British Fictional Detectives:From Page to Screen

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This is an article about British Fictional Detectives as portrayed in both books and on television. The article details
how detectives come to be created within the crime genre and considers their enduring and increasing popularity with the public.

The article also includes the writers A-Z of favourite British detectives.

Submitted: April 17, 2017

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 05, 2015



British Fictional Detectives:

From the Page to the Small Screen



The Creation of the British Fictional Detective


It could be argued that crime fiction is more than something to read to pass the time, it can be a well crafted and well written genre that offers a sharp, realistic portrait of modern life. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote and created Sherlock Holmes, one of the most recognisable and archetypal figures in literature and indeed is the most famous name in crime fiction. For many people the crime fiction genre means mystery and mystery means detectives. Avid readers of the genre love the thrill of crime and the ingenuity of the killer, it could be suggested that we as readers transport ourselves into the detectives’ world and shadow them in the fight to solve the crime. British fictional detectives tend to be working policemen as opposed to private investigators in America as this is deemed to be more believable within a British setting. Crime fiction stories are exciting and although the mystery may be gripping, readers do want the perpetrator caught by the detective who is then hailed as a hero by those involved and yet it is all in a days work for the detective.


The popular success of Sherlock Holmes encouraged other writers to emulate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Notable characteristics of Holmes were his sharp brain, eccentric habits, his trademark clothes and his somewhat dimmer assistant who stands in for the reader by asking questions that the reader wants answered by the detective. One of the most successful detectives to follow Holmes was Sexton Blake who had a Tinker as his assistant. It could be argued that Blake was more a brand than the property of a single writer with a notable difference being his chase and fight adventures rather than the sharp tales of deduction and observation associated with Holmes. Holmes was not an amateur sleuth, he was a specialist within his field; who had a proven track record for crime solving and was a professional who worked for a fee.


Most crime fiction characters tended to be intelligent and middle/upper class within comfortable settings; therefore they attracted an equally intelligent and comfortable readership, it was all very British…!


Detective stories tend to fall into two camps, the mystery and the thriller. Mystery readers tend to read the stories for the puzzle as the story unfolds. Raymond Chandler ( ) emphasised this, writing that ‘the puzzle addict regards the story as a contest of wits between himself and the writer; these mysteries tend to be known as ‘Country House’ or ‘Locked Room’ mysteries. Country House mysteries can be set in any closed environment where the list of suspects can feasibly be reduced to a small number of people that are all known to the reader, the queen of this form of writing is undoubtedly Agatha Christie. A Locked Room mystery extends the puzzle further, not only must readers’ guess who did it, but also how it was done. Two further type of mysteries are the ‘Inverted Mysteries’ and ‘Village Mysteries’. The conventional detective story begins with the crime, introduces the detective, and then both the reader and the detective embark on the journey together until the mystery is solved. In contrast, the Inverted Mystery begins with the crime, tells the reader who has done it and then the reader follows the detective as they put the pieces together to solve the crime. Emphasis switches from the all knowing detective to clever perpetrator as it appears to be the perfect crime that has detectives baffled and then suddenly the plot falls apart and the detective finally gets the upper hand. Writers seeking to set their stories away from the usual high society circuit set their stories in a village. Villages unlike cities tend to be created to avoid any libel issues. A crime in a village setting makes for a pleasant trip away for the detective and can conveniently include the country house where a crime has been committed. One of the most well known of this type of mystery is Agatha Christie’s creation Miss Jane Marple who resided in the fictional village of St Mary Mead. James (2008) suggests that fictional crime writers saw the appeal of the English village as having attractions for the reader as it portrayed the crime as being displaced from everyday life and was as desirable as the high society setting of other stories. The more sordid aspects of crime and contemporary life are softened and given a rose tinted haze.


