25 April 2011

Brilliant British Mysteries

I know, I know, enough with the alliteration already. Sorry (no, not really). So, we all know about the Queens of the Golden Age, right? Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh... all fantastic, and still wonderfully readable. But who's out there now? Here are some of my favourites, from the old-fashioned to the gritty to the very, very odd (not necessarily in that order, though).

Peculiar Crimes Unit - Christopher Fowler

I think I'll start with the odd, actually. If there's something weird going on, you call - erm, no, not the Ghostbusters, at least not in London. Nope, it's the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a strange and not always entirely official offshoot of Scotland Yard, which handles the woo-woo cases. Nominally in charge are aged (but still mostly effective) detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, with an assortment of colourful and generally quite odd cohorts. And a cat who just might pee in the marijuana. Don't ask, just read.

Maisie Dobbs
- Jacqueline Winspear

Set mainly in the interwar years (with some flashbacks to WWI), this series manages to be a contemporary of both the Golden Age ones referenced above and current works, since it's still being added to (the latest was out in hardcover in mid-March). The eponymous heroine is part detective, part psychologist, and all very, very interesting. These are extremely well-written, with a strong sense of atmosphere (including plenty of thick London fog) and sympathetic characters, from Maisie's assistant Billy, whom she once treated when she was a battlefield nurse in WWI, to her father, a former costermonger now living a fairly comfortable retirement on the grounds of the estate where Maisie used to be a house servant before being caught in the library at 2 AM and, rather than being punished, was sent to school. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Flavia de Luce - Alan Bradley

These books pull off the difficult task of appealing to adults while having a juvenile narrator - namely, 11-year-old poison enthusiast Flavia de Luce (hey Merethe, have you read these?), a precocious and intelligent girl living in a crumbling family manor with her father and two elder sisters. Set in post-WWII Buckinghamshire and full of period detail (but not obnoxiously or anything), this is a series which definitely takes the award for "Best Titles" on this list. There's all sorts of chemical chicanery, as well as sibling rivalry, amazingly bad cooking, and, of course, corpses. There are three books currently available; something in the back of my brain is saying that Bradley's got a 6-book contract (he's actually Canadian, if anyone's keeping track), but who knows where I dug that up.

Adam Dalgliesh - P. D. James

I first discovered these when I was in college - there was a discount bookstore/yarn shop (I know, heaven on earth, right? Except I wasn't knitting then.) at the mall near campus and I'd pop in there several times a month to see what had turned up. Nestled along the back wall were these little pocket-sized paperbacks, and yet, oh, the stories in them! Dalgliesh is a police officer and a poet, and over the years (quite a lot of years - Baroness James is not an annual publisher) has had cases running the gamut from private plastic surgery mishaps (or was it?) to mysterious lawyer killings. Like others on this list, there's a TV version; I think it was an ITV show, haven't seen any though. Bonus points if you can identify the source of the quotation used as the title of the first in the series, shown here - I'll give you a hint, it was also referenced in a Miss Marple mystery!

, Paddy Meehan et al. - Denise Mina

I have this author to thank (or curse) for my desire to walk up Garnet Hill Road in Glasgow - I believe the first block has a 17% grade, and the second is only slightly less wind-stealing at 14%. In any case, the Garnethill trilogy and her series featuring Paddy Meehan are what she's mainly known for, and then there are several standalones. For better or for worse, her hardcovers frequently end up in the bargain section, which means that I can afford them - I think Americans just don't quite GET that Glasgow vibe. Pity, 'cause she's fabulous. Anyway, Garnethill trilogy - psychiatric hospital, sex abuse victims, nasty throat-slashing murder, it just doesn't let up! As I frequently do, I'm just going to stop right there and let you discover the rest on your own.

John Rebus
- Ian Rankin

Okay, I admit it, I've only read the first two in this series - so far. 'Cause the rest are definitely on my list (and not just because I'm addicted to Edinburgh). Rebus is a professional detective, and more in the mold of the classic American "hardboiled" guys than the typical protagonists of these books. (As a completely irrelevant aside, if I'm not mistaken Rankin lives on the same street as both Alexander McCall Smith and J. K. Rowling. I want to live in that neighborhood!) Anyway, Rebus is divorced, drinks too much, has a troubled kid he doesn't see much, and the cases themselves are definitely more in the down-and-dirty category than some of the other more genteel entries on this list (if one can use the word "genteel" to refer to a murder...). Rankin has other novels as well that don't go in this series; I've read a couple more of those and they're thoroughly interesting also. Still addicted to Edinburgh though. ;-) (Oh, and the title of the first one there is a play on "noughts and crosses", which is British for "tic-tac-toe", for those who aren't familiar with it.) There's also a television series, but I haven't seen any (yet) so can't give any kind of opinion on it.

Lynley/Havers - Elizabeth George

This is the series that got me back into reading mysteries after a hiatus of several years (roughly corresponding to the hell that was high school). See, I'd been in a bit of a fender-bender (tire blew out at 50 MPH) and was in massive screaming amounts of pain, and therefore I took myself off to the nearest drug store to procure a heating pad and figured since I was likely to be spending the next several days mainly in bed (did I mention I was staying in a weird run-down rooming house in the middle of effing nowhere?), I should grab a novel or two off the rack. One of them was In the Presence of the Enemy, and I have been a huge Elizabeth George fan ever since (we share a birthday, too). These are big fat dive-in-and-enjoy books, with a strong cast of regular characters and fascinating new additions with each case. They've also been made into TV shows (broadcast on PBS's Mystery in the US), though many of the later episodes are not based on the books at all (ran out of novels, at least at that point); they're not bad (despite some really weird casting) and I'll confess to owning them all on DVD (as well as all the books, of course... several of which are autographed...). Anyway, Scotland Yard, British nobility, house parties and tabloid journalists and race relations and violinists and street gangs - you name it, they cover it.

Charles Lenox - Charles Finch

For some reason, I seem to pack these when I'm heading out on Burrow excursions (I had the first one with me for our UK '08 trip, and the second when I visited Mari and Sarah in DC in '09). Leaving aside the weirdness caused by the main character sharing a name with the author (I can't think of anyone else at the moment who does that, aside from Jane Austen), this is another set being written now but set in earlier times - Victorian, in this case. Lenox is a prime example of the gentleman detective (à la Albert Campion) who at first stumbles into cases almost accidentally and eventually gets called in on purpose. For those keeping score, Finch is an American who went to Oxford. Especially in some of the later ones, the mystery seems almost incidental to the story and character development, but it is there and so far he's fooled me every time.

Now, originally I had a few more on here, but as usual I have gone on forever and I need to let you get back to work or breakfast or whatever it is you were doing before you clicked over here - but I hope you'll give at least a few of these a try!


Cruella Collett said...

Excellent timing, m'dear! Did I already tell you about the Norwegian tradition for påskekrim (Easter Crime/Mysteries), or was this just a happy accident?

ViolaNut said...

Everything's an accident with me. :-P