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Talking About Detective Fiction (thoughts)

June 7, 2010

Along with fantasy, mystery has always been one of my favourite genres. I’m sure that my mother passed both of these loves along to me…when I was 9 years old, we made one of our summer migrations north from central Texas all the way to upstate New York, since my mom’s family all live outside of Buffalo. While there, my mom came out of the attic with an old, beat-up cloth suitcase covered with flowers in a particularly 60s range of colours: mustard yellow, dull orange, and a shade of green I can’t quite name. Inside were all of the Nancy Drew books she’d collected as a girl, perhaps 30 or 40 of them! I still remember immersing myself in The Mystery of the Old Clock, and for the next few years every Christmas would see a handful of new Nancy Drews under the tree waiting for me. Eventually, around 12 or 13 I graduated to Agatha Christie, and I’ve never really looked back since. Mysteries have always been a comfort read for me…I prefer the traditional ones to the harder ‘crime fiction,’ and when all isn’t right in the world, I long to escape to St. Mary Mead or 110A Picadilly all over again.

While my love of mysteries was first nurtured by British classics, nowadays several contemporary authors from both sides of the Atlantic also number among my favourites: Laurie King and her Mary Russell, Donna Leon and her Inspector Brunetti, Kate Ross and her Julian Kestrel, and of course, P.D. James and her Adam Dalgleish. I’ve also been on a bit of hunt for mysteries from around the globe, and have had quite a few successes with debut authors; given a few years, I hope to add several international names to this list. Less relevant to a book blog, I also enjoy several of the BBC mystery series…right now, I must say Foyle’s War is my favourite with the newest Miss Marple adaptations running close behind. And while I’ve yet to make it even one hundred pages into The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novel, I loved the HBO adaptation all the same.

The point of all this is that I am the perfect audience for P.D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction, a slim nonfiction treatise on the genre written on the request of the Bodleian. When I heard about the book, I had incredibly high expectations; after all, James is one of my favourite authors in the field, in particular for her literary sensibility. Guess what? She lived up to all of those expectations! My only problem with the book was that I had to return it to the library; this is one that I’ll be definitely be on the lookout for, as I plan to give it a place of honour in my permanent collection.

For such a small volume, James manages to cover both the history of the genre in its English-speaking British and American forms (with more of an emphasis on the British, I’d say) and more philosophical points, such as why readers enjoy books full of ‘murder and mayhem,’ how literary critics view mysteries, various writing styles, etc. I ended up with not only a more thoughtful view of one of my very favourite styles of literature, but also a whole new list of authors both contemporary and classic to try out!

Whether you’ve been a lifelong fan of mysteries, or you’re skeptical that such genre fare can possess any literary merit, I believe that Talking About Detective Fiction is well worth a read. I picked it up for the Bibliophilic Challenge, and it truly is a booklover’s delight! Erudite without being pretentious, comprehensive without being tedious, it’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon. I would warn you, though: have a mystery or two on hand for once you’ve finished, because if you’re anything like me, reading this will leave you craving them! :)

I’ve kept my post pretty brief, since unfortunately I don’t have the book itself to refer back to. However, Danielle of A Work in Progress (one of my best sources for new mystery authors!) did three wonderful posts on the book that you can read here, here, and here for a more in-depth discussion.

Do you have a favourite mystery author or book to suggest to me? I’m always on the lookout for more!

75 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2010 6:32 am

    I have to admit that I haven’t read a lot of detective fiction. I have enjoyed what I have read, but it’s just not something I usually pick up. Have you read Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg? I really enjoyed it, set in Denmark / Greenland. It also has some running social commentary on the treatment of Greenlanders by the Danes.

    • June 8, 2010 7:31 am

      I haven’t read Smilla’s Sense of Snow…I’ve worried that the Scandanavian tradition is too hard-boiled for me. But I am interested in the Greenland/Denmark relationship, so maybe I’ll suck it up and give it a try! lol

      • June 8, 2010 7:33 am

        I found it to be an easy and fun read, so I do recommend you suck it up :D I hope that if you do, you like it!

