Billy Jensen's Favorite Fictional Citizen Detectives

Posted by Cybil on August 1, 2019
Billy Jensen is an investigative journalist who focuses squarely on unsolved murders and missing persons. He helped finish Michelle McNamara’s 2018 New York Times bestseller, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, after her untimely death.

His new book, Chase Darkness with Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders, is both a memoir and a how-to-guide for solving cases using social media, crowdsourcing, and shoe leather.

Here he shares some of his favorite fictional counterparts in the war against crime.


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True crime as a genre has always had one major flaw: It is a universe with a thousand supervillains but very few superheroes.

Bundy, Gacy, Manson, Dahmer, Zodiac, BTK, Jack the Ripper—the rogues' gallery goes on and on. But ask the average true-crime reader to name a superhero. You might hear John Walsh, maybe Elizabeth Smart or John Douglas. But the heroes of these tales are often in the shadows, working as a team to bring the villains to justice.

Imagine Harry Potter with Voldemort, Lestrange, and Umbridge up against a faceless army of justice instead of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. We need heroes. Real heroes. More than ever before. I am trying to change that narrative in true crime and bring the heroes to the forefront, telling the stories of the crime analysts, the detectives, the prosecutors, the survivors, and, yes, the citizen detectives.

Some of the greatest and most revered characters in all of fiction have taken the form of the citizen detective, the amateur sleuth. An ordinary person who has taken upon themselves to right a wrong, to set order out of chaos. To make everything right.

Here are my four favorites:


Isaiah Quintabe
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This is 2000s Los Angeles noir. Your protagonist isn’t a down-on-his-luck old white guy with a drinking problem. Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) is a hardscrabble African American high school dropout genius who solves neighborhood mysteries for whatever payment he can get. He’s quiet, super observant, flawed, angry, and darkly witty. He’s got a sidekick named Dodson who is less a Watson and more a Walter Sobchak to his Sherlock, bringing him cases but also a lot of trouble. The first book has a real Hound of the Baskervilles angle, but the new take on the consulting detective is so damn cool, you embrace the hounds. Out of all these citizen detectives, I want to be friends with IQ the most—just to be able to text him at 2 a.m. about a real case I’m working on.

Notable Effort: No gadgets like Batman. No experiments like Sherlock. IQ just observes and deduces. He’s had to survive on his own on the streets, so he uses everything at his disposal.

Favorite Quote: I love this put-down of a bully IQ encounters: “Isaiah looked at him like he’d come to the door selling five-dollar candy bars you could buy at the store for a dollar. He hated threats.”




Sherlock Holmes
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One of my favorite parlor games to play at the bar: Who was a better detective, Sherlock Holmes or Batman? You will immediately drive away most other patrons and have both the bartender and the jukebox to yourself.

Sherlock is the alpha. But he’s miserable and has a drug habit. Batman has the tragic backstory, but also an unlimited bankroll and wonderful toys. Holmes' deduction powers are second to none. As are his experiments (tobacco ash, anyone?).

Holmes would have surely weighed in on the debate, as he showed disdain for other fictional detectives: "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine." BURN.

Of course, Holmes performs this very trick on Watson from time to time, most notably after Watson slams down the newspaper in The Adventure of the Resident Patient. So I like to think Arthur Conan Doyle was just being cheeky about Mr. Poe, the originator and patron saint of the detective genre.

Notable Effort: His fieldwork in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). Picking a favorite Holmes deduction is like picking a favorite Beatles song, but his willingness to get dirty while attempting to solve the murder of a local landowner always sticks out for me. His efforts showed he wasn’t just a city-dwelling fancy lad but was willing to get dirty. As Watson wrote, “To Holmes, as I could see by his eager face and peering eyes, very many other things were to be read upon the trampled grass. He ran round, like a dog who is picking up a scent.” He picks up all manner of twigs and bark, before he deduces that the killer is a tall, left-handed, cigar-smoking man with a limp.

Favorite Quote: “I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go.” I quoted this one, from The Adventure of the Three Gables, in Chase Darkness with Me and will get it tattooed on my body at some point.




Batman
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There are so many great Batman graphic novels. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns are both classics. But Scott Snyder’s The Court of Owls, Geoff JohnsBatman: Earth One, and Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? are all stellar examples of the character referred to as the World’s Greatest Detective. Unlike the others on this list, Batman has to deal with superpowered villains, time travel, aliens, and has a lot more “friends” who he has to team up with from time to time.

