The best fictional detectives who were contemporaries of Sherlock Holmes
If you’re a fan of Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes stories, or the BBC TV series Sherlock, you may well be looking for other great detectives from the golden era of the detective short story to discover and enjoy. Here’s our list of ten of the greatest fictional detectives who solved mysteries and brought criminals to justice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the same time as Conan Doyle’s sleuth was lodging at 221B Baker Street. We are indebted to David Stuart Davies’ excellent introduction to Shadows of Sherlock Holmes (Wordsworth Classics) for some of the following information about these authors and detectives, many of whose names have long since fallen into obscurity. We’ve also added a few suggestions of our own. Davies’ collection is a great compendium of these forgotten gems, including some of the best stories featuring the detectives listed below – perfect reading for the fan of detective fiction.
Dr John Dollar. This detective was created by E. W. Hornung, nephew of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Hornung is now chiefly remembered for creating Raffles, the ‘amateur cracksman’ or gentleman-thief, who, with his accomplice Bunny, committed daring and ingenious burglaries and other crimes – think Sherlock Holmes if the great sleuth had decided to become a criminal mastermind. John Dollar appeared in one volume of short stories, The Crime Doctor, published in 1914, and is not much remembered now. But he was, in effect, the first criminal psychologist in all fiction – an ‘alienist’ (i.e. psychoanalyst). ‘One Possessed’ is a notable story (included in Shadows of Sherlock Holmes), which has a surprising twist in the tale. The full volume The Crime Doctor is sadly out of print; perhaps Wordsworth Editions will republish it soon?
Loveday Brooke. The creation of C. L. Pirkis, who founded the National Canine Defence League in 1894, Pirkis created one of the first female detectives in Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective, who featured in a series of short stories from the late 1890s onwards.
Dr Thorndyke. Created by R. Austin Freeman, Dr Thorndyke is a doctor who solves crimes thanks to his extensive medical knowledge. One of Freeman’s most ingenious innovations was the idea of the ‘inverted detective story’, which rejects the ‘whodunit’ idea and instead (as in Columbo, or Cracker) shows us the crime being committed. So it’s not about who committed the crime, but how the detective will solve it.
Dick Donovan. When in doubt, cast yourself as the detective in your own series of adventures. This is what Dick Donovan did in a series of stories for the Strand magazine (which also published the Sherlock Holmes stories), as Donovan finds himself investigating secret societies and super-villains aplenty.
Martin Hewitt. The creation of Arthur Morrison, Martin Hewitt is a sleuth very firmly in the Sherlockian line, using the same methods of deduction to solve crimes. He first appeared in the early 1890s when Sherlock mania was first gripping the world, and whilst he’s not as intriguing a character as Holmes, some of his adventures still have the power to entertain. Unfortunately, they’re out of print at the moment – but Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg can help there.
Sexton Blake. Harry Blyth was the originator of Sexton Blake, described as the ‘office boy’s Sherlock Holmes’, though the ensuing adventures that appeared in the Union Jack and, later, Sexton Blake’s Own Paper, were the work of many hands. (Michael Moorcock would later edit the substantial ‘library’ of Sexton Blake adventures.) Wordsworth Classics have recently reprinted a selection of Sexton Blake stories as The Casebook of Sexton Blake (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural).
Professor Augustus S. F. X. van Dusen. This wonderfully named detective is also known as ‘the Thinking Machine’ in a series of short stories written by American writer Jacques Futrelle. A reporter, Hutchinson Hatch, brings van Dusen cases for him to solve using his uber-scientific logic and knowledge – a sort of hyper-Sherlock Holmes.
The Old Man in the Corner. Baroness Orczy, better known for creating the Scarlet Pimpernel, originated this innovative take on the detective – an unnamed man who solves crimes and mysteries without ever leaving his chair. A literal ‘armchair detective’, if you will.
November Joe. This ‘detective of the woods’ was created by Hesketh Prichard, a traveller and hunter. November Joe uses his tracking skills to solve mysteries and crimes in the wilds of Canada.
Max Carrados. Ernest Bramah came up with Max Carrados, perhaps the first ever blind detective, in a series of popular stories for the Strand. George Orwell declared them to be, along with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon and R. Austin Freeman’s stories, ‘the only detective stories since Poe that are worth re-reading’. Carrados gets our vote too. Although Carrados is blind, his other senses – especially his hearing – have more than made up for his lack of sight, and he can read newspaper print by touch and hear things which others are all but deaf to. A volume reprinting the complete Max Carrados stories is available as The Eyes of Max Carrados (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural). Our advice is to begin at the beginning with ‘The Coin of Dionysus’, though our personal favourite is ‘The Holloway Flat Tragedy’, which is gruesome and compelling and wonderfully showcases Carrados’ genius for solving crimes.
More mystery can be found in our short history of detective fiction and our pick of Edgar Allan Poe’s best stories, including arguably the first ever detective story, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. To learn more about the rise of detective fiction during ‘the age of Sherlock Holmes’, we recommend Clare Clarke’s excellent study of the subject, Late Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock (Crime Files).