Ten Inspirations for Famous Fictional Detectives

Fans of the genre, and to a large degree, the general public, are fascinated by the inspiration behind famous fictional detectives. How do writers come up the ideas for engaging characters with unique personalities and their methods?

It turns out that most of them are based on real people or members from their own ranks: fictional detectives. This list of 10 inspirations for famous fictional detectives demonstrates that there is good reason to be curious about the origins of these fascinating sleuths.

10 The Right Reverend Monsignor John O’Connor and Father Brown

Father Brown, a humble Roman Catholic priest solves crimes using his understanding of human nature, which he draws from his Christian faith, as well as his analysis of clues. As such, he remains as popular today as he was when G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) first introduced him to the world in his 1910 short story “The Blue Cross.” The character has not only appeared in several of Chesterton’s own volumes but also in several movies and television series. He is currently the protagonist in the BBC One series. Father BrownThe series starring Mark Williams is now in its ninth season.

The inspiration for this enduring character was himself a man of the cloth, the Right Reverend Monsignor John O’Connor (1870-1952). Chesterton learned a valuable lesson from him. After a spirited philosophical discussion with two Cambridge University students, during which Chesterton was present, O’Connor retired for the evening. The students then admitted that the clergyman was, indeed, a wise and brilliant man but, due to his vocation, most likely rather “insulated and naive.”

Chesterton was much amused by their opinion, having been earlier shocked at learning just how much O’Connor knew about “certain perverted practices.” This, of course, was the result of his having heard the confessions of those who had performed such acts. Chesterton had a model for his priest-detective. He would use the art of both the rational and spiritual detective to solve mysteries.[1]

9 Dr. Joseph Bell & Sherlock Holmes

In an interview with The StrandMagazine in which his short stories about his world-famous detective were published between 1887 and 1927. Radio interviews and his autobiography from 1923 were also published. Memories and AdventuresSir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), explains the origins of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle worked as a clerk in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary during his student years for Dr. Joseph Bell (1837-1911).

Doyle was able watch Bell interact with his outpatients. He discovered that Doyle could learn more about them through his observations and questions than Doyle could by asking them directly. As a result of seeing Bell at work, Doyle wrote, “I used and amplified his methods when in later life I tried to build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal.”[2]

8 Jacques Hornais et Hercule poirot

Philosophers warn against confusing correlation with causation. Coincidences may be intriguing, but they don’t prove anything. However, it is possible to find a cause-effect relationship between these incidents. This is not possible to prove. Nevertheless, the striking coincidences between Agatha Christie’s possible acquaintance with refugee Jacques Hornais (1857-1944), a Belgian gendarme whose actual surname was Hamoir, and the detective Hercule Poirot she would later create are suggestive, indeed. Not only are they both Belgian, but they are also detectives—and there is a striking resemblance between Hornais and Poirot, whom Christie (1890-1976) describes as exhibiting a “stiff” bearing and wearing a mustache.

There are more reasons for us to believe Christie may have modelled Poirot on Hornais. In her autobiography, the author herself muses, “We had quite a colony of Belgian refugees living in the parish of Tor. Why not make my Belgian detective? I thought. There were many kinds of refugees. How about a former refugee police officer? A retired police officer.” Despite the lack of definitive proof, the possibility that the refugee Belgian police officer inspired Christie’s Belgian detective is intriguing enough to warrant further investigation.[3]

7 Eugène François Vidocq and C. Auguste Dupin

Despite the shortness of his life, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), wasn’t only productive but also creative. He created both the modern psychological horror story as well as the amateur detective story that would later become the template for detective fiction. His detective, C. Auguste Dupin, made his debut in Poe’s 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and reappeared in two subsequent stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter.” As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle points out, “There is no doubt that in the Dupin tales, Poe created the basic template for the detective stories of the future.” However, Doyle takes issue with Dupin’s flat, lackluster character.

Poe’s own source was Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), who lived in France at a time during which neither France nor Britain had either police forces or detectives. It was not until the 1820s that the Sûreté, or “French crime bureau,” was formed and not for over two decades later, in 1842, that London’s Metropolitan Police (aka Scotland Yard) added detectives to its force. Lacking a law enforcement source for a model, Poe based Dupin on Vidocq, the former criminal mastermind who’d reinvented himself as a private detective after serving as the Sûreté’s chief. According to Doyle, Poe used “the folly of the criminal [to] build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits.”

A New York Times article summarizes Vidocq’s contributions to criminology. He was researching fingerprinting, ballistics and blood tests long before such matters were common in police work.[4]

6 Jim Grant, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jack Reacher

The protagonist of Lee Child’s thrillers, Jack Reacher, is derived from a mixture of sources, including Child himself. Bryan Curtis says that Reacher’s protagonist, Jack Reacher (the pen-name of Jim Grant), is a former U.S. Army army military police officer who drinks too much coffee each day, chain smokes and wears jeans and a t-shirt. He also tends to be taciturn. Reacher, it so happens, is also the same height as his creator, “six-foot-five.” However, Reacher’s size, like his appearance, is also based on that of former professional soccer player Lawrence DallaglioReacher stands in at six-foot-four. Perhaps with Dallaglio in mind, Child has described Reacher’s face as looking “like it had been chipped out of rock by a sculptor who had ability but not much time.”

