Death Brackets: The Contest and The Contestants

Mysteries and thrillers, by nature, are populated by tough guys. Detectives who hunt down serial killers. Spies who uncover dangerous traitors. Assassins who take out the worst bad guys on the planet — and anti-heroes like Dexter and Hannibal Lecter with enough goodness in their dark hearts that they sometimes turn their characters around and put their deadly talents to use against the truly unredeemable.

But this isn’t a beauty contest. We don’t care who has the best hair, the fastest car or the niftiest gadgets. The real question—the one that we all started asking each other at recess in second grade—is the most visceral question of all.

Who could kick whose ass?

Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October
Tom Clancy’s hero Jack Ryan: Equal parts thougtful and brutal
It wouldn’t be fair to throw them into a cage and watch them fight. No. A brawl, however bloody, isn’t a true test of the talents of these heroes. Literary tough guys specialize in finding people who don’t want to be found, in hiding from authorities and bad guys desperately trying to hunt them down. And the heroes of thrillers don’t put on gloves and step into a cage with a MMA judge who steps in to stop a fight.

If they win, they live.

If they lose, they die.

Instead, let’s play by their rules. Let’s set up a contest pitting some of the best master detectives against some of the finest heroes of thrillers.  They won’t get thrown into a chain link box with the other man. They’ll get dropped somewhere with no money and no sidekick. Someplace that isn’t home turf. Neutral territory.

It might be the middle of Paris or the wilds of Alaska—the only thing I guarantee is it’ll be random.

Each hero gets dropped at least five miles from the other. They’ll know who their opponent is and have a photo of them. That’s all.  Let’s say there’s an explosive charge strapped to their ankle with a keypad and a timer.  It’ll go off in three days, or if somebody tries to remove it.

Sherlock Holmes from 1892’s The Beryl Coronet
Sherlock Holmes from 1892’s The Beryl Coronet: Not taking No for an answer
There’s a combination stamped on the metal. But that’s the code to disarm the other man’s device.

If we’re going to have quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals, we have to start with 16 competitors: Eight master detectives versus eight of the toughest spies, assassins, and anti-heroes will face each other in 4 rounds.  And by Friday, we’ll have a champion.

Referee’s Note: This is completely subjective. I’m not including female heroes—they deserve their own bouts. I’m not including Batman, even though he doesn’t have superpowers and doesn’t really belong with guys like Superman, who can fly, turn back time, shoot lasers from his eyes, and bounce bullets of his chest. You’ll certainly have your own, different list of the 16 baddest literary tough guys on the planet. This is America, and you are entitled to your opinion, and to argue with mine. In fact, I encourage it—that’s what comments are for.

Onto the brackets!

Master detectives
1) Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
2) Jack Reacher by Lee Child
3) Philip Marlowe by Raymond Chandler
4) Dave Robicheaux by James Lee Burke
5) Spenser by Robert B. Parker
6) Easy Rawlins by Walter Mosley
7) Harry Bosch by Michael Connelly
8) Mike Hammer by Mickey Spillane

Spies, assassins and anti-heroes
1) James Bond by Ian Fleming
2) Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
3) John Rain by Barry Eisler
4) Quiller by Elleston Trevor
5) Jack Ryan by Tom Clancy
6) Skink by Carl Hiaasen
7) Hannibal Lecter by Thomas Harris
8) George Smiley by John Le Carré

It wouldn’t really be fun to have the master detectives kill each other off, with the last man standing facing the toughest of the spies, assassins and anti-heroes. No, the right bracket is to have each master detective paired off against his opposite, a hero from thrillers.

So here are our first round match-ups for tomorrow:

First round
Sherlock Holmes vs. Quiller
Mike Hammer vs. George Smiley
Jack Reacher vs. Jack Ryan
Phillip Marlowe vs. Dexter
Dave Robicheaux vs. James Bond
Spenser vs. John Rain
Easy Rawlins vs. Hannibal Lecter
Harry Bosch vs. Skink

Tell me who you think will win each pairing, and tomorrow I’ll let you in on where the first pairs get dumped and how the fights go down.

Holmes image via Eddy Fate.

Guy Bergstrom is a speechwriter and former reporter who also writes for the NYT’s as their expert on public relations and publicity. His first novel, Ten Days, was a 2011 finalist for best mystery-thriller at PNWA. You can pick literary knife fights with him @epicblackcar on Twitter.


  1. Becky Hantsbarger

    This is really tough, but here goes: 1. Sherlock Holmes 2. Mike Hammer 3. Jack Reacher 4. Dexter 5. As much as I love Dave Robicheaux, I think James Bond would take him 6. Spenser 7. Hannibal 8. Harry Bosch

  2. Gram

    1. Holmes 2. Smiley 3.Reacher 4.Marlow 5.Bond 6.Spenser 7.Lecter 8.Bosch

  3. Andy Speed

    1. Sherlock Holmes – I think he’s clever enough to figure out a way to win. 2. George Smiley – Hammer is more brutal, but I have to give it to the cleverer man again. 3. Jack Reacher – Kind of a wash, but let’s give it to Reacher. 4. Phillip Marlowe – I have to give this to Marlowe, because I just can’t give it to Dexter. (Although really, he’d probably win.) 5. James Bond – It’d be close, but yeah, probably Bond. 6. Spenser – But only if Hawk is included. 7. Hannibal Lecter – I don’t want to give it to him, but most likely. 8. Harry Bosch – Another one that could go either way. But let’s give it to Bosch.

  4. Zack

    Okay, I’m not following you here. Why do female heroes deserve their own bouts? I’d love to see Sharon McCone or Ronnie Ventana up against Quiller or Skink.

  5. Breia Brickey

    1. Sherlock Holmes, 2. Mike Hammer, 3. Jack Reacher, 4. Dexter, 5.James Bond, 6. Spenser, 7. Hannibal, 8. Harry Bosch

  6. CindyKerschner


  7. Clare 2e

    Good choices- interesting that EVERYONE has the second four as Bond, Spenser, Hannibal Lecter, Harry Bosch. That kind of uniformity makes me smell upset.

    I’ve logged them all, so go to the [url=]Death Brackets First Round posts[/url] to see how you did!

  8. Stitch Jones

    Sherlock Holmes

    George Smiley

    Jack Reacher

    Phillip Marlowe

    Dave Robicheaux


    Hannibal Lecter

    Harry Bosch

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