      • June 11, 2010 12:58 am

        Yes ma’am! ;)

  2. June 7, 2010 7:28 am

    You may have already read it (though I didn’t find it after doing a search on your site) but MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN by Jonathan Lethem is a real treat for detective fiction fans, since it has fun with the genre while still being a rollicking good story. Fun, funny, and smart.

    • June 8, 2010 7:32 am

      I haven’t even heard of it before; thanks for the suggestion!

  3. June 7, 2010 7:34 am

    I loved reading about your history with mystery novels! I’ve actually never read any of P.D. James’ books, though I do have Original Sin waiting for when the craving for “murder and mayhem” strikes! Currently I’m using Agatha Christie novels as my carrot to keep me motivated when I work out on the eliptical machine at the gym… they really make the time fly! Long live the mystery novel!

    • June 8, 2010 7:32 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed the personal bits! I didn’t actually have much to say about the book other than “It’s glorious. I want to live inside James’ head. The end.” lol Oh Dame Christie…always a perfect carrot. :)

  4. June 7, 2010 8:00 am

    Ah, the Nancy Drews. Love, love, love them. We have a bunch of my mom’s (she’s nearly 84) plus the ones I got when I was young. My oldest daughter has nominal possession of them, but I’m not sure I’m going to totally give them away just yet. I love mysteries as well, but I must say, reading your list, that I think I need to go back and read some of the “classics,” for lack of a better word. I just kind of pick up some, get involved with an author, and read most of them, all at once. That’s how I did the Spenser books, for example. Then I got on an audiobook tear, listening (starting in the middle, which I think was fortunate, actually) to all the “Cat Who” books by Lilian Jackson Braun. (The last one, I have to say, was pathetic. Just awful. Ruined the series for me…)

    Quick recommendation for a page-turner of a thriller (not quite a mystery, but I love thrillers too!) “The Eighth Scroll” by Laurence Brown, who’s written other action/adventure novels, plus books about comparative religion. This sort of encompasses both, with a long-hidden Dead Sea Scroll that’s theologically challenging with a message the hider considers heretical. Besides the plot twists and action, you get the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — and let’s face it, THAT”S certainly in the news these days; Jewish/Christian/Islamic religious differences and the uncertain theological foundations of Christianity, and it’s all stone-cold factual. Good stuff.

    • June 8, 2010 7:34 am

      So cool about the Nancy Drews! :) Have you read any of Dorothy Sayers? She’s probably my favourite classic writer, although Miss Marple runs a very close second. That’s too bad the latest Braun didn’t work out so well for you. :( Thanks for the rec re: Eighth Scroll!

      • June 8, 2010 8:29 am

        OK, Dorothy Sayers goes on my list! Always, always fun to read new authors.

        Have you read the “Cat Who?” books? I really thoroughly enjoyed the 15 or so I listened to. I can’t tell you how many hours on the treadmill or elliptical they got me through! Some of the plots were kind of wacky and I thought the author (a woman) was pretty much a misogynist (sp?). But that last one… I’m not alone, either. After I finished it I went online and read reviews and found other people were absolutely scathing.

        Enjoy “Eighth Scroll!”

  5. June 7, 2010 8:04 am

    Thank you for the information about the P.D. James book about detective fiction. I’ m going to look for it as I am a big fan of hers. I too find mystery fiction to be a comfort read although I usually avoid excessive violence. Three American writers with female investigators I admire are Sue Grafton, Sarah Paretsky and Nevada Barr.

    • June 8, 2010 7:34 am

      I think you’ll definitely enjoy this then! I’ve read one Barr and enjoyed it, so I’ll have to look out for Grafton. James mentions Paretsky in Talking About Detective Fiction. :)

  6. June 7, 2010 8:35 am

    You may have already them but I love the Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley. The first is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and the second is The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. Also, the Charles Lennox series by Charles Finch. The first is A Beautiful Blue Death. And I’m glad I’m not the only one having trouble with No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I enjoy cozy mysteries, but that one appears to be a little too cozy.

