Books I’ve Stumbled Upn, Pt. I—Mysteries

All good mysteries are works that non-mystery lovers can enjoy.  They are good works of fiction, by good writers, that happen to be mysteries.  They deal with an event that arouses our vicarious adrenalin—the perpetration of evil.  Yet they are “entertainments,” as Graham Greene would say.  At least the ones I like are.

To me there are three basic kinds of mysteries:  romance, naturalistic, and puzzle.  In “romance” (in the literary use of the term), you have heroes and heroines outwitting and overcoming villains—and often something romantic does develop, as a bonus to the crime-solving.  And it’s always romantic to have a personality of high quality, that people admire, to identify with.  In naturalistic works (hard-boiled, police procedural, noir), the emphasis is on bleakness and toughness.  Puzzle mysteries are like written-out crossword puzzles; locked-room mysteries are classic examples.

For a mystery to be an entertainment, it pretty much has to have interesting characters and situations and an enjoyable atmosphere.  So most good mysteries, in my view, are what I have called “romances.”

Here is a list (incomplete) of mysteries I have liked:

Some comments: 

Raymond Postgate – Verdict Of Twelve

Ellis Peters – Fallen Into the Pit

Patricia Wentworth – Rolling Stone (a great villainess)

Michael Gilbert – The Doors Open; Game Without Rules

Josephine Tey – The Franchise Affair

Nicholas Blake (pen-name of the father of Daniel Day-Lewis) – The Smiler with the Knife

Margery Allingham – Dancers in Mourning; The Fear Sign; The Mind Readers

Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh – Thrones, Dominations

Andrew Taylor – An Old School Tie

Ngaio Marsh – Night at the Vulcan

Patricia Moyes – Falling Star

Rex Stout – Too Many Cooks

Peter Lovesey – The House Sitter

Dick Francis – Banker; Reflex

Simon Brett – Dead Giveaway (alcoholic actor as blundering amateur detective)

Emma Lathen – Banking on  Murder

P. D. James – Unsuitable Job for a Woman

I think Allingham’s Albert Campion is easily better than Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey.  The only Sayers work that I like very much was finished by another writer years after Sayers was dead.

Dick Francis’s heroes tend to be unbearable—self-pitying and self-absorbed and yet altruistic and ultra-courageous, and obviously made of bones and ligaments of steel, since they survive brutal punishment that would pulverize most people—even Tiger Woods.  Yet, at his best he rises above this handicap.

I’ve read several of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels.  They seem so much alike that I don’t see much point in reading more than one.  I’d be glad to know if there are any others of his that stand out from the crowd.

I have tried several P.D. James novels, but have really liked only the one I listed.

John Wesselmann

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