Sarah Rees Brennan (sarahtales) wrote,
Sarah Rees Brennan
sarahtales

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Mystery! Murder! (Get Your Mystery and Murder Here...)

I love mysteries. I love twist endings (as long as they're well set up). I love twisty plots, the more complicated the better. And I love people solving crime.

So crime novels, they appeal to me! But not ones with lovingly described murders of women that go on and on until you're like 'Uh - am I meant to be enjoying this?' I feel you have to be careful, with crime novels! But there are some I love.

The Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers

I discovered, six years ago and to my horror while watching House, that some Americans don't know who Jeeves and Wooster are. They are stories by P.G. Wodehouse about Bertie Wooster, a very amiable dim bulb who keeps stumbling into catastrophes and engagements and misunderstandings, and his haughty genius manservant who always saves the day. I recommend them, though I recommend P.G. Wodehouse's Psmith novels more.

But they are not in any way crime novels!

Except imagine this. What if the supercilious manservant was called Bunter, and he was a actually a rough-and-ready sergeant who wore a supercilious manservant mask because he realised that his highly strung but brilliant commanding officer was going to have a hard time in civilian life after the end of World War I, and someone had to be around and also incidentally be a highly trained photographer?

And what if that dim bulb, wreathed in vague, aristocratic stupidity, staring at you vaguely through his monocle and wittering an unending stream of nonsense, was actually said highly strung but brilliant commanding officer, and a glitteringly awesome detective?

Add Lord Peter's sweetly spoken but formidable mother the Duchess, his investigative team of elderly spinsters, and a very confused and distressed police officer who wishes Lord Peter would not make up little songs about bodies in baths.

The books start with Whose Body?, which is all about Lord Peter having huge fun until at the end, he's got a man hanged, and he has a shuddering case of the PTSD horrors, which I loved. The series always examines the cost of things: the price always, always has to be paid.

And Dorothy L. Sayers, who clearly gets very fond of her detective hero (and who can blame her, NOT I) does something everyone always says not to do with Peter's romance, and pulls it off. I always imagine it must have given her editor a surprise, though.

EDITOR: Sooo you've just written the latest Lord Peter novel.
DOROTHY L SAYERS: Why yes yes indeed.
EDITOR: Oooh, and Lord Peter falls in love.
DOROTHY L SAYERS: Yes.
EDITOR: With a dark, strong-minded, plain but kind of striking... writer of mystery novels... oh Dorothy.
DOROTHY L SAYERS: What? What, it is awesome!
EDITOR: ... Actually it is really awesome. Harriet accused of murder in part because of her Non-Respectable Shenanigans. Peter racing to save her! Once saved, she turns down his marriage proposal because being rescued is no basis for marriage! ... But still, Dorothy, I can't believe you did that.
DOROTHY L SAYERS: Did? Did what? I have no idea what you mean. (doodles)
EDITOR: Are you drawing 'Lord Peter Wimsey' with a love heart around his name, are you actually doing that right in front of me?
DOROTHY L SAYERS: That is immaterial! Anyway, I am certainly glad you enjoyed the book. I hope you will enjoy the next book, in which Peter and Harriet indulge in the most pleasurable and romantic pastime of them all-
EDITOR: ...
DOROTHY L SAYERS: Solving crime, obviously. And in the book after that, Peter and Harriet will investigate blackmail and lady academics against the background of a most excellent fictional college. And you know what that means.
EDITOR: Examining how romance can sometimes complement and sometimes infringe on a woman's autonomy and intellectual life, and wondering where to draw the line, or if you can ever know?
DOROTHY L SAYERS: Well, yes, that too. But I was thinking about the fact Peter obviously has to go rowing. He's so athletic. He'll get a bit warm, obviously.
EDITOR: ...
DOROTHY L SAYERS: I call that novel 'Dreamboat in a Rowboat.'
EDITOR: Well, it sounds great, Dorothy, but I think we're going to have to change the title.

My favourites of the series are Whose Body?, the first one, because it's so much fun and for the ending, Unnatural Death, for the casual insertion of the happy lesbian couple - one of whom is the murder victim - and for the prices you pay again, because Lord Peter looks into the death of an old lady and gets quite a few more people murdered in consequence and has to ask himself if it was worth it, and if he did it just because he likes being clever. Murder Must Advertise, for being fun again - Dorothy L. Sayers worked in advertising, coming up with a famous slogan for Guinness, and it's lovely to see how clearly she knows her stuff. Plus Lord Peter masquerading as a humble advertising mister and clearly choking on his own glee is great. ('I need to solve this murder with midnight acrobatics! you can hear him thinking. 'My life is AMAZING!') Strong Poison, the introduction to Harriet, and Gaudy Night (Dreamboat in a Rowboat).

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.