    • June 8, 2010 7:35 am

      I have read the Flavia books! I enjoyed the first, but the second didn’t do it for me for some reason. :/ Yeah-No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency just annoys me…I don’t know if it’s because it feels so condescending or what. But I haven’t heard of the Charles Lennox series, so I’m off to learn more about them!

  7. June 7, 2010 8:57 am

    I am not normally a mystery reading, but I am rather enjoying The Beekeeper’s Apprentice which you recommended ages ago. I am so pleased you brought it to my attention.

    • June 8, 2010 7:50 am

      Oh, I’m so glad you’re enjoying it! The series gets better with each book too. :D

  8. June 7, 2010 9:00 am

    I think you would really like the Sister Pelagia series by Boris Akunin — takes place in Czarist Russia and the detective is a bright young nun. There are three of them and I am saving the third because I just don’t want to be done!

    We adore Foyle’s War and are so sad to have caught up with the ones they just showed last month. I wish there had been twice as many episodes.

    • June 8, 2010 7:51 am

      Oh; I’ve read a couple of Akunin’s other series and enjoyed them, but I’ve been meaning to try out the Sister Pelagia. I have the first on on my Colorful Reading Challenge list; thanks for reminding me! :) I’ve still got one or two seasons of Foyle’s War to go, but I’m going to be sad when it’s over. Maybe I’ll just watch it again!

  9. June 7, 2010 9:03 am

    I’m honestly not a huge mystery reader. When I was in middle school a friend of mine got me hooked on Mary Higgins Clark, and looking back, those really weren’t great pieces of mystery fiction. I just never got into the genre and since I am such a huge chicken, I am scared to give it a go. I get freaked out pretty easily and I don’t want nightmares!

    I do have to say that I am really enjoying all my Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Perhaps I just need to stick to some of the older writers!

    • June 8, 2010 7:52 am

      I read the kind of mysteries that aren’t nightmare inducing, and I get horrible nightmares! SO, I’d totally suggest Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Wimsey books as a great place to start. And Laurie King’s historical series w/ Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, which begins with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

      • June 8, 2010 1:54 pm

        Thanks for the recommendations. I will definitely have to check them all out at some point. I mean, its not that I don’t enjoy mysteries, I just don’t enjoy being freaked out.

  10. June 7, 2010 10:10 am

    I’d love to read this one and find out her theory on why readers are attracted to murder and mayhem.

    • June 7, 2010 11:11 am

      For me the attraction is not the murder, and I can tolerate only limited mayhem. The attraction is the finding the solution to the puzzle, and that usually includes an exploration of motives. In real life, we often don’t get answers but mysteries are like morality plays. You know it is going to be resolved at the end.

    • June 8, 2010 7:53 am

      I feel the same way! I don’t like hardboiled mysteries w/ a lot of violence.

  11. June 7, 2010 12:22 pm

    I too fell in love with detective fiction through Nancy Drew. I have my aunts old ones from the ’50s.

    I’ve recently discovered the Reverend Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries written by Julia Spencer-Fleming. They are set in up-state New York. They are a nice mixture of relationship and the crime du jour. I also like them because they deal with social issues (adoption/foster system; GLBT issues and the vaccination debate) from a liberal slant. Very interesting. There are currently 6 books with a 7th due out winter/spring 2011.

    I also love J.D. Robbs In Death, but that might be a bit more towards the hard crime.

    • June 8, 2010 7:55 am

      Thanks for the recommendation! I don’t usually read mysteries w/ contemporary settings, but these sound interesting and I’ tend to the liberal side. lol

  12. June 7, 2010 12:41 pm

    We have very similar tastes in mysteries! I started with Nancy Drew, moved on to Christie, Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and other golden age mysteries. Then I discovered historical mysteries. The only author I don’t recognise in your post is Kate Ross and I’m definitely going to check her out. There’s been lots of great reviews of this book and I’m saving it for a slot of time where I can read it slowly and really enjoy it. I’m so glad you liked it!

    • June 8, 2010 7:56 am

      Kate Ross’ books are set in Regency England, and they’re SO good. Unfortunately, they’re out of print, and she passed away young from cancer so there are only four novels and a short story or two. Still, marvelous!

