Mystery Novels – Feeding My Reading Sweet Tooth

mystery1What genre of fiction brings you the most genuine enjoyment?

I find that, although I sincerely and successfully attempt to read broadly, I possess a “default setting” in my literary taste; one that inevitably draws me back to mystery novels and  one that I give in to with periodic binges.

It all started twenty-five years ago when I stumbled upon Masterpiece Mystery airing on Sunday night television. My local public broadcasting station was showing the Brother Cadfael mysteries, wonderful productions starring British actor Derek Jacobi and based on the novels of Ellis Peters. I rushed to the library and gobbled up the series. A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) being the first novel.

Why do I love mysteries so much?

Sometimes the mystery novel is “delicious” due to its fascinating setting. In the case of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, all the action take place in 1137 A.D. Britain as a retired Crusader turned monk uses his knowledge of herbs (and poisons) to solve whodunits within the environs of Shrewsbury Abbey.

Another mystery novelist I recommend for excellent setting is Tony Hillerman who brings the reader to 20th century North America and the fantastic arid desert region of the Four Corners where the state borders of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada meet. Navaho Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his counterpart Sergeant Jim Chee delve into the mystical current and ancient culture of the First Peoples. The Blessing Way (1990) is the first novel in the Navaho Mysteries series.

Fundamentally, mystery novelists honor the preciousness of human life.  Murder is heinous and murderers must be found out and brought to justice.  This underlying truth resonates with my worldview.  The justice system, fair law enforcement, and a belief in the sanctity of human life all join together in a worthwhile, yet arduous battle to expose and eradicate hidden evil.

mystery2Another reason mysteries can be valuable reading  are the well-drawn characters who leap off the page, enter our living room and sit down beside us as if they were real people. A prime example is Mary Russell, who matches Sherlock Holmes in wit and brains in contemporary novelist Laurie R. King’s mysteries. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (2002), the first in this series, introduces the reader to a middle-aged Sherlock who engages the impressive intellectual gifts of young Oxford student Mary Russell to help him solve intricate mysteries in a series of thirteen novels.

Another wonderful character is Lord Peter Wimsey who acts the part of shallow rich blue blood all the while figuring out impossible puzzles in both the English countryside and in urbane London. Dorothy L. Sayers adds another layer to Lord Peter’s personal complexity with the entrance of love interest Harriet Vane who is accused of murder in Strong Poison (1930). These stories are both set in and written in the 1930s and are extremely authentic.

Not to be ignored in this genre, is the importance of a complex plot. I mined the riches of British mystery authors for years because of their ability to fool me every time. Sometimes, after I read the denouement, I flipped backwards through the pages to find those hidden clues in conversation or description and saw how skillfully authors had planted the trail of breadcrumbs. Masterful creators of intricate plots are Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, and Bruce Alexander.

Inevitably the criminal mind and the depths of human depravity weave themselves throughout all mysteries. I must admit the dark alleys down which certain authors go can be too haunting for me. I have backed away from certain stories when I felt the cold breath of evil curl around me too chillingly.

Patricia Cornwell’s suspense thrillers starring brilliant Virginia medical examiner and FBI consultant, Kay Scarpetta finally scared me away with their depiction of evil. These mystery novels are full of well-researched forensic detail and psychological suspense for readers who dare. Postmortem (1990) is the first of this series.

More wholesome mysteries abound; one such author is Patricia Sprinkle who introduces Katharine Murray, a Georgia homemaker who is in the midst of a mid-life crisis and discovers her talent for unraveling family secrets in Death on the Family Tree (2006). The Family Tree series also includes Sins of the Fathers (2007) and Daughter of Deceit (2008).mystery3

Of course, I must give a most honorable mention to the best sleuth of all – eleven year old Flavia de Luce.  See my blog post on Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009).  I hope to write again and in more detail about this wonderful mystery series by Alan Bradley.

I truly don’t mind being fooled by the mystery author, as long as I am captivated by the characters, the setting, or the plot.

If you are a mystery novel aficionado, please leave a comment with your favorite.

Categories: British novels, Mystery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “Mystery Novels – Feeding My Reading Sweet Tooth

  1. Wendy

    I definitely lean toward the more tame mystery and not the thrillers, it’s the puzzle I like, I’d be happy with a mystery that doesn’t involve a murder 🙂 And just like you, I’ve flipped back thru the book looking for the clues!! You’ve already named my favorites, Dorothy Sayers is the Queen with her Lord Peter and Harriet Vane and I am loving Alan Bradley’s Flavia as you know. I am going to try Cadfael and Enid Blyton next! I think I would have liked history a lot more in school if I could have read it as a mystery!

    • I didn’t make room in my post to highlight Bruce Alexander, but he wrote about a blind barrister, Sir John Fielding in early 1700s England and did a great job with period detail. Also, have you already read Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels? Almost no murders in those mysteries that Mma Ramotswe solves – and she is a Botswana lady with wonderful humor and wisdom.

  2. My favourites mirror yours, but I would add near the top of my list C J Sansom – Shardlake series, an enquiring barrister at law at the time of Henry VIII (very topical at the moment); Rory Clements – John Shakespeare series – does what Sansom does but at the time of Elizabeth I and finally The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
    But hundreds more too numerous to list – Ngaio Marsh for instance…

  3. This is a fairly new genre for me (just got into it in the last five years or so) but I’m really enjoying it. My husband and I recently read the prequel to A Morbid Taste for Bones, which explains more about how Cadfael became a monk. I haven’t read any of the other of Peter’s books. I tend toward vintage mysteries because they are cleaner. Could you say that about most of your suggestions here?

    • I gravitated toward the mystery genre years ago because they often had no sexual scenes/relationships described. However, the gritty underworld and serial killer life sometimes exposes “yucky” hidden evil. From my recommended authors in this post, I would suggest you try Patricia Sprinkle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellis Peters, Laurie R. King, Josephine Tey, and Bruce Alexander (Blind Justice). P.D. James is a great writer, but her plots expose some gross sin. Modern American mystery novelists are notorious for exposing the underbelly of society.

  4. P.S. My grown-up favorites would have to be Brother Cadfael and some of Susanna Kearsley’s books, especially the earlier ones.

  5. I read a library book mystery as a child, and it haunted me for years because I could remember the plot–a bunch of kids found a cave in a valley in the mountains where numerous art treasures had been hidden from the Nazis, still guarded faithfully by an elderly couple many years after the end of the war. This book presented me with its own mystery because I could never remember either the name of the book or the author’s name. For fifty years I would comb through used book sales, just hoping something would ring a bell. When the internet got going I searched online, but all in vain. Finally, one Christmas Eve a few years ago, I stumbled on a website that helps people remember a book by posting plot details. I was too cheap to pay the fee to post my mysterious mystery, but as I read through the postings I found one that sounded a lot like my book, just in a different setting. One of the responders told the poster that it sounded like an Enid Blyton book, so I looked up Enid Blyton. There’s a whole website devoted to her books with a list of every book in every series, along with its synopsis. There was my book, The Valley of Adventure! I ordered it for myself as a Christmas gift, and after 50 years, you can believe I was jumping up and down with excitement. My husband has given me four other books in the series as stocking stuffers, and if he runs of those, there are always her other series to start on. 🙂

  6. M E Cheshier

    Reblogged this on Book Reviews Current and commented:
    Fabulous review!

  7. M E Cheshier

    Great review. Sounds like a book I have to put on my list!

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