The first books I ever truly loved were the Nancy Drew mysteries. In middle school I couldn’t get enough Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple.
Today, mysteries are my number one comfort read. Actually, they’re just about the only thing I watch on television, too, provided they’re British.
This could explain why every time I take my kids to our local library (housed in an old railway station), I imagine myself in shoulder pads, sensible pumps, and wicked red lipstick making a dash for the 9:42 to London (even though I told my nosy neighbor I was taking the 8:42). Of course, our dimwitted constable will take my alibi for granted until Miss Marple proves me a liar.
Wait, you’re saying you don’t have daydreams like this? Well, you should read more books like these …
Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke: Albert Campion #14 is a classic, and it’s my favorite of the Albert Campion mysteries. You could read the first thirteen (something I do recommend you do eventually), or you could dive right into the best.
London is blanketed in a great fog, and a fierce, knife-wielding killer is on the loose. Allingham’s novel has the lightness and wit of all her Campion books, but this one is much more intense and terrifying. As other reviewers over the years have pointed out, this novel seems to straddle a literary dividing line. Feet planted in the golden age of detective fiction, it nonetheless looks forward to the contemporary psychological thrillers so familiar to us now.
The novel also has a theological bent that is (ironically) rare in these books about crime, death, and justice. There’s much more to contemplate here than just the goosebumps on your arm.
Lead us not into temptation, for of that we have already enough within us and must resist it as best we can in our own way. But deliver us, take us away, hide us from Evil.” – Margery Allingham
My next recommendation is much less serious, though it, too, centers on a creepy, mind-boggling murder. This is Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop: Gervase Fen #3. I have yet to read numbers one or two, but number three is a treat.
In the interest of full disclosure, the crime-solver in this series is an Oxford literature professor, so my love for this book is easily explained. However! Amazon.com has just informed me that P.D. James (more about her below) named this book one of the top five mysteries of all time. So, I think this one has appeal beyond my own particular niche demographic.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Richard Cadogan is a poet in need of a vacation. He heads to Oxford where, toward the middle of the night, he discovers a murdered corpse in the apartment over a toyshop. Bashed over the head, Cadogan spends the night stuffed in a closet. He escapes and returns with police the next morning, but … the toyshop has disappeared. Of course, this is a case for Gervase Fen (Oxford Don extraordinaire).
This novel is funny, farcical, ridiculous, and, simply, wonderful. It is by far the most “literary” literary mystery I know. Who knew one could simultaneously solve crimes and spend hours drinking and talking Shakespeare in the pub?
None but the most blindly credulous will imagine the characters and events in this story to be anything but fictitious. It is true that the ancient and noble city of Oxford is, of all the towns of England, the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons. But there are limits.” – Edmund Crispin
I might have included this final suggestion in my list of books I don’t know why I picked up but am so glad I did. You’ve probably heard of this one. I saw it for sale at Costco recently. This is Death Comes to Pemberley (Vintage) by P.D. James.
I’m including this recommendation, not because I think it’s a literary masterpiece (it isn’t), but because it’s been a long winter, and I’ve been feeling desperate for books as comforting as mashed potatoes or chocolate cake. I’m also including it because you probably share my horror of Jane Austen spinoffs and ripoffs (zombies, anyone?) and so might miss what is a very enjoyable book.
The book cover says it all. The queen of mysteries writes a sequel to Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s happiness at Pemberley is threatened by murder. James is no Austen, but she does a surprisingly good job capturing Austen’s characters. I’m actually embarrassed to admit how much I enjoyed this glimpse of Elizabeth and Darcy and their world after the wedding bells.
The mystery element makes it all the more fun. So, put down that chocolate chip cookie and try this instead (or, better yet, try both).
If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome? – P.D. James
Do you read mysteries? Watch them? Any favorites?