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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.
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-
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.
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.

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?


( 164 comments — Leave a comment )
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Sep. 9th, 2010 01:31 pm (UTC)
!! Did Peter get knighted? I thought he was Lord Peter!

*worried now that I am wrong*
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
No, thank you, I was wrong! That was the portion of blog written laaate at night, and would you believe I had the books beside me and checked his mother's rank and not his? Oh, brain, why do you occasionally just fail? But all fixed now.
(no subject) - trifles - Sep. 9th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ashfae - Sep. 9th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:37 pm (UTC)
You started off with some of my favorite books (Hooray for Lord Peter!) so therefore I will have to make my way through the rest of the list. I have a weekend to myself coming up, which I had planned to occupy with tea and knitting. Perhaps I will fill it with tea and knitting and Elizabeth Peters!

I'd totally forgotten about Roger Ackroyd, actually... my favorite Agatha Christies are The Secret of Chimneys which if you have not read, go now! and all of the Tommy & Tuppence books (in the case of ditto, begin with Secret Adversary).

Daniel Craig, huh? I must investigate...
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
Had to poke in to agree: Tommy & Tuppence are WONDERFUL and shamefully under-read these days.
(no subject) - hollyxu - Sep. 9th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blamebrampton - Sep. 9th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
Man, I also loved the sort-of-subtextual-but-not-really lesbians in Strong Poison. "Oh her, yeah, she doesn't like men." &Dorothy;

Also I love how ridiculously funny she is--the way she describes the fancy art scene parties both had me snorting in recognition (some things never change) and thinking, "You had to go to quite a few of those, didn't you?"

PS. I appreciate the distraction from thinking about gender in poetry translation for a bit! *goes back to MA thesis*
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
My favorite mystery books in the whole world are the Mary Russell books, by Laurie R. King. The first one is The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and it opens with Our Heroine wandering the English countryside with her nose in a book and subsequently tripping right over Sherlock Holmes, who has retired and is lounging about in the grass studying bees.

Thus begins the start of a beautiful detective-ing apprenticeship, which becomes a partnership, which becomes a marriage between two thoroughly pragmatic and logical people, and it has passages like the following, which is one of my favorite ever:

When he held me away from him, it was fortunate he left his hands on my shoulders. He spoke as if continuing a discussion.

"You do realize how potentially disastrous this whole thing is?" he said. "I am old and set in my ways. I will give you little affection and a great deal of irritation, though heaven knows you're aware of how difficult I can be."

"And you smoke foul tobacco and get down in the dumps for days and mess about with chemicals, but I don't keep a bull pup."


"Never mind. Holmes, is this a proposal of marriage?"

He blinked in surprise.

"Does it need proposing?" he asked. "Would it please some obscure part of your makeup if I were to get down on one knee? I shall, if you wish, although my rheumatism is a bit troublesome just at the moment."

"Your rheumatism troubles you when convenient, Holmes," I remarked, "and I think that if you're going to propose marriage to me, you'd best have both your feet under you. Very well, I accept, on the aforementioned condition that you never again try to keep me from harm by hitting me on the skull, or by trickery. I'll not marry a man I can't trust at my back."

"I give you my solemn vow, Russell, to try to control my chivalrous impulses. If, that is, you agree that there may come times when -- due entirely to my greater experience, I hasten to say -- I am forced to give you a direct order."

"If it is given as to an assistant, and not as to a female of the species, I shall obey."

These complicated negotiations of our marriage contract thus completed, we faced each other as a newly affianced couple, reached out, and shook hands firmly.

Edited at 2010-09-09 01:44 pm (UTC)
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
I've read The Beekeeper's Apprentice and it really didn't work for me: new character who is fabulous at everything coming in and dissing an old beloved character, no thank you! But I did think it was very well written, and my friend and fabulous writer R.J. Anderson loves the series to bits and pieces.
(no subject) - vito_excalibur - Sep. 9th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 9th, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
I have been devouring Agatha Christie for the last month, she is SO very good! Even when she is bad, she is wonderfully bad. And I have to confess that despite loving Wodehouse, I have always put Sayers aside for 'later'; on the above rec, I think I shall change that to 'next'. Thanks!
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
I haven't actually read them, but I know you like Georgette Heyer, so do you have an opinion on her mysteries?
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:50 pm (UTC)
I don't think they are anything like as good as her Regencies or her Georgians, but they're a lot better than her medievals! I admit, I've only read a couple.
(no subject) - meretricula - Sep. 9th, 2010 01:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 9th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
I feel that you would enjoy the Mrs. Pollifax books by Dorothy Gilman. She is an old lady who wanders into the CIA building volunteering to be a spy. Hilarious old lady hijinks ensue!
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
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(no subject) - harborshore - Sep. 9th, 2010 03:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
Hooray for mysteries!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd made me v. suspicious whenever I'm reading or watching a new mystery. I finally saw The Usual Suspects for the first time last weekend, and I guessed the ending almost immediately thanks to Agatha.
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
I always liked The Clocks, which while late Christie and therefore containing her weird obsession with how women don't wash their hair anymore (seriously, what was that about?) has a super great young detective and while it's technically Poirot it's much more Colin's book, though he may or may not be the son of someone else we've seen. It has a good romance in it, too, and two mysteries that are entwined.

I also love The Thin Woman by Dorothy Cannell, but the sequels are really not so good as they are very repetitive and rely on the main couple having to reaffirm their love over and over which is boring.