In developing Reacher’s character, Child used multiple sources, including stories of the knight-errant, the mysterious stranger, the Japanese ronin myth, and Robin Hood, a type of “character he says, that, “forced out of Europe as Europe became more densely populated and more civilized,” migrated to the American frontier.[5]

5 Dave Toschi, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, and Frank Bullitt

Clint Eastwood’s Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, who appears in Dirty Harry (1971) and four other gilms, along with Steve McQueen’s Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, of Bullitt (1968), are both based on the same person, the San Francisco Police Department’s Inspector David Toschi (1931-2018).
https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/SF-cop-who-hunted-Zodiac-killer-dies-Dave-Toschi-12488886.php
According to Kevin Fagan, it was Toschi’s “penchant for bow ties, snappy trench coats and the quick-draw holster for his .38-caliber pistol [that] drew the attention of Steve McQueen (1930-1980), who patterned his character after” the dapper detective, and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character was also “partially inspired by him.”

After Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) and Paul Newman (1925-1908), who were the initial choices for this role, Eastwood was offered the role. Sinatra because an injury to a tendon in his hand made it painful to hold a gun, and Newman because he “objected to its politics.” Ironically, Toschi seemed to regard Eastwood as an unlikely choice for the part. Despite his stardom, Toschi said, Eastwood’s detective impressed him as “an almost shy person [dressed in]T-shirt or jeans with fading details [and] white tennis shoes.”[6]

4 Porfiry Petrovich and Father Brown, and Columbo

Bing Crosby (1903-1977), would have played the disheveled, snoring, cigar-chomping detective in the wrinkled trench coat. However, William Link (1933-2025), Richard Levinson (34-1987), and Richard Levinson (34-1987), who were the creators of Frank Columbo had their way. The part was instead given to Peter Falk (1927-1911). The actor’s portrayal of the seemingly scatterbrained, humble inspector created as enduring a character as exists in the history of Hollywood. Link and Levinson based Columbo both on Father Brown and Porfiry Petrovich to create their star detective.

Link and Levinson were childhood friends and enjoyed detective stories and mysteries. They were avid fans of Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), from which they borrowed aspects of Porfiry Petrovich, and of G. K. Chesterton, whose Father Brown provided both Columbo’s humble demeanor and his ability to seemingly disappear among others who thought the cop apparently irrelevant. As Shaun Curran points out in his online BBC Culture article, Columbo’s “distinctive posture, exaggerated hand gesticulations and a contrived forgetfulness—his habit of leaving a room, only to return having remembered ‘just one more thing’ became his trademark.”[7]

3 Inspector Clouseau. Lt. Columbo. Sherlock Holmes. Porfiry Petrovich. Adrian Monk.

Adrian Monk, from the television series Monk, was based more on other fictional detectives that most of his peers. Inept Inspector Clouseau, the Pink Panther-famous detective, was the first inspiration for the obsessive compulsive detective. However, the French detective was not Monk’s creators’ inspiration. Instead, it was that of an ABC executive “looking for an Inspector Clouseau-type show.” It was co-creator David Hoberman who thought up a brainy investigator who not only had a welter of personal problems but also suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, as Hoberman did himself. Although the condition was never officially diagnosed, Hoberman related, Monk’s compulsion to “walk on cracks [and] to touch poles” was inspired by Hoberman’s own perceived need to do so.

Monk is also influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and by Columbo, writes Alessandra Stanley. She contends that Monk is cast, in episodes featuring his brother Ambrose, as Sherlock to his “smarter” sibling Mycroft. Also, as “class [distinctions] drove suspects to underestimate Lieutenant Columbo, Peter Falk’s coarse accent and humble demeanor always lulled rich, sophisticated killers into a false sense of superiority.” Both Monk and Columbo, she said, in turn, are influenced by Dostoevsky’s courteous, plodding investigator, Porfiry Petrovich.[8]

2 William Oliver Wallace & Jonathan Creek

David Renwick’s Jonathan Creek, who creates magic tricks for the magician who performs them, also acts, at times, as an amateur detective. Given his expertise, it’s not surprising that Creek was based upon William Oliver Wallace (1929-1909), who went by the stagename Ali Bongo. The flamboyant magician was a superb choice for the television series’ magic consultant.

As an article online The Guardian points out, Wallace’s interest in magic began at age five. He became convinced after serving in the Royal Army Pay Corps, where he co-wrote the Naafi shows in his appearances, that he had the skills and experience to succeed in entertainment. He founded the Medway Magic Society as Ali Bongo. At first, it was a dialogue-based act, but it evolved into a pantomime. Subsequently, he landed the position of chief consultant for Thames TV’s David Noxon’s Magic Box due to his “encyclopedic” knowledge of magic.[9]

1 James Bond, Thomas Magnum

Agent 007 (aka James Bond) is the quintessential British spy. Whether portrayed by Sean Connery, David Niven, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, or Daniel Craig, the debonair agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, created by Ian Fleming (1908-1964), is well-known around the world. It’s little wonder, then, that the creative team who created Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV initially wanted to model their character after Bond.

Instead, the team accepted Tom Selleck’s suggestion to make his character more an ordinary kind of guy, an average Joe, but one who is also charming—and mustachioed. In fact, as writer Dana Sivan points out, Selleck’s mustache, one of both his and Magnum’s most iconic features, was “entered [into] the International Mustache Hall of Fame.”[10]

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