I chose Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer for this very reason. The story begins with a murder of one of their own: Sue Dibny, who carried on a wonderful love story as the wife of Elongated Man. The killing sets off a chain of reactions that bubble up narratives of memory, trauma, abuse of power, and Batman fighting the very heroes he once fought beside.

Notable Effort: At first glance, Sue Dibny looks as if she was burned to death. But Batman, looking at autopsy pics, realizes that she actually died from an infarction in her brain. In a moment of clarity he realizes what occurred and races to save the others.

Favorite Quote: “People think it's an obsession. A compulsion. As if there were an irresistible impulse to act. It's never been like that. I chose this life. I know what I'm doing. And on any given day, I could stop doing it. Today, however, isn't that day. And tomorrow won't be either."




Nancy Drew
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She was born out of necessity—and as a cash grab. Edward Stratemeyer, creator of The Hardy Boys, began to realize that girls were reading his books about the boy amateur detectives. So he created Nancy, who quickly eclipsed the boys in both influence and popularity. When Oprah, Hillary, Babs, and RBG all cite you as an inspiration, you are doing something right.

The stories were all written by ghostwriters under the pen name Carolyn Keene, but credit for the character’s development needs to go to Mildred Wirt, who wrote 23 of the first 30 books. Nancy has evolved with time, utilizing new investigative techniques, but always with a go-bag with everything she needs to jump right into an adventure. The stories have been updated throughout the years to remove some of the awful language and xenophobic cultural representations and stereotypes, but Nancy’s core character has remained. And she is the clear predecessor to Veronica Mars, one of my favorite TV citizen sleuths.

Notable Effort: In The Hidden Staircase, Nancy faces two problems: Someone is sending threatening messages to her lawyer dad, and there is a ghost stealing things in an old mansion. She solves her father’s kidnapping and then uses her knowledge of secret passages to discover the first rule of mysteries: It’s never a ghost.

Favorite Quote: “One thing is for sure, she thought. Work is the best antidote for worry. I'll get back to Twin Elms and do some more sleuthing there."




Who are some of your favorite fictional detectives? Share your recommendations in the comments!

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Comments Showing 1-50 of 55 (55 new)


message 1: by Denise (new)

Denise J.P. Beaumont (J.A. Jance)


message 2: by Febrizal (new)

Febrizal Antama Where Agatha Christie?. I think the novel from Agatha Christie is still the best


message 3: by Sophie (new)

Sophie Febrizal wrote: "Where Agatha Christie?. I think the novel from Agatha Christie is still the best"

Hercule Poirot. A classic indeed.


message 4: by Shellie (new)

Shellie Taylor Sebastian St. Cyr, the series is written by C.S. Harris and starts with "What Angels Fear."


message 5: by Julie (new)

Julie Definitely Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers from Elizabeth George's series. I always look forward to each new book.


message 6: by SarahSophie (new)

SarahSophie Brouwer I've always liked Tommy & Tuppence Beresford, from Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime, N or M, and a few other novels. They're very down-to-earth about crime, resourceful, and a great couple. I also just love how Tuppence always just goes and does exactly what people tell her not to. She's very much a "I do what I want no matter what other people think of it"-kind of woman, and I admire that.


message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

Benny Cooperman by Howard Engel, Jack Taggert by Don Easton, John Cardinal by Giles Blunt, Lane Winslow by Iona Whishaw, Belle Palmer by Lou Allin, Sean O'Brien by Tom Lowe, Kate Page by Rick Mofina, Travis McGee by John D MacDonald, Nero Wolf by Rex Stout & Lew Archer by Ross MacDonald to name a few!


message 8: by Christy (new)

Christy Tate dupin, and of course Sherlock, as played on tv, by either Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny lee miller.


message 9: by Merry (new)

Merry Detectives/series I love:

Thomas Lynley/Barbara Havers by Elizabeth George
Adam Dalgliesh by P.D. James
Andrew Dalziel/Peter Pascoe by Reginald Hill
Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler
Kurt Wallander by Henning Mankell
Harry Bosch by Michael Connelly
Ruth Galloway by Elly Griffiths
Vera Stanhope by Ann Cleeves
Miss Marple by Agatha Christie
Kinsey Millhone by Sue Grafton


message 10: by Beth (new)

Beth  Rose I know Paul mentioned them in the podcast but I'll have to go with The Hardy Boys, and I'll also throw in a Cormoran Strike and Corinna Chapman.


message 11: by Annie (new)

Annie Aaron Falk by Jane Harper.


message 12: by Annette (new)

Annette Sophie wrote: "Febrizal wrote: "Where Agatha Christie?. I think the novel from Agatha Christie is still the best"

Hercule Poirot. A classic indeed."


