Murder will serve
After I talked about murder mysteries with Sheilah Kast on Maryland Morning, and made that remark about the pleasures of reading them that I’ve made a thousand times, some people have asked me for recommendations. This will not be encyclopedic, but rather a retrospective on half a century of enjoying the genre.
I started, of course, with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. My parents gave me a boy’s anthology of the stories as a gift when I was ten, and it was not long before I laid hands on the complete set and devoured them.
Later, Chesterton’s Father Brown stories pleased, despite the creaky Roman Catholic apologetics. I read a little Agatha Christie but was not enthralled. Much better to see the dramatizations with Joan Hickson, the consummate Miss Marple. Same with Dorothy L. Sayers—much better to see Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey.
In high school I discovered Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, and, usually forgetting the plots after the lapse of a couple of years, have enjoyed re-reading Archie Goodwin’s cocky narratives ever since. They do not pall. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels—they were on my son’s reading list at the Park School—also return repeated reading.
Simenon for atmosphere: Inspector Maigret ducking into a little bar for a quick pint or, on a cold day, brandy, before exploring the drams of deceit in the streets and apartments of Paris. Or Donna Leon, whose Commissario Brunetti novels set in Venice, with details of the commissario’s daily meals that leave your mouth watering.*
There were times when instead of working on the dissertation I skived off for an afternoon with P.D. James. The Brits give good value. Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe stories work the mismatched-pair gimmick that has worked ever since Cervantes paired Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: the fat, loud, earthy Dalziel and the introspective, educated Pascoe.
On these shores, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police procedurals, Ross Macdonald’s Southern California Gothic narratives, Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, and Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian mysteries have aptly accompanied the after-work nightcap.
Not everything appeals, of course. I liked Patricia Cornwall’s early novels about Kay Scarpetta, the medical examiner, and thought the angle original. But as her novels have gotten considerably longer, the plots have grown more baroque and less readable. I ground to a halt a dozen pages into a recent one and never went back. Same thing happened with Elizabeth George.
I have enjoyed Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, though I say with regret—the man was a committed writer who died at his desk—that the last dozen novels were increasingly slender. We long ago grew acquainted with the Spenserian Stoic Hero ethic, and it has not been necessary for Spenser and Susan to rehearse it endlessly. And the denouement in Sixkill, the last completed Spenser novel, is presented almost offhand.
The pattern of the murder mystery is the same as the pattern of comedy: in an apparently orderly world, a disruption breaks in, and through a sequence of reversals and discoveries a fresh order is achieved. In mysteries it usually turns out that that apparent order was in some way corrupt, and it is interesting to note that Martin Beck, Commissario Brunetti, and many others are skeptical of governmental authority and the existing social order. The detective, like Holmes, Father Brown, and Miss Marple, is usually an outsider; the protagonists with official status like Beck and Brunetti are outsiders within authority.
Standing in opposition to the disorderly world of corruption and crime is the detective’s order, and in addition to the pleasure of experiencing violence at a safe remove, we enjoy the pleasure of the order the detective achieves. Who would not like to share those rooms in Baker Street, with the cigars in the coal scuttle and the pipe tobacco in the Persian slipper? Or that Manhattan brownstone with the ten thousand orchids in the rooftop conservatory? Or pop over to the Brasserie Dauphine for a quick one? As story succeeds story, we sink comfortably into a world that, for all its external disorder, has grown familiar and comfortable to us.
*At the Festival-on-the-Hill Saturday, I heard from Charlie Duff, whose taste is to be trusted implicitly, that Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montabano mysteries, set in Sicily, are even better. He sold me a copy of The Wings of the Sphinx at the used-book table, and it looks promising.