Oldies But Goodies: Learning The Gumshoe Game With Some Classics

According to an article in The Telegraph, there is greater interest in crime fiction today than with any other fiction genre.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have popularized crime/detective fiction, but in 1841 Edgar Allan Poe penned the first detective story with The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Ever since, crime fiction has continued to thrive.

Here is a list of prominent icons in the gumshoe game.


When someone mentions the word “detective”, one might think of a cloaked Sherlock Holmes wearing a deerstalker hat, smoking a pipe and holding a magnifying glass. While it may not be what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had imagined, it is certainly the image that is etched in people’s mindsthanks to an 1891 issue of Strand Magazine that first depicted Holmes in a deerstalker hat. Guinness World Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the “most portrayed movie character” in history.


Hercule Poirot is the famous, diminutive Belgian private detective created by the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie. Poirot possesses an extensive knowledge of human nature and is very witty. He is known for his magnificent mustache and being sartorially well-put. Poirot takes pride in his appearance. He always talks about the “little gray cells” and how to use them properly. Poirot is the only fictional character in history who has an official obituary.

Article taken from the New York Times. Photo from


Dorothy L. Sayers’ aristocratic character Lord Peter Wimsey is as witty and as quirky as Hercule Poirot. Being a scholar, Wimsey has an academic attitude towards solving a crime. He enjoys the art of sleuthing, and he has his own sense of justice. In one of the books, he allowed the suspect to walk to his own death. Wimsey is intuitive and is a very keen observer. He is a bibliophile, a musician, an artist. Aside from being intelligent, Wimsey is strong and agile. All these traits make Wimsey sound as if he is perfect. On the contrary, he gets more and more human throughout the series.


Sam Spade is undoubtedly one of the most well known figures in the gumshoe game. Created by Dashiell Hammett and perfectly portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon, Spade is known as a “hard and shifty fellow”. Here’s what Hammett had to say about Sam Spade:

“Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not — or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague — want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client. (The Thrilling Detective)”


When someone mentions Philip Marlowe, we can’t help but think of Humphrey Bogart’s performance in The Big Sleep. Well before Humphrey Bogart’s iconic screen performance, Philip Marlowe first appeared on the pages of Raymond Chandler’s classic novel The Big Sleep. You will find that beneath Marlowe’s love for whisky and brandy, clever witticisms, and hardy affect is a quiet, introspective man who enjoys chess and poetry.


Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is a tough private detective who is ruthless and despises violent crime. When compared to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who are often described as “hard-boiled and cynical”, Mike Hammer is best described as being made of steel. (Think Dirty Harry, but tougher.) He views the law as broken and as being an impediment to justice. Two of Mike Hammer’s best known screen portrayals were by Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly and Stacy Keach in the TV Series Mike Hammer.


Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer is a derivative of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. When describing the difference between his writing and Chandler’s, Macdonald remarked, “Raymond Chandler was and remains a hard man to follow. He wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence. While trying to preserve the fantastic lights and shadows of the Los Angeles, I gradually siphoned off the aura of romance and made room for more complete social realism” (Mystery Fiction and Modern Life by R. Gordon Kelly).

MacDonald’s Lew Archer series of books provided hard-boiled crime fiction a psychological depth. As Tom Nolan, in Ross Macdonald, A Biography, observed, “Gradually [Macdonald] swapped the hard-boiled trappings for more subjective themes: personal identity, the family secret, the family scapegoat, the childhood trauma; how men and women need and battle each other, how the buried past rises like a skeleton to confront the present. He brought the tragic drama of Freud and the psychology of Sophocles to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery.”


Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, did not start out as a private investigator. A World War II veteran, Rawlins was desperate to hang onto his house and equally desperate for a job. With few opportunities, Rawlins soon found himself working the gumshoe game for money.

Being black and poor, Rawlins has experienced first-hand society’s injustices. He strives to rise above what is expected of him and he tries to do what is right and just. Rawlins is far from perfect though, and he is easily distracted by women, money, and sometimes glory. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series sheds light on the many nuances of human nature and shows us what it’s like to be black in America.

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