So, Agatha Christie. She wrote a LOT OF BOOKS. She invented a bunch of the mystery tropes. And some of her books were super formula.

But some of her books were amazing. And in this book, she takes the formula, and she uses it to give you the best kind of twist: the kind of twist that blows off your head, makes the whole book a different book than the one you thought you were reading, and yet doesn't feel like a cheat. The kind of twist that makes you re-read the book instantly.


POIROT: As any series detective must, I have a sidekick, the worthy Hastings, who narrated most of my books and gave Watson a bad name by actually being a dim girl-crazy sidekick, but was kind of a sweetie. Only he's just got married and moved countries. Man, Imma go to the country and grow vegetable marrows.
RELIABLE AND KINDLY DOCTOR: I will be narrating this novel, and most interested in detective work!
POIROT: Hey, new Hastings.
READER: Hey, new Hastings.
POIROT: Who could the murderer be? The mixed-up young lady, the rapscallion nephew, the result of the forbidden love affair?
READER: On edge of seat!
POIROT: Y'all, it's totally new Hastings.
READER: ... But he's! But you! But I! Whoa, I guess we totally didn't know that actual guy that well, did we?
AGATHA CHRISTIE: Heh heh heh. Nobody suspects Watson of the murder.


Another favourite Agatha Christie for me, and for different but cool narrative tricks, is the Seven Dials Mystery.

The Ice House by Minette Walters

ANDY MCLOUGHLIN: Man, my divorce was so bad, and now these three crazy lesbians living in a Gothic situation in a mansion suspected by the village have found a corpse in their ice house. Well at least I am played by Daniel Craig in the miniseries.
ANNE CATTRELL: Oh hey! As one of the three crazy ladies, I would like to appoint myself the most crazy. And frame myself for murder! And have many arguments with you! About feminism! And journalism! And when it is totally okay to just kill a dude!
ANDY MCLOUGHLIN: How is this my life. And why do we keep arguing, or is it debating, and we have really different points of view and we just keep talking and talking to each other and it's really - what's the word - Wow, kissing prime suspects is so inappropriate!
ANNE CATTRELL: When you help cover up a murder for me, it'll be a lot more inappropriate.
SARAH: TRUE LOVE!

I love Gothic situations, and social pariahs, and solid female friendships that in this case have really involved taking a wrecking ball to one's own life for one's friend, and the way articles are used in the narrative and it works, and the moment when you notice Anne's name in the bylines. And I love romance with people who talk all the time and are mutually astonished their jagged pieces fit together.

Never talk to me about Minette Walters's The Tinder Box, in which she gets Ireland so, so wrong it hurts me, but The Ice House I love like criminally delicious cake.

Beneath the Skin by Nicci French

You know that bit in a crime novel or a movie, the bit at the start or sometimes midway through, where we see (usually) a woman, and learn about her history, and we know we're just seeing her for this one scene because we know she gets killed at the end?

And then we see enough of, and enough focus on, our protagonist, and we know they're different, that they're safe.

This book is divided neatly into three parts, going into the lives of three different women in depth, and then we see two of them killed. I thought it was neat: the way it shocks readers out of set expectations (one of my favourite things!), and says they were all important, and the final scene has stuck with me for years: the woman who lived, juggling for the relative of one of the dead women, a celebration of life going on and laughter. (I am a big sap, is my point.) I also like What To Do When Someone Dies by the same author, for what I thought was a good study in bereavement as well as crime-solving!

Nicci French is actually a co-writing married pair, and I am always fascinated by co-writing. There are so many different ways to do it, and it's always fun to wonder how they did it, and think about how I do it, and try to see the seam. (I cannot see the seam at all in Ilona Andrews's books, though I know Ilona Andrews - like Nicci French - is a co-writing married pair. I can see the seam in the books Jenny Crusie co-writes, and I tend to like them less than her single titles, and yet I really liked Agnes and the Hitman, which she co-wrote with Bob Mayer, and would not give it up! Plus I read through everything at www.crusiemayer.com because - co-writing is fascinating!)

There's also the Lily Bard mysteries by Charlaine Harris. (Charlaine 'Sookie Stackhouse' Harris, yes.) I don't love the hero, but I do find them really fun and since I'm talking about mysteries, I thought I'd mention them. House cleaner with a black belt, though with - warning - a seriously traumatic past. But - house cleaner with black belt solves crime!

And I haven't read them all yet, but I'm really enjoying the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. Strong-minded spinster lady lays about with her parasol, protects ladies who have been dishonoured, firmly nurses and marries a burly Egyptologist, and solves lots of melodramatic and hilarious crime.

I just love solving crime. (Not personally. Though maybe when I'm old: how excellent would it be, to grow up to be an old-lady sleuth?) So here are my criminal book recommendations: do you guys have any for me?
Tags: book recommendations, what do you read that you don't read?
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