Miss Marple too.


message 13: by Adelaide (new)

Adelaide Metzger If y’all haven’t checked out Dr. Theo Cray in The Naturalist trilogy by Andrew Mayne you’re missing out. He hunts serial killers using his passion for computational and biological environments. One of my favorite characters ever.


message 14: by Steve (new)

Steve Wynne I'd recommend giving Isaiah Coleridge a shot, from Laird Barron's books 'Blood Standard' and 'Black Mountain'.


message 15: by Sophie (new)

Sophie Merry wrote: "Detectives/series I love:

Thomas Lynley/Barbara Havers by Elizabeth George
Adam Dalgliesh by P.D. James
Andrew Dalziel/Peter Pascoe by Reginald Hill
Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler
Kurt Wall..."


Great list! Some of my favorites.


message 16: by Shanna (new)

Shanna Overbey Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis - By Jonathan Kellerman
Will Trent - By Karin Slaughter


message 17: by Terri (new)

Terri My highest accolade for a mystery writer is for the Inspector Gamache series written by Louise Penny. Still Life is the first in the series.
My go-to, read over and over, mystery writer is Dick Francis. I never thought I'd love a bunch of mysteries where each one involves a racing horse or jockey in the plot. Francis knew his craft!
Other favorites: Sue Grafton with ABC series of books, and Harlen Coben and his stand-alone mysteries: who couldn't love him?


message 18: by Petya (new)

Petya Tsvetanova Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, for sure, and also George Simenon's Jules Maigret, as well as Sam Spade by Dashiell Hammett.


message 19: by Cathy (new)

Cathy Laurie R. KIng's Mary Russell


message 20: by Kay (new)

Kay Lord Peter and Harriet Vane.


message 21: by Carol (new)

Carol Can't believe nobody's mentioned Bernie Rhodenbarr from the "Burglar" series by Lawrence Block.


message 22: by Liz (new)

Liz B Jackson Lamb/Herron; Doctor Siri Paiboun/Cotterill; Cormoran Strike/Galbraith; Virgil Flowers/Sandford; Armand Gamache/Penny


message 23: by Teddi Penewell (new)

Teddi Penewell Terri wrote: "My highest accolade for a mystery writer is for the Inspector Gamache series written by Louise Penny. Still Life is the first in the series.
My go-to, read over and over, mystery writer is Dick Fra..."


I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one re-reading Dick Francis. Love his books.


message 24: by [deleted user] (last edited Aug 20, 2019 08:29AM) (new)

Lew Archer by Ross MacDonald & Travis McGee by John D Macdonald then from more modern times there are Sean O'Brien by Tom Lowe, Belle Palmer by Lou Allin, Meg Harriss by R. J. Harlick, Dan Sharp by Jeffrey Round, Benny Cooperman by Howard Engel, Lane Winslow by Iona Whishaw, Jonah Geller by Howard Shrier, Annie & Jake Lincoln by Rayven T Hill and John Granville & Sam Scott by Sharon Rouse to name a few!


message 25: by Nanette (new)

Nanette Sherlock Holmes and Watson;Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn and D.I.Fox;Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey; Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Tommy & Tuppence Beresford; Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin;P.D.James’s Adam Dalgliesh; Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael; I’ve enjoyed them all!


message 26: by Jc (new)

Jc Trixie Belden is about 1000x better than Nancy Drew on so many levels, and I don't understand why she always gets ignored on these stupid lists.


message 27: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth C Sherlock Holmes stories/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Can't trust the opinion of illiterates who list ten authors when the question is, "Who is the best amateur detective?'


message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

Elizabeth wrote: "Sherlock Holmes stories/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Can't trust the opinion of illiterates who list ten authors when the question is, "Who is the best amateur detective?'"

Please re-read the question! it does not say "Who is the best-"It asks "Who are some of your favorite fictional detectives?" ! I see a lot of comments here from us "illiterates" who actually answered the question correctly! BTW those I listed are actually only a few of my "Favourite" fictional detectives and there are many more especially if I include all my favourite fictional Police detectives too. Have you read any of Brenda Chapman's fine "Stonechild and Rouleau" series or Stanley Evan's "Seaweed" series or Don Easton's "Jack Taggart" series and there are many more?


message 29: by Mary (new)

Mary Zoeter Donna Leon's Inspector Brunetti


message 30: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I see Hercule Poirot and Tommy & Tuppence, but there is also Agatha Christie's inimitable Miss Marple!


message 31: by Lise (last edited Aug 20, 2019 02:05PM) (new)

Lise I love so many of the detectives already mentioned, but no one has given a shout out to Perry Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake. Erle Stanley Gardner's trio worked so well together and the books spawned a popular tv show and a series of movies.


message 32: by Janet (new)

Janet Murdoch Jc wrote: "Trixie Belden is about 1000x better than Nancy Drew on so many levels, and I don't understand why she always gets ignored on these stupid lists."

