ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In this week, when a certain boy wizard is getting his share of attention, it's worth noting that there are other beloved characters whose stories regularly show up on bestseller lists. Readers of mysteries and crime novels may not line up at midnight for their next installments, but they love to follow the exploits of Sam Spade or Travis McGee.
NPR's Lynn Neary reminds us of the long history of the genre that's just right for a day at the beach.
LYNN NEARY: Writer Lee Child has written 11 novels. His latest, "Bad Luck and Trouble," is in bookstores now. But Child says he wouldn't be surprised if some of his biggest fans don't remember the title.
Mr. LEE CHILD (Author, "Bad Luck and Trouble"): I don't think they will use my name, either. I don't think they'd walk in and say, when is the next Lee Child available. They walk in and say, when is the next Jack Reacher out.
NEARY: Reacher is a loner. An ex-military police officer, he roams the country packing nothing but a toothbrush. He has a nose for trouble, his own idea of justice, and a wickedly good instinct for survival.
Mr. CHILD: He took things exactly as they came, for exactly what they were. Therefore, he heard the slide rack back and felt no disabling shock, no panic, no stab of disbelief. It seemed entirely natural and reasonable to him that he should be walking down a street at night and listening to a man preparing to shoot him in the back.
NEARY: Child says Reacher is the kind of character who's been around for centuries, the mysterious stranger who shows up just in time to take care of the bad guys then rides off into the sunset. But it's Edgar Allan Poe who's credited with creating the first colorful character at the center of a mystery series with his detective Auguste Dupin, a brilliant loner with a less than brilliant sidekick who serve as narrator.
Using some of the same devices, Arthur Conan Doyle created perhaps the most famous detective of all - Sherlock Holmes.
(Soundbite of movie clip)
Unidentified Man #1: The Star of Rhodesia was in this box not 45 minutes ago.
Unidentified Man #2: How do you know?
Unidentified Man #1: I saw it.
Unidentified Man #3: Oh, there you are, Holmes. How about joining us in the...
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) everyone.
Unidentified Man #2: Funny, it's cut.
NEARY: With Sherlock Holmes says Child, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a detective so clever, so memorable, that the mysteries he solved fade in comparison.
Mr. CHILD: Character is king and the plot is like a rental car. You need it to work for a week while you're reading the book, and if it's a Jaguar instead of a Ford, then so much the better. But essentially, it's the second raison. It's the character driving the story and the plot is merely the vehicle.
NEARY: Other famous British sleuths quickly followed in the footsteps of Holmes. Perhaps none so famous as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Eccentric and erudite, such characters remained the literary role models for mystery and crime series well into the 20th century.
But a tougher character came along in the 1930s when American writer Dashiell Hammett created the unforgettable detective, Sam Spade. Spade spawned a whole new school of street-smart private eyes, hard-boiled detectives like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer.
(Soundbite of movie clip)
Unidentified Man #4: She was waiting at the office door when I got back from my morning coffee break. Women I usually ran into in a rather dingy upstairs' corridor were the aspiring hopeless girls who depended on the modeling agency next door. This one was different.
NEARY: For Lew Archer fans, there's a new collection of short stories edited by Tom Nolan. He says MacDonald placed as much importance on the story and the writing as he did on his character.
Mr. CHILD: He didn't think the detective should be the principal character. He thought the people he was involved with should be the focus and he liked to think that Lew Archer was such a thin presence that if he turned sideways, he would disappear.
NEARY: The Lew Archer novels became bestsellers. And no one argues that set the stage for those kinds of books to hit the bestseller list on a regular basis. Barbara Peters of The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona says you see the influence of the early hard-boiled novelists on popular contemporary writers like Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, John D. MacDonald and Lee Child.
Regardless of a writer's style and approach, there is one thing that all the literary crime fighters have in common says Peters - they all have the steely sense of purpose.
Ms. BARBARA PETERS (Proprietress, The Poisoned Pen Bookstore): I think they have to be the kind of character who is willing to pursue the quests whether it's killing someone, resolving your crimes, dying for his country, whatever it may be, to the exclusion of all else.
NEARY: In the end, Peters says what keeps bringing readers back for more of the same character is a certainty that no matter what terrible things may be going on in the world, what bad things may happen in the book, the heroes of these novels will survive in all their eccentric glory. They have to. It's a series after all.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.