For many readers, the detective makes or breaks the mystery. As important as the case is, if we’re not invested in the sleuth, it doesn’t matter how innovative the clues or how gruesome the murder. I watched Castle because I loved watching Nathan Fillion’s facial expressions and the awesome chemistry between him and Stana Katic, not because I was particularly worried about the murder of the week.
Great mysteries happen when you have great characters figuring out the inventive solutions to puzzling crimes. Our classic usual suspects, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, and their ilk, deserve the homage paid to them. But here are some modern sleuths (written about in the past decade, though appearing in various historical settings) who make me race to bookstore for their latest outings.
Timothy Wilde, the Gods of Gotham series
Written by Lyndsay Faye
This marvelous trilogy plunges you deep into New York City of the 1840s. The police force, known for the copper stars they wear (hence “cop”), are largely skullbreakers who are embroiled in the often violent politics between the Democrats and Republicans. Enter Timothy Wilde, a mild-mannered bartender whose face is ruined in a fire. Losing his employment and his confidence, Tim also has some serious baggage about his larger-than-life, pansexual, vice-imbibing, politicking brother Valentine and the early deaths of their parents. Val works on the fledgling police force and gets Tim a job–one he’s surprisingly well suited for. Rather than simply trying to put a stop to violence as he sees it happening, Tim has a knack for detecting, following the clues in convoluted cases to solve much bigger-picture crimes. Faye steeps the whole world in the language of flash, a slang employed by the criminal element, and incorporates real world figures and crimes, giving her books incredible depth. Tim’s damaged face and childhood issues, his upstanding and forthright nature, and his tumultuous relationship with Val make him an intensely readable detective.
Flavia de Luce, the Flavia de Luce series
Written by Alan Bradley
Now in its seventh instalment, the Flavia books present everything I want in a good mystery. Beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the series centres on Flavia, an 11-year-old girl in the post-war English countryside. Flavia has a fascination with poisons and her own working chemistry lab, thanks to a deceased uncle who set the lab up and a preoccupied father who lets her run rather wild. Motherless and without much direction, Flavia roams Buckshaw, the rambling, somewhat dilapidated family manor, avoiding being terrorized by her two older sisters. She also makes forays into the township of Bishop-of-Lacey on her trusty bicycle Gladys. And she finds no shortage of dead bodies! Flavia puts her excellent skills of detection to the test, often finding herself at odds with the well-meaning police constable. Written in a biting first person, Flavia’s voice and personality are exquisitely rendered and so much fun. The idyllic setting and eccentric secondary characters are also well-wrought, making each new book a joy to read.
Ava Lee, the Ava Lee series
Written by Ian Hamilton
Ava Lee is a Canadian forensic accountant, which doesn’t sound like a terribly interesting hook. She’s also a kickass international woman of mystery, teaming up with her business partner, Uncle, in Hong Kong. Ava’s job is to follow the money using Uncle’s sometime-shady business contacts, untangling serious crimes that span nations and continents. And sometimes the hardest puzzles to untangle for her are familial relations, especially with her father in China and her mother in north Toronto. She’s no-nonsense and she isn’t afraid to employ brains, beauty, or the occasional burst of controlled violence to get what she needs. One of the things I enjoy about this series is that it’s not always about murder. The Wild Beasts of Wuhan, the third book in the series, is about art fraud and theft, one of my favourite subgenres in mystery.
Who are your favourite detectives? Share them in the comments!