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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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 AM | | Comments (13)


A venerable list that brings back fond memories of afternoons in Branch 22 and decades of bedtime reading.

After devouring Erle Stanley Gardner's works in my youth, I was hooked by Donald Lam & Bertha Cool, the heroes of A.A Fair, one of Gardner's many pseudonyms. Sunday mornings at St. Reads in Govans, reading and collecting "literature", have evolved into daily admonitions from my wife to, "get rid of those (4000+) books!"

My father gave me a copy of Doubleday's "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" when I was a teen. I've read it through one way or another 4 or 5 times. But I've never really gone beyond the Sacred Writings in my murder mystery reading. Murder mysteries seem like science fiction to me in that there's just too much chaff to sift through to get to the wheat. Spy novels and westerns are my preferred genres when I'm in the mood for a reading bonbon.

@Bruce Robinson: Maybe you SHOULD get rid of those 4000 dusty books. For many years, I've made a practice of reading a book, then handing it off to a friend. Likewise, friends hand off books to me. It might not be good for book sales, but it keeps everyone reading and allows friends to make inside jokes/comments among themselves about things that happened in books ;-)

"Red Mandarin Dress" and "Death of a Red Heroine" by Qiu Xiaolong feature Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police. As in some of the books you mentioned, food plays a role in these novels. Based on your list, I think you might enjoy this author for combining very nice detective fiction and cultural background in modern China.

I agree with virtually all of your selections, and I think you'll enjoy Camilleri.

Page view #1 for October.

Our tastes are almost exactly the same except that (as I've noted earlier) I'm a big Sayers fan, with or without Carmichael or Petherbridge.

I've always quite enjoyed Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee stories, and, more recently, Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun novels. They might fit in quite nicely on this list, though they do contain elements of the supernatural (which, arguably, the Conan Doyles do as well).

I've enjoyed Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paibourn novels hugely. His struggles with an inept and insensitive Communist bureaucracy in Laos reminds us how universal the sense of struggling with inept and insensitive bureaucracies is.

re: ndrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montabano mysteries. I have read almost all of the ones translated so far. They are a lot of fun.

I've been re-reading Elizabeth Daly (American and Miss Christie's favorite American mystery writer) and am appreciating them anew. Set in New York during the War years, she has an affinity for dogs and cats, wry dialogue and quiet although deadly crimes among the books and manuscripts. Still in print, I'm happy to say. ANd it's about time Donna Leon actually allowed Brunetti to arrest someone: the menus are interesting as part of the texture of Brunetti's life, but in her most recent book, the crime nearly gets lost in chit-chat. Comme se dice "chit-chat" in Italiana?

I agree with most of your choices, although I've never gotten to Simenon. I came to Rex Stout late, and for a silly reason. I had it in my head that he wrote westerns; shades of Zane Grey! But once begun, I've read them over and over. Much better it doesn't get. I also agree with you about Parker, but with one comment; He is such a master of what he does, that I forgive him for the predictability ofr his plots. I haven't reread them yet, but I will.

As an admittedly 'occasional' mystery reader, at best, I'm still a tad chagrined that none of our blogger mystery buffs hadn't recommended the fine works by prolific African-American novelist/ essayist, Walter Mosley.

His enterprising, right-minded, self-styled, yet largely unschooled detective, Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, the abiding main character in his early mysteries, is a principled man who grew up on the mean, noirish streets of pre-war 1930s Los Angeles, and now as an adult, his acquired street savvy clearly informs his chosen vocation as an amateur sleuth.

I find Mosley's crime narratives richly descriptive in both establishing a believable place-and-time backdrop for his cast of 'players', as well as in capturing the authentic, precise argot of the street in the back-and-forth character dialogue, which keeps the reader (at least THIS reader) fully engaged in the unfolding plot lines.

I recommend Mosley's "A Red Death', "white butterfly', "Gone Fishin' " , "A Little Yellow Dog" and "Devil in a Blue Dress"-----the latter title popularized in the eponymously named film, starring Denzel Washington playing Det. "Easy" Rawlins.

Mosley's "Black Betty", chronologically leaps ahead some years from the mid-century era of his earlier mysteries, into the true grit of early 1960's downtown L.A. and environs; a volatile perood of brewing racial tensions in the City of Angeles. But Det. "Easy" Rawlins is still the main character in this compelling who-done-it drama.

I believe Mosley has more recently begun a whole new urban mystery series based in New York City, but I can't swear on it.

He's definitely a most gifted, smart, and entertaining mystery spinner. I recommend him highly.


For some unusual stuff, try Jan-Willem van de Wetering's Amsterdam whodunnits - Zen-propelled and interesting; and for some interesting use of language Crais' Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series; for the Swedish mentality Henning Mankell; for an intercultural element Sujata Massey.
Otherwise heartily agree with your choice of authors, in particular Sjöwal Wahlöö.

We cannot omit Baltimore's own Laura Lippman.

I prefer my Dorothy Sayers in print, not televised, by the way. Ian Carmichael was too plush and entirely too self-satisfied to be a perfect Lord Peter.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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