How Can You Do It Alone?

A Dozen or So Detective Agencies to Keep in Mind

The image of the private eye as a lone wolf stalking the streets, all on his own, is pretty much embedded in our brains now, but some of the most famous gumshoes weren’t actually flying solo–they were company men and women, working on behalf of a larger company, with the whole weight of an agency behind them. Here are some of the more noteworthy ones.

    Created by Agatha Christie
    Location: London, England
    Employees include Tommy Beresford, Tuppence Beresford
    First appearance: The Secret Adversary (1922)
    Created out of boredom, and not much of an agency, perhaps, since it consists of just Tommy and his equally restless wife Tuppence, but it was arguably the first notable detective agency in crime fiction.
    Created by Dashiell Hammett
    Location: Los Angeles, California
    Employees include: The Continental Op, Dick Foley, The Old Man
    First appearance: “Arson Plus” (October 1, 1923, Black Mask)
    Still the Gold Standard for fictional detective agencies. The stories are all about the anonymous Op, but his fellow ops have his back. 
    Created by Frederick Nebel
    Location: New York City
    Employees: “Tough Dick” Donahue, his boss Asa Hinkle
    First appearance: “Rough Justice” (November 1930, Black Mask)
    If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery… When Nebel was pressured to create a Hammett-like detective to replace Hammett, who seemed to be in the wind, he came up with hard-as-nails Donahue, who was not exactly a team player, but knew the agency had his back.
    Created by Frederick Nebel
    Location: St. Louis, Missouri
    Employees: Jack Cardigan, Patricia Seaward
    First appearance: “Death Alley” (November 1931, Dime Detective)
    Is it a rip-off if you steal from yourself? Cardigan was the draw here, and he was most certainly on much friendlier terms with his co-workers, particularly fellow op Patricia Seaward, than “Tough Dick” Donahue. Although nobody would accuse him of being a particularly easy-going fellow.
    Created by Jan Dana
    Location: New York City
    Employees include:
    First appearance: “Riddle of the Rats” (Dec 1937, Dime Detective)
    More flattery, more imitation. Pretty much a Hammett ripoff, except for the fact that that Acme Indemnity is an insurance company, Still, the gumshoe fits–this nameless op benefits greatly from being a mere cog in a giant corporate wheel.
    Created by Eric Ambler
    Location: San Francisco
    Employees: Don Corey, Jed Sills, Chris Devlin & Dr. Carl Hyatt
    First appearance: “Death Runs Wild” (September 17, 1960, Checkmate)
    Sure, 77 Sunset Strip (and its clones) also featured detective agencies, but that was mostly a cost-cutting measure to speed up production–the boys at Checkmate actually worked together as a team.
    Created by Rickard Levinson & William Link
    Developed for television by Bruce Geller
    Located in Los Angeles, California
    Employees include Joe Mannix, Lew Wickersham
    First appearance: “The Name Is Mannix” (September 16, 1967)
    The show lasted eight seasons, but iconic private eye Joe Mannix only worked as a company man  for one glorious season. It sure was fun to watch, though, as rough’n’tough streetwise gumshoe Joe constantly clashed constantly with the high-tech, straitlaced, by-the-book, data loving Intertech, and its disapproving manager, Lou Wickersham. By the end of the first season, the inevitable happened, and Joe left for good, to return in the second season as, yes, a lone wolf private eye (albeit with Peggy Fair as his loyal secretary and office manager).
    Created by Joe Gores
    Location: San Francisco
    First appearance: “File #1: The Mayfair Case” (December 1967, EQMM)
    Employees: Dan Kearney, Patrick Michael “O.B.” O’Bannon, Bart Heslip, Larry Ballard, Gisele Marc , Trin Morales, Ken Warren
    Nobody–but nobody–has ever created a genuine private eye procedural seriesthat’s ever comes close to Joe Gores’ beloved DKA agency. The inter-office rivalries, the endless paperwork and the drudgery of stakeouts are balanced by this huge, diverse collection of misfit detectives, skip tracers and repo men and women.
    Created by Michael Z. Lewin
    Location: Bath, England
    First appearance: “Family Business” (1988, Winter’s Crimes 20)
    Employees: Papa, Mama, Salvatore, Angelo, Rosetta, Angelo, Gina, Mari, David (and counting)
    This family business, run by a large, rambunctious Italian-Anglo clan, squabble and squawk constantly, and yet somehow they manage to solve cases, in a series a humorus short stories and novels.
    Created by Alexander McCall Smith
    Located in Gaborone, Botswana
    First appearance: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
    Employees: Mma Precious Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi, Rra Polopetsi
    Precious does must of the detecting, but she’d be lost without Mma Makutsi and her husband and part-time assistant Rha.
    Created by Lisa Lutz
    Location: San Francisco, California
    First appearance: The Spellman Files (2007)
    Employees: Albert Spellman, Olivia Spellman, Isabel “Izzy” Spellman, David Spellman, Rae Spellman
    Much like the Lunghi Detective Agency, Spellman Investigations is a family affair. Except that while the Lunghis are a little eccentric, the Spellman’s are downright dysfunctional–with often hilarious results.
    Created by Kwei Quartey
    Location: Accra, Ghana
    First appearance: The Missing American (2020) 
    Employees: Emma Djan, Yemo Sowah (the “old Man”), Walter Manu, Gideon, Jojo and Beverly (secretary)
    They’re billed as “Emma Djan Investigations,” but the real pleasure here is watching the whole team work a case.


Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.

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