Britain brought detective fiction to the world, indeed as mentioned above, it was a British writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who took a prototype and remoulded it into one of fictions great genres. His fictional detective Sherlock Holmes set a pattern that is still followed today, that of the detective as a loner, a little eccentric, driven by a moral ethic and a passion for solving puzzles. The detective lives alone but also has a less skilled, loyal companion; the detective does not seek out cases they are brought by clients requiring the detective’s expertise. Cases tend to possess an element of danger and each case requires the detective to solve the puzzle. After this variation occurs, the detective may be either gender, weak or strong, young or mature, working with or without police co-operation, clients can be either rich or poor.


It was thought that the fictional police detective fitted in better with British culture, the fact that the British policeman did not carry a gun, although the criminal might was seen as an advantage as the reader did not carry a gun either and so could more easily identify with the detective. A police detective is also credible, it is his job to investigate crime, it is a battle between right and wrong in which the reader is there alongside all the time.


Generations of people have utilised books in order to escape from their own lives for a while and lose themselves in the plot of a book. In the 1940s television was in its infancy, however, in the 1950s television ownership had began to increase steadily, by the 1960s the majority of households possessed a television set and by the 1970s they had a colour one, progress in this medium continued to increase throughout the following decades. Out of the medium of television came the police detective as it was thought that they tended to translate better to screen. Private eyes appeared to be less acceptable on screen than on the page.


On contemporary British television the detective is likely to be a Detective Inspector or Detective Sergeant, most of them are procedural detectives, although there are variations on this theme such as Daziel and Pascoe who are a very mismatched pair, Inspector Frost who is awkward and politically incorrect, Inspector Lynley who is a modern day aristocrat policeman and Vera Frost who is plain and over weight, single and lonely. There are also detectives who are established due to a certain location such as Detective Sergeant Jim Bergerac in the Channel Islands, Charles Wycliffe in Cornwall, John Rebus in Edinburgh, Inspector Barnaby in the fictional village of ‘Midsomer’, Inspector Morse in Oxford and Inspector Banks in Yorkshire. Viewers also tended to watch detectives for other reasons such as, in the 1950s Dixon of Dock Green was reassuring, in the 1970s The Sweeney was realistic, and in the 1990s Cracker and Silent Witness were both scientific.


Listed below is the writer’s A to Z of favourite Detectives




Nikki Alexander (Emelia Fox)

Silent Witness

An apprentice archaeological pathologist who was introduced into the series ten years into the run, replacing the shows founding star Amanda Burton who played Dr Sam Ryan.




Detective Chief Inspector Banks (Stephen Tomkinson) Book by Peter Robinson`

DCI Banks

Set in the Yorkshire Dales, Banks is a lonely embittered man who possesses few of the idiosyncrasies of rival police detectives which makes him more real.


Tom Barnaby (John Nettles)

Midsomer Murders

Set in the fictional county of ‘Midsomer’ DCI Barnaby is laid back, making him suited to the semi rural setting. The pace of this programme is gentle and the scenery is pleasing to the eye, the twists in the plot are often quite bizarre.


Detective Chief Inspector Boyd (Trevor Eve) Waking the Dead

Boyd is the head of a cold case squad, this concept originated from breakthroughs in forensic science. Boyd has a disturbed past which surfaces within the character and surfaces whilst he is puzzling over cases. The show is filmed in a brooding darkness which highlights the morbid nature of the cases.


Detective Superintendent Ronnie Brookes (Bradley Walsh) Created by Dick Wolf

Detective Sergeant Ronnie Brooks substitutes alcohol with food; he is a policeman from the East End with a tough past and a big heart. He is partnered with Detective Sergeant Sam Casey (Paul Nicholls). This is half crime drama/half legal procedure focusing on the Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D) these detectives investigate murders involving the people on the streets of London and the Crown Prosecutors who prosecute the defendants in court.


