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Read it First: Literary Sleuths on the Silver Screen

Elizabeth Graney, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Collage of films adapted from books
Let’s take a look at some of our favorite fictional detectives and their cinematic adaptations

This month marks the 180th anniversary of the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Widely recognized as the first modern detective story and the progenitor of the fictional detective character, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is also considered the first locked room mystery. It follows the gentleman detective C. Auguste Dupin as he uses his incredible powers of deduction to solve the baffling and gruesome murder of two women. Many aspects of the story became widely recognized literary conventions, including the eccentric genius detective and the presentation of the solution before the detailed explanation. C. Auguste Dupin was the prototype for many of the fictional detectives we know and love today, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the mystery genre as we know it would not exist were it not for Poe’s groundbreaking short story. In honor of this pioneering work, let’s take a look at some of our favorite fictional detectives and their cinematic adaptations.

Watch and Read at Home

Along Came a Spider
Patterson, James

The first in James Patterson’s wildly popular series, Along Came a Spider introduces the character of Alex Cross, an African American homicide detective, and psychologist. When two young children are kidnapped, Cross is brought onto the case. He partners up with Jezzie Flanagan, the head of the Secret Service, and together they must investigate the chilling crimes of serial kidnapper, Gary Soneji. As Cross and Flanagan’s undeniable chemistry grows, so do Soneji’s crimes. Will they be able to stop him before he commits the crime of the century?

Though based on the first book in the Alex Cross series, the 2001 film adaptation of Along Came a Spider was actually the second film to be based on an Alex Cross book.

The Big Sleep
Chandler, Raymond

Hired by a millionaire to uncover the person blackmailing the youngest of his two wild daughters, private detective Philip Marlowe soon finds himself entangled in much more than a simple blackmail case. The further he digs, the more he finds. Gambling, kidnapping, and even murder, this case has it all. Set in 1930’s Los Angeles, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep is the first in his beloved Philip Marlowe series.

You can check out the iconic 1946 film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall with our Library to Go service today. Already seen it? Why not check out the lesser-known 1978 film starring Robert Mitchum and James Stewart available streaming through hoopla.

Devil in a Blue Dress
Mosley, Walter

Devil in a Blue Dress is Walter Mosely’s first published book and the introduction of his most popular character, the African American private detective Easy Rawlins. Set in 1940’s Watts, Devil in a Blue Dress looks at crime and racial politics of Los Angeles of the time. After being fired from his factory job, Rawlins is hired to find a young white woman named Daphne Monet. But he soon finds himself embroiled in something much deeper than a missing persons case.

Starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Tom Sizemore, and Jennifer Beals, the 1995 film adaptation can be checked out on DVD with your library card today.

Gone, Baby, Gone
Lehane, Dennis

When a four-year-old girl disappears from her home in Boston, private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are brought onto the case. As they delve into their investigation, they uncover disturbing evidence that suggests there is more to the story than meets the eye. What seems a simple and tragic case of a kidnapping gone wrong soon turns into a conspiracy that threatens their relationship and their very lives. Dennis Lehane’s thrilling Gone Baby Gone is the fourth book in his Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro series.

The 2007 film adaptation was Ben Affleck’s directorial debut and can be checked out on DVD using our Library to Go service.

In the Heat of the Night
Ball, John Dudley

While passing through Wells, South Carolina, African American homicide detective Virgil Tibbs is arrested for the murder of a local musician. When it is clear he did not commit the crime, local authorities enlist him to help solve the murder. Paired up with a racist sheriff to investigate, Tibbs must watch his own back even as he attempts to solve this crime. John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night uses a compelling mystery to deftly tackle racism in the heart of Dixie during the tumultuous 60s.

The iconic 1967 film adaptation starring Sydney Poitier won five Academy Awards. You can stream it with your library card through Overdrive.

LA Confidential
Ellroy, James

James Ellroy’s popular neo-noir LA Confidential follows three Los Angeles police officers as they attempt to solve a grisly murder at the Nite Owl coffee shop. The characters soon find themselves caught up in a conspiracy of organized crime, drug trafficking, prostitution and political corruption. Ellroy’s grim epic paints a dark portrait of 1950’s Los Angeles.

The 1997 film adaptation starring Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kim Bassinger, and Danny Devito won two Academy Awards.

Murder on the Orient Express
Christie, Agatha

Named one of the top 100 Mystery Novels by the Mystery Writers of America, Agatha Christie’s classic locked room tale Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most widely read mysteries of all time. A snowed in train, a vicious murder, and 13 suspects with no apparent motive. This may be detective Hercule Poirot’s most unsolvable mystery yet.

Murder on the Orient Express has had two film adaptations. The 1974 film, starring Albert Finney as Poirot, was a critical and commercial success. In 2017, accomplished actor and director Kenneth Branagh released a star-studded adaptation featuring Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and Branagh himself. Both films can be checked out on DVD using our Library to Go service today.

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan

No list of literary detectives would be complete without private detective Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle took direct influence from Edgar Allan Poe’s original detective stories in developing the character of Holmes, adopting detective Dupin’s pipe smoking, brilliant intelligence, and eccentric problem-solving style. Doyle even once said, “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?" Though inspired by Poe, Doyle took the genre and ran with it, creating the timeless Sherlock Holmes. Arguably the most famous detective of all time, Holmes has appeared in 4 novels and 56 short stories. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Holmes is the most portrayed literary character in film and television history with over 250 productions to date. With so many books and films to choose from, we couldn’t narrow it down to just one! Take a look at Doyle’s classic stories, check out one of the numerous films on DVD, or even stream a few on hoopla from the comfort of your own home.

The Thin Man
Hammett, Dashiell

Private detective Nick Charles has given up chasing down grifters and goons and now spends his time drinking the days away with his young wife Nora, a wealthy socialite. But their life of ease is interrupted when Nick is drawn against his will into solving the murder of an old acquaintance. Filled with witty banter and charm, The Thin Man was Dashiell Hammett’s last published novel and the basis for a six part film series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. You can check out the films on DVD using our Library to Go service today.