You are so right!!!! All through my girlhood she was my hero and I so wanted to be her! From her curly hair to her gung ho attitude - she was awesome!!!!!


message 33: by Janet (new)

Janet Murdoch Terri wrote: "My highest accolade for a mystery writer is for the Inspector Gamache series written by Louise Penny. Still Life is the first in the series.
My go-to, read over and over, mystery writer is Dick Fra..."


Dick Francis hits all the bases for me - even though all his books are in the horse racing world they are so different. His wife had a lot of input and so the female characters are very well written.


message 34: by Erynn (new)

Erynn J.P. Beaumont by JA Jance, Trixie Belden (so much better and more realistic than Nancy Drew), Harry Bosch by Michael Connelly, and Sharon McCone by Marcia Muller are some of my longtime favorites.


message 35: by Mwanakombo (new)

Mwanakombo Mohamed Hi, great reads to me are Nancy drew, hardy boys, and of course Sherlock Holmes. Otherwise for the African continent “war and conflict in Africa “ by Paul Williams is a must read.


message 36: by Jc (new)

Jc Janet wrote: "Jc wrote: "Trixie Belden is about 1000x better than Nancy Drew on so many levels, and I don't understand why she always gets ignored on these stupid lists."

You are so right!!!! All through my gir..."


SO AGREE!


message 37: by Carol (new)

Carol Gleason-rechner Henry Tibbett (and his lovely wife Emmy) by Patricia Moyes.


NOT a christie Fan ! Sophie wrote: "Febrizal wrote: "Where Agatha Christie?. I think the novel from Agatha Christie is still the best"

Hercule Poirot. A classic indeed."



agatha christie referred to Poirot as DETESTABLE (deserving of HATE) and a 'Conceited Creep'. No author who would malign a character so viciously is worthy of a reader's time. I'm good with Sherlock Holmes.


message 39: by Judy (new)

Judy Graversen-Algaier Owen McKenna & Spot :-)
- - Trixie Belden, (Yay for tomboys-my introduction to mysteries) China Bayles, for when I'm in a rainy day mood
--- Flavia de Luce, A 30-year-old in a 12 year olds body. Hilariously dark and different.
As for Sheriffs, the Walt Longmire series and the Bill Gastner/Estelle Reyes-Guzman, Posada county series....


message 40: by Bruce (new)

Bruce Simon I love Mabel Seeley, who wrote mysteries from the 1930s-1950s. Her books had a bit of a Gothic "had I but known theme". The Crying Sisters and The Chuckling Fingers are exceptional. The serial killer theme is treated with a bit of Gothic sophisitcation in Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stuart ( author of The Moonspinners and the Arthurian Quartet, beginning with the Crystal Cave). Also you could not have a legitimate mystery list and omit Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin written by the incomparable Rex Stout. Honorable mention should also go to Richard and Frances Lockridge for their mystery series, featuring Mr and Mrs North as well as Inspector Merton Heimrich.


message 41: by Francisca (new)

Francisca Bernie Gunther (Berlin Noir) by Philip Kerr


message 42: by Francisca (new)

Francisca Lisbeth Salander by Stieg Larsson


message 43: by Zulu (new)

Zulu Bridget Detective me I love ☘️


message 44: by NOT a christie Fan (last edited Sep 07, 2019 02:32AM) (new)

NOT a christie Fan ! SPAM! Not sure what the above post has to do with detective stories. Even if it did, four of the same post is SPAM.


message 45: by [deleted user] (new)

NOT a christie wrote: "SPAM! Not sure what the above post has to do with detective stories. Even if it did, four of the same post is SPAM."

Did you flag it? This appears 10 times on another article. This is out of hand and GR does nothing!


NOT a christie Fan ! Philip wrote: "NOT a christie wrote: "SPAM! Not sure what the above post has to do with detective stories. Even if it did, four of the same post is SPAM."

Did you flag it? This appears 10 times on another articl..."


Nope. Should have. I will now. I saw it last night/ this morning and I wasn't wide awake.


NOT a christie Fan ! I just flagged it. Should I flag all four or just the one? What was the sense is posting the same message four times on one page? That's what I don't get.


message 48: by [deleted user] (new)

NOT a christie wrote: "I just flagged it. Should I flag all four or just the one? What was the sense is posting the same message four times on one page? That's what I don't get."

