The Great Detectives: Inspectors with Quirks
We have a soft spot for eccentric sleuths.
Detective work might seem straightforward: Investigate a crime, unravel the clues, pinpoint the motive, and find the culprit. But what makes a great detective doesn’t always fit in these categories. Today we highlight inspectors with quirks. We confess to having a soft spot for eccentric sleuths—especially since those very idiosyncrasies can help them chase down killers.
Clayton Rawson’s most memorable creation was the Great Merlini, an illusionist sleuth based in New York City’s Times Square, who makes mysteries vanish into thin air. Get to know the conjuring detective with the excellent locked-room mystery Death from a Top Hat. When a magician is found dead in a completely sealed apartment, the suspects include astrologists, ventriloquists, and contortionists. Merlini must find the truth among fellow experts in the magical arts.
Peter Bowen’s Gabriel Du Pré, by contrast, is a tough, laconic cattle inspector living in rural Montana. In the vast, rough country around Toussaint, he also helps out the town’s small police force. Victims turn up dead for reasons both modern and ancient, and as an insider, Gabriel has special insights on the cases. He’s deeply devoted to his family, suspicious of outsiders, and fatalistic. When he gets in over his head, he often plays his fiddle or turns to an old shaman friend. Du Pré’s series begins with Coyote Wind, and in each novel both the weathered detective and his community come alive on the page.
In the 1970s, Marc Olden kicked off the Black Samurai series, exciting pulp novels about an American GI who trains in Japan with a master samurai. A star martial arts pupil, Robert Sand, the “Black Samurai,” is the first African American to ever take the samurai oath. When his sensei and fellow students are murdered, Sand will stop at nothing to avenge them. These fast-paced adventures are a fun blast of seventies style.
Hugh Pentecost’s Pierre Chambrun manages the luxurious Beaumont Hotel, a New York landmark. Charming and unflappable, Chambrun is as comfortable with the kitchen crew as he is with his rich and famous guests. But those guests have a propensity for trouble, from murder to kidnapping to blackmail, and Chambrun finds himself solving crimes to save everyone’s reputation. This four-star series begins with Shape of Fear, but it’s easy to dip into any one of these mysteries.
The quirks don’t stop there. Howard Fast dreamed up an especially unusual hero: Masao Masuto, a Buddhist homicide detective in Beverly Hills, who first appeared in The Case of the Angry Actress. With his meditation practice and love of roses, Masuto is a far cry from a hard-bitten detective. People tend to underestimate him, which he uses to his advantage. Meanwhile, Ross Thomas’s Philip St. Ives straddles the worlds of crime and law, as a professional mediator between thieves and the people they rip off. He arranges the recovery of precious items, such as jewels, paintings, or even people. Starting with The Brass Go-Between, St. Ives finds that it’s all too easy for such deals to go dangerously wrong.
These unusual sleuths prove that untraditional backgrounds or hobbies can actually be an advantage—not only for the cases they crack, but for their readers. Their quirks, whether magic or Zen Buddhism, make these inspectors truly memorable.