8 fictional detective stories we want to see adapted to the screen
The detective is a seminal figure in popular culture — whether it's the world-weary private investigator or a member of the police force. And there have been plenty of them brought to our screens (both big and small), some based on characters from novels and others invented entirely for film or television.
But what about those literary detectives who have yet to receive their due? There's hundreds, if not thousands out there, waiting to be brought to life on screen. Here's some of our top picks for fictional detectives we would like to see adapted, in celebration of EW's Whodunnit Week.
There have been plenty of kid detectives over the years, particularly high school gumshoes. But I'll always have a soft spot for too-curious-for-her-own-good Sammy Keyes. She's the heroine of an 18-book series by Wendelin Van Draanen, which ran from 1997 to 2014. When Sammy is sent to illegally live with her grandmother in her senior living facility, she's thrust into a life of uncertainty just as she's beginning seventh grade. The novels follow her until she graduates from middle school at the end of eighth grade (each novel covers about a month of her life), and they are set in fictional Santa Martina, California (based on Santa Maria, CA).
From a cast of characters that includes Sammy's middle school arch-nemesis, her more well-to-do best friend, and her friend's older brother, there's a rich ensemble to pull from. Plus, Sammy's stories always have fun hooks, whether it be the Christmas setting of Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf or the Hollywood trappings of Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy. Sammy Keyes is as smart and engaging as Nancy Drew, but far more irreverent and sarcastic, making her a perfect heroine for today. She'd be a great figure for a Disney+ series with something to offer the entire family. —Maureen Lee Lenker
Meg Cabot already gave us one iconic heroine with Princess Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries, and she could do it again with an adaptation of her Heather Wells series. Heather, a former teen pop idol, now works as an assistant dorm director at a New York City university. She's perturbed when one of her residents turns up dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Her concerns fall on deaf ears, so she decides to take sleuthing into her own hands — with a little help from her hunky landlord, Cooper, who also happens to be a family friend and a private investigator. Heather Wells went on to be the subject of five novels by Cabot, each a self-contained mystery, as Heather's career and love life evolve. Based on Cabot's own experiences working in an NYU dorm, the novels are rife with her signature humor and winking turns of phrase that would create perfect banter for a series or film. Plus, there's all the chemistry with Cooper, and who doesn't want a detective show with some built-in longing? The only thing more satisfying than solving a case is prolonged yearning. —MLL
Grace F. Edwards offered up a refreshing take on the crime genre with her four Mali Anderson novels, which follow a former NYPD cop who left the force with a lawsuit and a heap of hard feelings. When Mali thwarts a child's abduction, she stumbles on the dead body of a friend and is swept into a mystery that will take her into the heart of Harlem, as danger escalates at every turn. Filled with equal parts danger and humor, Edwards' tales of Mali's sleuthing offer readers a Black female detective steeped in knowledge and a sense of her community. That's something we could use more of in on-screen depictions of detective work too. —MLL
1992's Blanche on the Lam is widely considered to be the first mystery novel written by a Black woman and featuring a Black heroine. On the run from a minor crime, Blanche hides in plain sight as a domestic servant to a wealthy family, and she uses her sense of invisibility in their lives to investigate a mystery involving a sudden change in the matriarch's will. Ultimately spanning four novels, the Blanche White series offers a provocative hook, the idea of a Black woman who uses the historical roles of manual laborer and domestic to turn the positions of oppression on their head. Instead, they become a position of power for Blanche's sleuthing, as she gains access to secrets held by those who overlook or altogether ignore her existence. Blanche presents an opportunity for a new perspective in detective work on screen. —MLL
Nora Roberts is always a good idea, and we'd love to see the beloved … In Death detective series, which she writes under pseudonym J.D. Robb, get its own procedural. At 50 books and counting, there's no shortage of source material. The series follows lieutenant Eve Dallas, who works for NYPSD (New York City Police and Security Department), and her eventual husband, wealthy Irishman, Roarke. Along with a rich cast of regularly appearing supporting characters, Eve solves murders in a future New York City (mid-21st century to be exact). The series is beloved for its balance of captivating cases and the central relationship between Eve and Roarke. Take the wealth of novels at your disposal, Hollywood, and make this thing a sure hit. —MLL
Okay, so technically this heroine of Elizabeth Peters' series is not a traditional detective, but rather an amateur Egyptologist, who solves mysteries and goes on adventures with her eventual husband, Radcliffe Emerson. But Amelia, a Victorian woman with a feminist bent, is such a delight that we couldn't resist adding her to this list. Picture The Mummy but with enough material to fill a 20-book series. Amelia is inspired by real-life Victorian novelist and Egyptologist Amelia Edwards, as well as the academic pursuits of Peters herself (Elizabeth Peters was the pen name of academic Barbara Mertz). Spanning 1884 to 1923, the story covers a vast swath of time and a period of immense historical discovery when it comes to Egypt and archaeology. Amelia is a cheeky, pert heroine, and this would make the perfect period piece with a procedural structure — as Amelia, her best friend, and the Emerson brothers traverse across Egypt getting into all kinds of scrapes and solving mysteries. —MLL
The Three Investigators
Forget Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. My favorite literary detectives are the way more obscure (and way more interesting) Three Investigators. My dad got hooked on this YA book series when it was first published in the 1960s, and he passed his collection of old paperbacks on to me. As a kid, I immediately fell in love with the titular heroes, three California teens who launched their own miniature detective agency. They also had an A-list connection: Alfred Hitchcock gamely allowed the series to use his name, and the legendary director would occasionally throw the boys a case or put them in touch with their latest client.
The result was an addictive mystery series that was part whodunnit, part ode to '60s/'70s Hollywood. Our three heroes specialized in all things bizarre — including ghosts, haunted castles, mummies, and more. Bob Andrews was the team's bookish researcher, and Pete Crenshaw was the athletic muscle. But the series' standout was Jupiter Jones, a former child actor turned brilliant logician. As the trio's de facto leader, Jupe was a stocky Sherlock Holmes in a Hawaiian shirt, using his powers of deduction to solve even the thorniest mental problems.
Today, most American readers have never even heard of the Three Investigators, especially if they're under the age of 50. But the books remain weirdly popular in Germany, where they've found an unexpected second life. (There was even a German film version in 2007, starring Shameless actor Cameron Monaghan as Bob.) But we're long overdue for a proper film or TV adaptation, especially one that can capture the books' Stranger-Things-meets-Hardy-Boys vibe. With a Tinseltown setting and an Alfred Hitchcock connection, what more could Hollywood want? —Devan Coggan
This last entry doesn't technically belong on this list, considering that Nancy Drew has been adapted to the screen several times. But the fact is that none of these adaptations have been particularly good or even managed to capture the spirit of what makes her an enduring character. It's all well and good to modernize Nancy Drew for contemporary audiences, but part of her charm (and that of friends, Bess and George, and boyfriend, Ned) is her old-fashioned trappings. How about a Nancy Drew series set in the 1930s or 40s that situates her headstrong, capable nature amidst a period where women's lives were rapidly changing? It would certainly mean less challenges in adapting the context and content of the various iconic cases she tackled in original novels like The Secret of the Old Clock and The Hidden Staircase. Plus, don't you want to see Nancy Drew solving crime in a snappy period wardrobe? I do! —MLL