Detective Chief Inspector Matthew Burke (Alex Norton) Created by Glen Chandler

The Maryhill CID investigates gruesome murders against the bleak backdrop of the city of Glasgow. They operate out of the fictional John Street police station across the street from the City Chambers. Burke rules his team with a rod of iron and likes everything just so. Prominent members of the team include Detective Sergeant Jackie Reid She shows courage and loyalty, together with a sense of humour which is seen rarely, however, she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve leaving the viewer only guessing as to what she is really thinking. Detective Inspector Robbie Ross sees himself as a stud, however, he is unlucky when it comes to relationships and despite all Robbie's bravado and patter he is actually quite a sensitive soul deep down and really all he wants out of life is for someone to love him.




Brother Cadfael (Derek Jacobi) Book by Ellis Peters


A twelfth century Monk and amateur detective based in Shrewsbury Abbey, he is tasked with tending the herb garden and is called upon from time to time to use his powers of deduction to solve earthly mysteries. Cadfael is no dashing hero, but he is recruited by the local sheriff due to his knowledge of herbs which due to their poisonous nature, tend to be the prime method used in the crimes that need to be solved.




Daziel (Warren Clarke) and Pascoe (Colin Buchanan) Book by Reginald Hill

Daziel & Pascoe

These two detectives are polar opposites and exist by contrast to each other. Daziel (pronounced Dee-ell) is overweight, deliberately rude and prejudiced, while his Sergeant is neat and refined, intelligent and fastidiously proper. Daziel is a rough diamond who cares a lot about justice, fairness and his job. Pascoe can be sly, manipulative and can fight where necessary. Thus, two opposing characters become one dynamic crime fighting duo.


Ray Doyle (Martin Shaw) William Bodie (Lewis Collins) Created by Brian Clemens

The Professions

Previously working for M15 George Cowley, set up Criminal Intelligence (C15), two top agents are partnered together, namely Ray Doyle and William Bodie. The three men would form the focus of the television series. Doyle had been a detective constable, working in the East End and Docklands areas London – two of the city's toughest beats. Bodie had a varied past having deserted the Merchant Navy, joined a band of mercenaries in Africa, enrolled with the Paras and then the SAS, where his many talents had been spotted by Cowley, who promptly invited him to join CI5. Different backgrounds meant contrasting personalities and the partners were often at odds with each other over the approach to the job in hand – Bodie would think nothing of punching a suspect to 'encourage' them to talk, whereas Doyle tended to ask questions first. These opposing attitudes led the partners to enjoy a spirited relationship while developing an awareness and respect for each other's abilities.



Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes (Jill Gascoine) Created by Terence Feely

The Gentle Touch

Maggie Forbes was Britain’s first female television police detective and starred in ‘The Gentle Touch’ between 1980-1984 and its spin off ‘C.A.T.S Eyes between 1985-1987. With her curly brown hair and large shoulder pads, Maggie Forbes was a sexy, feminist role model




Lindsey Gordon Book by Val McDermid

Lindsey Gordon is a Scottish investigative journalist, lesbian, socialist and brash. She featured in five of McDermid’s novels before McDermid created other characters, heroine Kate Brannigan and Psychologist Tony Hill.




Dr Tony Hill (Robson Green) Created by Val McDermid

Wire in the Blood

Dr Tony Hill is a clinical psychologist and profiler who works closely with the police on their more gruesome cases. McDermid’s books were used as a basis for the television series, however, the series became so popular that stories had to be commissioned based upon her characters. Hill’s partner was Detective Inspector Carol Jordan, played by Hermione Norris.




Sergeant Lewis (Kevin Whately) Book by Colin Dexter


The Morse series was set in Oxford and was played superbly by John Thaw in the lead role, his partner was the ever reliable Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis. When Thaw died in 2007, the series was so successful that Whately took over the role and the series became ‘Lewis’


Inspector Lynley (Nathaniel Parker) Written by Elizabeth George

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries

Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley is a very English policeman who is himself of noble birth, he is married into nobility and they both live in Chelsea. In contrast, Lynley has a working class partner, Sergeant Barbara Havers (Sharon Small) who is sharp and has no time for the upper classes. Although the books tend to be long, they were successfully adapted for television.







