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Gunnar Staalesen's top 10 fictional detectives

Posted on 2nd September 2015 by Gunnar Staalesen
One of the fathers of Nordic Noir shares with us ten of his favourite fictional detectives

How does a writer end up becoming the author of detective novels? In my case, my career definitely stemmed from reading detective fiction from a very young age. I started with the American series The Hardy Boys and a very popular Norwegian detective, Knut Gribb (Gribb means ‘vulture’ in Norwegian), whose stories appeared first in magazines, but my first encounter with one of the great fictional detectives, many will say the greatest of them all, was The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I read at the age of thirteen. After the first chapters of that book I was sold forever! From here, I developed a voracious appetite for crime fiction, and then went on to write my own series, featuring PI Varg Veum (‘lone wolf’), which have been published around the world. The following lists my favourite fictional detectives; not all are in English, but there are very good translations to be found, and all are worth reading. I’ve noted down a single title for each – usually the best of their oeuvre – and in some cases it was difficult to choose only one!


Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles

This is one of the greatest crime-fiction classics, and essential reading for all fans of the genre. It’s both a mystery and a gothic novel. The literary style of Arthur Conan Doyle set the standard for all detective writers to follow.



Philip Marlowe. The Long Goodbye

Raymond Chandler aspired to be the ‘Shakespeare’ of crime fiction, and he succeeded. He is the master of the private detective novel, and The Long Goodbye is as close as possible to the ‘great American novel’ in this genre.



Sam Spade. The Maltese Falcon

Dashiell Hammett wrote only one novel and a couple of short stories about Spade. Nevertheless he is one of the iconic characters in crime fiction, helped of course by Humphrey Bogart’s impersonation of him in the film based on the book. It is indeed ‘The Stuff that Dreams Are Made of’.


Hercule Poirot. Five Little Pigs

My lecturer in English literature at the University of Bergen, mystery novelist Robert Barnard, was an expert in Agatha Christie, and he called this ‘the best Christie of them all’. I have read with pleasure most of the Poirot novels, and his curious, famously eccentric nature and Christie’s masterful plotting make him a detective who belongs on all lists of great detectives.




Lew Archer. The Underground Man

Writing in the tradition of Chandler – although not such a master of language, but much better in plotting – Ross MacDonald is one of the most important crime writers of the 20th century. Lew Archer is a sympathetic character, and this book marked MacDonald’s breakthrough as a bestselling writer. There is always a surprise ending!


Nestor Burma. 120 Rue de la Gare.

Léo Malet created a French relative of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and called him Nestor Burma. He has a detective bureau in Paris, Fiat Lux, and the novels are set in the 40s and 50s across all Parisian districts. The stories are complex, well constructed and were later made into a successful series of graphic novels by the comic artist Jacques Tardi.


John Rebus. Black and Blue

Ian Rankin created an unforgettable character when he wrote his first books about Detective Inspector Rebus, and the series melts into a fascinating portrait of his city, Edinburgh, too. It is a pleasure that he is back from retirement and still in good shape, after all these years of whisky, beer and crime. This one is perhaps his best.


Martin Beck. The Laughing Policeman

The Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did not know what they started when they wrote their first novel about Detective Inspector Martin Beck, but they are really the parents of Nordic Noir. The Laughing Policeman is number four in the series and considered the best by many. It was even made into a Hollywood film, with Walther Matthau as Beck.


Van Veeteren. The G file

Håkon Nesser is, in my opinion, the best of the generation Swedish crime writers that followed Sjöwall & Wahlöö. The Van Veeteren series takes place in a fictional European country, and this book – the last in the series – is a fascinating mystery, featuring a Chief Police Detective, a retired detective works as an antiquarian books shop owner in the last part of the series.



Harry Hole. The Redbreast

My compatriot Jo Nesbø has written a series of police novels that are popular not only in Scandinavia but all over the world. Harry Hole is an original character, even if there is a strong likeness to John Rebus and other famous fictional police detectives. The Redbreast is considered one of the best Norwegian crime novels ever. 


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