On a website that is dedicated to anything and everything having to do with private investigators, it is high time for a discussion on the most famous and beloved private eyes, dicks, shamus, and sleuths to ever be penned into a book, or to grace the silver screen. There is no particular order to this list!
Humphrey Bogart is the man who comes to mind first when I think of fictional gumshoes, as he is the actor who basically defined all successive private investigator characters. Humphrey Bogart played many different private detectives over the years, so it is somewhat cheating to list the actor, rather than any number of his characters, for instance, Samuel Spade from The Maltese Falcon, or Phillip Marlow from The Big Sleep. But Bogart is unique in that his presence in the film was more defining than his character, which is arguably always secondary to his reputation of character. Even to this day, Bogart in a fedora, cigarette dangling from his lips, remains the image conjured up in most people’s minds when they think about private investigators.
Sherlock Holmes, as authored by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is undoubtedly the private investigator with the greatest longevity, known to everyone, even to those who have never read a book in their lives. This is due is a small part to the recent release of two new films in which Robert Downey Jr. plays Holmes and Jude Law is Dr. Watson, loyal friend and assistant to Holmes. But these films can’t be given too much credit, especially considering that while the films are fun, they deviate severely from the books. Sherlock Holmes has been endeared to us because of his uncanny ability to discern the minutest detail, solving the case based on the uneven wear on the brother’s left shoe, for example.
Coming forward into the future a bit, we meet J.J. Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson in the 1974 film Chinatown. Gittes is somewhat reminiscent of any number of Bogart’s characters-hansom, always ready with a quip, zero regard for the rules, and of course, he gets the girl. He wins our affections with his relentless nature, taking several beatings to the face in order to solve the case, save the girl, and beat the bad guy.
Then of course, we have Thomas Magnum, of Magnum P.I., as played by Tom Selleck. Magnum P.I. was on air for 8 years, from 1980 to 1988, featuring former Navy SEAL gone private eye Thomas Magnum, who lives and works in beautiful Hawaii. Magnum P.I. brought the mysterious world of private investigators to the general public in a way that films never could, revealing different facets of the industry throughout the course of the 8 year run.
No list of fabulous fictional private investigators could be complete without a discussion of V.I. Warshawski. Warshawski is one of the first characters of her type, because Warshawski is a rough and tumble female private investigator, taking by storm an industry previously run exclusively by men. Warshawski was invented by novelist Sara Paretsky, and first appeared in the book Indemnity Only, 30 years ago. Warshawski is a sexy, dangerous, gun-wielding investigator who is defined more by her investigative skill than her female sexuality, winning her a place on our list of famous fictional private investigators for being the first of her kind, in addition to being awesome even by male standards!