My mother’s friend Ruth and I like to talk books. After reading a book I’ve recommended in a post, she’ll send me her review and pass on a title or two that she has enjoyed. When Ruth emailed this summer and asked what I’d been reading lately, I had to come clean and confess that due to a busy schedule, “I’ve resorted to my guilty pleasure reading–British mysteries. The kind with no blood, gore, or violence and a lot of tea drinking.”
It is silly that I try to hide the fact that I love mysteries, but like all genre writers, authors who pen whodunits are often maligned as “fluff.” And true, many mysteries fall into that category, but there is also an equal number of well-crafted, excellent mysteries that are as “literary” as many of the books shortlisted for the big fiction prizes. In fact, I think good mystery writers face some of the most difficult writing challenges there are. Not only do they have to write well, but they also have to create a clever crime setup, develop and sustain suspense to the last page, be well-versed in police procedure and methods of death. If the book is in a series, the author must make it accessible to a new reader while keeping the attention of their faithful followers. That’s a lot of writing balls to juggle and, quite frankly, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it.
In my opinion, the three authors who did it best are Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey. (A Brit, New Zealander, and Scot.) Christie, known as the Queen of Crime, is whom I cut my mystery reading teeth on twenty-five years ago when a friend loaned me a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This novel has been touted as Christie’s finest and I was hooked. Luckily, Christie has written over 80 books–enough for a lifetime if you space them out as I do. On the other hand, when I read A Man Lay Dead, the first in Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn mysteries, I couldn’t help but devour the next thirty-one books in the series. She is that good. I tried to pace myself when it came to the works of Tey since I knew that she’d only written eight books total, but too soon I was turning the last page of the last book. The Daughter of Time has been repeatedly chosen as “Best Mystery of All Time,” but I would pick Miss Pym Disposes as my all-time favorite Tey novel.
Luckily, there has been a large group of fine writers willing to pick up where Christie, Marsh, and Tey left off. For a more modern take on British mysteries, check out the four excellent and wonderfully written series by P.D. James, Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George, and Martha Grimes. Ironically, Crombie, George, and Grimes are Americans, but to read them you would never know. The tea drinking is frequent and pubs are visited regularly.
Unfortunately, in the last few years, my mystery reading has waned. Having run through all the books by the above writers (with the exception of Christie), I’ve had to dig to find some new favorites in the mystery genre. There have been some misses–a few that were too violent and a couple that were too silly for my liking–but lately, I have been indulging in some new finds that have wonderfully smart writing and twisting plots.
My most favorite new mystery writer is Louise Penny. I rarely buy a brand new hardback, but I did this past August when Penny’s ninth book in her Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series came out. She’d left me hanging in her eighth book, A Beautiful Mystery: I just had to see what happened. Louise Penny’s series isn’t set across the pond, but up north in Canada, yet her writing has such a flavor of good British mysteries that I can’t help but lump her in with my other favorites. Her series features the occupants of the small town of Three Pines as well as the Chief Inspector of the Surete and his counterparts. Penny creates wonderful characters, including my favorite, Ruth Zarro, a bitter, elderly poet. (Lovely poetry excerpts are borrowed with permission from fellow Canadian writer Margaret Atwood.) Penny also throws in delightful descriptions of food, insightful tidbits about the psychology of being human, and bits and pieces of Canadian history that had me conducting online searches for more information. Her first book in the series is entitled Still Life.
I didn’t expect to like the Inspector Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd. It is set after WWI and features a police officer who is struggling to find his mental balance after combat. He even has the ghost of a fellow soldier as a constant companion. But within a few pages, I knew I’d found a winner. Not only is Rutledge a compelling character, but the historical mood of the series is fascinating. Needless to say, I was surprised to learn that Charles Todd is a mother/son writing team. And again, even though you can’t tell, they are American. Regardless, I am captivated by this series of fifteen books, the first being A Test of Wills. Even better is that the Todd team has also write a very well received Bess Crawford mysteries series about a nurse serving in France during World War I. Another mystery novel avenue to explore.
Lastly, the other day I picked up an old copy of Let it Bleed at my local library. It is a John Rebus mystery by Scottish writer Ian Rankin. I kept stumbling across Rankin’s name in my searches for the best British mysteries and after reading the first chapter of Let It Bleed, I know why. His writing is fast-paced, slightly off-center, and compelling. I was thrilled to learn that he has written eighteen Rebus novels. Enough guilty pleasure reading to keep me going for a while.
If you have a mystery novel to recommend or feel compelled to confess a deep dark reading secret, please post a comment below. Ruth and I are always looking for our next new title.