Same comment was posted about 10 times on another article! What I don't get is why GR can't do anything about this crap, or maybe they just won't? Should be easy to screen these duplicates but I'll agree it might be a bit more difficult to block the different individual ones.


message 49: by NOT a christie Fan (last edited Sep 07, 2019 03:57PM) (new)

NOT a christie Fan ! Hi Philip. I don't get it either. Surely they can block the person and keep her/ him from posting anymore. I'm pretty sure people have to be members before posting. And GoodReads has guidelines. Why have guidelines without having the ability to enforce them?

I have one idea that I'm going to try. I'll try to find Goodreads contact info and then send a link to those four messages. Not sure it will work but I'll give it a go.

Hmmm....... I wonder if Goodreads has a Facebook page. If so, maybe I can reach them there. Spam posts are pathetic. Especially four at a time. What's the point?


message 50: by NOT a christie Fan (last edited Sep 07, 2019 04:55PM) (new)

NOT a christie Fan ! Nanette wrote: "Sherlock Holmes and Watson;Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn and D.I.Fox;Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey; Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Tommy & Tuppence Beresford; Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin;P.D.Jam..."


Why do people insist on connecting christie with the character a) she plagiarized from AC Doyle's Sherlock Holmes AND, worst of all, whom she referred to as "DETESTABLE" (deserving of HATE). Okay, stupid question. CASH GRAB. That is the ONLY reason Poirot is connected with that thieving woman.

Need evidence that christie was a thief? If you have read/ watched THE VEILED LADY, you might want to check out the Sherlock Holmes story on Youtube https://youtu.be/yW4GD3oRmFg The case of Charles Augustus Milverton. Christie made some changes (one woman as opposed to many) and the end.. HOWEVER, some very key scenes , even dialogue is TOO similar to be a mere coincidence. Including Sherlock AND Poirot both playing with the idea of turning their talents to the COMMITTING of crime rather than solving them.

Also, Holmes/ Watson// Poirot Hastings burglarizing a house in search of the blackmailing letter(s) .

Before I learned of christie's HATRED for the Belgian detective, I read a few books. How interesting that BOTH Watson and Hastings referred to the POWERS of their friends. Coincidence? Not bloody likely.

Long story short (too late, I know) but the ONLY reason Hercule Poirot exists at all is because his ersatz 'author' wanted to share the same literary podium with Mr. Doyle and Holmes. She didn't care about Poirot. Jane Marple she referred to as "My dear Jane' in a letter to Joan Hickson in 1946. Poirot, she wished never existed.

In some fan-fiction I'm working on, I have given christie that very wish. A life where Hercule Poirot NEVER EXISTED. .

'Cabin Fever' when an author is writing a series is one thing. But there is a difference between "I love you, Anne" (Shirley~Anne of Green Gables series, Lucy Maud Montgomery)
" but I need to see other characters.." and "I LOATHE you and wish you never existed!"

I will NEVER trust that ARROGANT THIEVING WOMAN (christie) or have any of her books in my home anymore! When an author (for the sake of making the point) maligns his or her character, they forfeit the right to be trusted by readers. And yet, so many mindlessly follow after a woman who HATED a character , while, at the same time, claiming to love the character she despised.

CHRISTIE drew the dividing line with her vicious diatribe; "Why oh WHY did I EVER create that DETESTABLE bombastic creature?" Readers can either take christie's side, in which they should ONLY read Tommy and Tuppance, Miss Marple and the stand alone stories.

The "DETESTABLE" Hercule Poirot should NOT be part of a PRO-CHRISTIE library. Then again, what if you're a Poirot fan but LOATHE christie's hatred of him? Watch the series but do NOT have the books in your home.

However, given what I've learned in the last few years, the BEST course of action for readers who want to be able to TRUST the authors they read...... SKIP christie and Poirot entirely and find an author who CARES about their characters.

I ABHOR agatha christie! She deprived this reader of the enjoyment of a character, because it became an issue of continual niggling as to WHY Poirot was so HATED. If I had it to do over again, I would have ditched BOTH. Then again, what reader starts reading a novel series under the assumption their author will turn, so heartlessly, against that character. That should NEVER be the case! If an author cares more for their own fame than for the character(s) who gives them their fame, they should do ANYTHING ELSE, but they should NOT be writers!


So now, I do my best to warn readers against christie and her poisonous animosity against a character who did NOT deserve such malicious treatment.

Or DOES he? If you are PRO-CHRISTIE , shouldn't YOU hate Poirot, just as she did ?


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