Which reminds me I really need to read The Thin Man because the movie is so great--really, all the Thin Man movies are super great, and it's rare you can say that about a series that went to six movies. When people give me bullshit about how sexy somewhat bickering couples can't get together and still be sexy I always say, "The Thin Man." Q.E.D.

There are big piles of pretty okay, good for the genre, well written, female pov, romantic detective stories that I could throw out here, but it's not like they hugely rise above the rest. They're just the paperbacks I was inhaling during the 90s. Like Carolyn Hart's Annie Darling books, or Gillian Robert's Amanda Pepper books, or Sondra Scoppetone's Lauren Laurano books (bonus: she's a lesbian).
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
I have heard good things about P.G. Wodehouse, but I have to admit, hearing he is like Dorothy Sayers without the mystery is one of the best recommendations I've run across. I'll have to give him another try.

Mystery suggestions...
The Westing Game is pretty much a mystery, and one that consists largely of a houseful of bizarre people being wonderful and hilarious. There's a girl who kicks people, an extremely entertaining will, and a surprise mad bomber. I highly recommend it.
Have you tried the Nero Wolfe books, by Rex Stout? I have some problems with the treatment of women in parts of the series, but they're incredibly clever and funny, with a pair of detectives -- one a genius who never leaves the house and cultivates orchids, and one who does the legwork, beats people up, and prefers to drink milk. Nero Wolfe and Peter Wimsey together got me hooked on mysteries.
Also, though this is not a book, have you seen the show Sherlock? It's a BBC modern Sherlock Holmes show. Only three episodes so far, but it is amazing. Instead of a journal, for instance, Watson has a blog, and he and Sherlock together are unbelievably adorable.
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:04 pm (UTC)
Sadly Wodehouse does not have the Sayers complexity, but the books are hilarious and I love them, and Psmith is rather like Peter - in that there is genius behind the monocle and affectations. (No genius to be found with Bertie Wooster, bless him.)

I have not read either the Nero Wolfe or Westing Game books! I must do so.

I loved the first episode of Sherlock, hated the second, and had very mixed feelings about the third. So I've decided to give it up, especially since there was no girl to hang my hat on and I'm bored of not being given girls to love as well as guys, though I do think the actors playing Sherlock and Watson were doing a great job and had an excellent and believable weird-friend-dynamic, and I am going to look out for Benedict Cumberbatch in other things. And who knows, maybe by the time the next series comes out, my crossness with the show will have worn off and I'll give it another go. ;)
(no subject) - vito_excalibur - Sep. 9th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 9th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
I am terrible at recommending mysteries because I don't often read them. I love Gothic novels that are twisty (Sarah Waters' FINGERSMITH, Diane Setterfield's THE THIRTEENTH TALE, etc.) but I imagine you've probably read any I might recommend. (I simply MUST read THE ICE HOUSE now.)

I did, however, just finish A SPY IN THE HOUSE by Y.S. Lee, which is about a young Victorian woman who is also a sleuth! (It's the first in The Agency series, which has the slightly preposterous premise of a cabal of secret female Victorian agents, but I LOVE IT.) I adore Mary, who is sensible and no-nonsense and awesome. I can't wait to read A BODY IN THE TOWER.
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:05 pm (UTC)
My friend Gwenda just read YS Lee and loved her too! Clearly, something I must have.

And yes I think you must read The Ice House!
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Sep. 9th, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC)
PEABODY! Another shirt ruined! ♥
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:06 pm (UTC)
PEABODY/EMERSON FOR LIFE! She has such a magnificent figure, don't you know.
Sep. 9th, 2010 01:59 pm (UTC)
There are not a lot of books I love more than the Peter Wimsey series.

Lately I've been reading a lot of Mary Roberts Rinehart (used to be approximately as famous as Agatha Christie, invented the phrase "the butler did it," wrote lots of stuff about awesome spinsters, etc.). A bunch of her books can be found for free on Project Gutenberg, and in particular I'd recommend When a Man Marries, in which Kit McNair throws a dinner party for her former suitor Jimmy on the anniversary of the day his wife left him. Everything goes horribly when his wealthy spinster aunt who disapproves of divorce shows up, and Jimmy talks Kit into pretending to be his wife. And then the real wife shows up. And then the Japanese butler gets smallpox and the house is quarantined. It's excellent.
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:03 pm (UTC)
I am terribly glad Mrs. Pollifax has been mentioned--I love her to bits. Here is a little old lady who, bored with life and geraniums, volunteers herself to the CIA. She promptly finds herself reinvigorated, takes up karate, and is still scrupulous about watering her geraniums.

You are probably aware of To Say Nothing of the Dog, a book that dearly loves Dorothy L. Sayers and Jeeves (though I am not convinced of how it feels about Bertie Wooster). (I can usually forgive its slighting of Charlotte Mary Yonge--silence, Baine, her novels are not foolish! Well, not The Daisy Chain, I cannot speak for the rest of them.)

I dearly love the early Amelia Peabody mysteries, though not the later ones, and have somehow never read the Psmith novels. To the library!
Sep. 9th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)
When I read Roger Ackroyd, okay, I knew that there was a twist but I had it wrong in my head. I thought the narrator was the victim rather than the murderer. So you can imagine how my mind was twisting trying to figure out how it was all going to work out.

The upshot: Total surprise ending for me!
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