Inspector Morse (John Thaw) Written by Colin Dexter


By the time this series began the books were already a success. Morse is set in Oxford, he is an extremely intelligent man who competes with himself to complete the Times crossword in record time. Morse applies the same logic and intelligence to his cases and tends to be a little lost when it comes to human interaction. A lot of his private life is not mentioned, however, it is known that he is a bachelor, who likes crosswords; he also likes opera and occasionally mentions this to Lewis. Sergeant Lewis is Morse’s partner who is less intellectual but they both compliment each other. Crimes tend to be disguised as puzzles, indeed the writer Colin Dexter used to work as a crossword complier. The books are a combination of police procedural and puzzle mystery. The television series makes use of the Oxford scenery with walkabouts and Morse’s driving through Oxford in his red 1960s Mark 2 Jaguar. Due to Morse’s intellect, he tends to view the cases in a more complex way and has to be bailed out by the less intellectual, but more practical partner Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately). When John Thaw died in 2007, Whately earned a ‘Lewis’ series of his own.


Detective Sergeant Tommy Murphy (James Nesbitt) Written by Colin Bateman

Murphy’s Law

Undercover police officer Tommy Murphy is an uncompromising, sometimes tough talking cop. He has no issues with using his charm and sense of humour to attempt to impress any woman, especially Annie, his colleague and later boss. During his career the job interfered with his personal life with tragic consequences to which he still feels responsible. Some of the stories are quite dark and brooding, but the action is fast paced. Murphy is monitored back at base; so that back up from the rest of the team is available when needed.




Detective Inspector Rebus (Ken Stott) Written by Ian Rankin


Detective inspector Rebus is ex-army, an old style policeman, too old to progress any further in the police force. The stories are set in Edinburgh, readers tended to identify with him as a real policeman, with faults, working in a real city. Rankin’s description of Edinburgh is of a grim and dirty city, however, his love of the place is evident in his writing. Rebus lives in real time, as the years pass, Rebus also ages and goes from active Sergeant to retirement as his fictional life progresses. On television, Rebus has a younger colleague, Siobhan Clarke who is tough, but the long hours in the job have not been kind to her. Rebus stories are dark, complex and engaging and they have a huge following.


Detective Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) Created by Ian Kennedy Martin

The Sweeney

This British police series revolutionised crime genre on UK television in the mid 1970s. Jack Regan is a hard edged detective in the Flying Squad of London's Metropolitan

police (called 'the Sweeney' from the Cockney rhyming slang 'Sweeney Todd' = 'Flying Squad’). Regan, together with his partner Detective Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) pursue villains by methods which are underhand, often illegal themselves, frequently violent and more often than not successful.




Jemina Shore (Patricia Hodge) Written by Antonia Fraser

Jemima Shore Investigates

Despite being educated in a convent, Jemima Shore became a savvy television journalist for ‘Megalith Television’ and had her own television programme ‘Jemima Shore Investigator’. The character was televised in 1978 as part of the ‘Armchair Thriller’ series with Jemima played by Maria Aitken. In 1983 ITV ran a short series called ‘Jemima Shore Investigates’ with Patricia Hodge in the lead role.



Inspector Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) Written by Ann Cleeves


Inspector Stanhope is plain and overweight, single and lonely. She is a professional police woman who makes her presence felt in the North of England (Northumberland). She is tough and forthright in her opinions and has a reputation for efficiency, however, at home she is a different Vera, she is lonely and consoles herself with junk food. She can empathise with ordinary people she meets whilst investigating her cases which turn out to be far from the norm. The books were televised with Vera having a partner, Sergeant Joe Ashworth played by David Leon.


Detective Sergeant Freddie Spender (Jimmy Nail) Created by Ian La Frenais


Freddie Spender often chose to carry out the more daring police cases with his criminal sidekick Stick (Sammy Johnson), Spender was one of the more remarkable television detectives of the 1990s. The series featured a large amount of back story for the main characters with many episodes dealing with Spender's domestic life, his family and circumstances. Some of the storylines were surprisingly dark; but were very popular with viewers of the show and was an instant hit for the BBC.




