteries.

Creator: Alexander McCall Smith
Get to know the character: “The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon”

Adam Dalgliesh

The cerebral poet laureate of Scotland Yard has investigated the murders of nursing students and lawyers and even the grisly homicide of a mystery writer.

Creator: P.D. James
Get to know the character: “The Murder Room”

Guido Brunetti

This commissario, who lives in Venice with his wife and kids, manages to do what few detectives can: balance a thrilling career with a fulfilling personal life.

Creator: Donna Leon
Get to know the character: “Death at La Fenice”

Chen Cao

This Shanghai Police Department inspector would rather be writing poetry; lucky for the victims, he applies his ample brainpower to locking up murderers instead — even when it’s inconvenient to those in power.

Creator: Qiu Xiaolong
Get to know the character: “A Case of Two Cities”

Mary Russell

A Renaissance woman who married Sherlock Holmes, Mary employs her talents for martial arts and hypnotism, not to mention her knowledge of theology and languages, on an array of cases.

Creator: Laurie R. King
Get to know the character: “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”

Kurt Wallander

His personal life is a shambles and he struggles with drinking, but can you blame him? This opera-loving Swedish police inspector is haunted by all the time he spends pondering the dark underbelly of society.

Creator: Henning Mankell
Get to know the character: “One Step Behind”

Isaiah Quintabe

East Long Beach private eye “IQ” doesn’t have fancy technology or scientific know-how, but he does have a Holmesian eye for critical details, solving cases even when his clients can’t pay (which is most of the time).

Creator: Joe Ide
Get to know the character: “IQ”

Henry Rios

An outsider who harbors no illusions about the justice system, this gay Latino defense attorney knows he’ll have to conduct his own investigations if he wants to help victims on the margins.

Creator: Michael Nava
Get to know the character: “Carved in Bone”

Jackson Brodie

When he’s not tracking down lost cats and tailing unfaithful spouses, this perpetually down-on-his-luck former cop is driven by his own tragic past to connect missing people with their loved ones.

Creator: Kate Atkinson
Get to know the character: “Started Early, Took My Dog”

Blanche White

As a domestic worker, this trailblazing crime solver flies under the radar, but her keen observational skills and understanding of human nature make her a natural detective.

Creator: Barbara Neely
Get to know the character: “Blanche on the Lam”

Wyndham & Banerjee

Working in Calcutta around 1920, former Scotland Yard Capt. Sam Wyndham and Sgt. Surendranath Banerjee navigate the tricky politics of independence-seeking India while investigating high-profile murders.

Creator: Abir Mukherjee
Get to know the character: “A Rising Man”

Nina Guerrera

This FBI agent lives up to the name she gave herself — Guerrera means warrior in Spanish — by fighting a battle of wits with the serial killer who haunts her past.

Creator: Isabella Maldonado
Get to know the character: “The Cipher”

Alice Vega

This bounty hunter with a sterling reputation for tracking down missing people keeps her focus with a daily predawn 15-minute handstand (and no, she doesn’t use a wall).

Creator: Louisa Luna
Get to know the character: “Two Girls Down”

Darren Matthews

This conflicted Texas Ranger planned to become a lawyer before a gruesome hate crime inspired him to take a more active role in protecting Black lives, pitting him against formidable villains with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood.

Creator: Attica Locke
Get to know the character: “Heaven, My Home”
About this story

Illustrations by Bo Lundberg / Illustration Division. Design and Development by Madison Walls. Design editing by Suzette Moyer and Elizabeth Hart.

A note on scoring: Each first-round pick receives one point, each second-round pick receives two points, and third- and fourth-round picks receive three and four points, respectively. The character you select as your winner receives five points.

Stephanie Merry oversees books coverage for the Style section. She previously covered pop culture and wrote movie reviews. She joined The Washington Post in June 2008 after working on the business side at the Hill newspaper.