Simon Templar (Roger Moore/Ian Ogilvy) Written by Leslie Charteris

The Saint

The Saint was known as ‘the Robin Hood of Modern Crime’, he was identified as a stick man logo on book covers. The character was suave, carefree and witty, who tended to alternate between being a detective, a righter of wrongs, and a thief from the rich and nasty. The settings tended to alternate between London and New York, both the books and the television series tended to be light hearted and action packed. The series launched the career of Roger Moore (James Bond) who brought humour to the role. Later, in the 1970s the series was reprised with Ian Ogilvy in the title role.

Detective Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm) Created by Matthew Graham

Life on Mars

A present day Manchester detective suffers near fatal injuries after a car crash and awakes to find himself living in 1973; Tyler struggles to come to terms with his situation with the old-fashioned technology and attitudes of the day, when fighting crime. His superior is Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) The methodology and techniques of modern policing that Sam Tyler employs during ‘Life on Mars’ lead him into frequent clashes with other characters. Gene Hunt and the rest of the CID appear to favour brutality and corruption in order to secure convictions, preferring to physically coerce confessions and fabricate evidence. Tyler clashes with Hunt most frequently, usually because Tyler values forensic evidence whereas Hunt often resorts to traditional methods and gut instincts.




Chief Inspector Wexford (George Baker) Written by Ruth Rendall

Inspector Wexford Mysteries

Reginald Wexford polices the fictional rural town of ‘Kinsmarkham’. He deals with fairly domestic cases and is happily married. The domestic cases that Wexford investigates are far from cosy; however, the televised programmes tend to be softer than the books. Wexford’s sidekick is Inspector Mike Burden played by Christopher Ravenscroft; he is a policeman who is distrustful of the civilian world, but someone who is solid and dependable all the same.


Chief Superintendent Wycliffe (Jack Sheppard) Written by WJ Burley


Charles Wycliffe is a serious police detective; he patrols the wild and remote areas of Cornwall and pursues his cases with patience and diligence. Although not a native of Cornwall, he takes time to get to know its inhabitants, even if they might prefer that he didn’t. This is an exceptional idea, as the detection of crime is tracked by Wycliffe and the team; the locals tend to carry on their daily business, their lives unchanged by criminal events that are good to gossip about all the same. The locals tend to distrust the police, preferring instead to take matters into their own hands which only add to the complications and dilemmas for Wycliffe. Wycliffe is a family man, his wife accepting the long hours and turmoil of her husband’s job, they have grown up twins, all expect to see him when they see him.


Here’s to British Fictional Detectives continued success


In summary, the writer’s great love of British crime fiction novels has extended itself equally and just as easily to a love of British crime on television. Many detectives started on the page before being transferred to the small screen, both mediums tend to have a great public following that has only become stronger over the years. Readers and viewers alike can bond with their favourite detective; they can solve the cases alongside their heroes with readers and viewers gaining a special insight into the mind of the criminal, the crime itself, the thought processes of the detective and the solving of the crime. British fictional detectives are amongst some of the best and their longstanding endurance is deemed inevitable as their popularity continues to increase. The crime genre will reproduce the tried and tested formula for great British detective writing and televising and out of this will evolve something new that has the potential to become even greater, creating more ardent fans, who will play their part in the genre’s continued existence and success.





Godwin, R. Godwin, V. Pope, J. (2004) Cast and Characters.

Graham, C. (2013) ‘Tv’s Gentle Touch Star Gill Gascoine, 76, Reveals she has been hit by Alzheimers’.

James, R. (2008) Great British Fictional Detectives: An A-Z. Barnsley: Remember When

Matthews, D. (2013) Authorised Guide to the Professions: Modus Operandi. (Vera, The Sweeney) (Cadfael) (Life on Mars)


All websites accessed June/July 2013

© Copyright 2018 Val Mansell. All rights reserved.

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