  13. June 7, 2010 12:46 pm

    I’ll certainly have to pick up a copy of this book. It sounds wonderful, although it will probably increase my huge TBR pile!

  14. June 7, 2010 1:05 pm

    I don’t read a lot of mystery fiction, but I totally get the appeal & do watch murder mystery movies quite frequently. Questions about why this genre has such wide appeal, and why it’s so COMFORTING to people even though it centers around murder, are so fascinating, and I’m very intrigued by James’s reflections on the more “philosophical points” surrounding the genre. So interesting! Thanks for the heads-up on this book, Eva.

    • June 8, 2010 8:05 am

      I think it’s definitely an Emily-style book! :)

  15. Cindy S permalink
    June 7, 2010 1:28 pm

    my 2 suggestions for mysteries are Donis Casey’s Alafair Tucker series (first title is’ The Old Buzzard Had It Coming’) and Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series (set in late ’70’s in Laos).

    • June 8, 2010 8:06 am

      Thanks! I’ve been eyeing the Laos series for awhile; sounds like I need to get on it. :) Haven’t even heard of the other one!

  16. June 7, 2010 1:30 pm

    As you mentioned you’d like to read mysteries from around the globe, I think you should try Henning Mankell. He is a Swedish author and very much appreciated in Germany and I would swear the rest of Europe, too.

    There is an upcoming author’s duo for mysteries here in Germany too, butI think they are not yet translated into English.

    Thank you for this post, it’s very clever.

    • June 8, 2010 8:07 am

      Is he hard-boiled? I’m not usually a fan of the harder stuff, which is why I haven’t given him a try before.

  17. June 7, 2010 2:06 pm

    Isn’t Foyle’s War awesome?!?! I love that cast so much. While I was thrilled with the most recent releases I was quickly bummed out that they were over and now we must wait a few years before we can follow Christopher Foyle over to America (to get his revenge, I hope).

    I like the new Ms. Marple. I enjoy the last actress better just because I’ve had a bit of an “isn’t she a cute thing” crush on her since watching Mulberry, but this one reminds me so much of my deceased grandmother that it is a hoot to watch.

    I would recommend the Inspector Lynley series if you haven’t watched it.

    • June 8, 2010 8:09 am

      Totally agree re: Foyle! I love the new Miss Marple, because she’s just like my mental Miss Marple, but I haven’t seen any of the other ones. :) I haven’t seen the Lynley series: thanks for the rec!

  18. June 7, 2010 2:41 pm

    Historically I haven’t been the hugest mystery reader, although I expect one of these days I will be suddenly in the mood to read mysteries and will go on a mystery-reading rampage. So I do not have many recommendations to make! My standard recommendations are Dorothy Sayers (whom I am pretty sure I remember you saying you already love) and Elizabeth Peters. Elizabeth Peters is not for everybody, but she has read all the same trashy adventure novels I have (H. Rider Haggard and that lot), so her humor always makes me laugh, even if her mysteries aren’t always that difficult to guess. One of my favorites of hers is The Camelot Caper, which isn’t a mystery really but still lots of fun – it’s a send-up of those Gothic novels with mansions in the back, and anxious-looking girls in swirly dresses in the foreground.

    • June 8, 2010 8:11 am

      Oh yes, I lurve Sayesr with a passion. :) I tried Crocodile on a Sandbank and didn’t really like it, but maybe I’d enjoy her books w/ different heroes more! I love gothic novels, so a parody sounds like fun. :)

  19. June 7, 2010 2:48 pm

    I was so excited when I found out that my uni library acquired this book, I´m going to pick it up this week. I never really read any Nancy Drew, although I read most mystery fiction for children and basically didn´t read anything but Agatha Christie in my teens. Just like you, the genre is comfort reading for me, which is why I adore cosy crime but not hardboilt fiction. I´m extremely picky when it comes to this genre but hopefully P.D. James will have some recommendations for me :D

    • June 8, 2010 8:12 am

      I’m cosy all the way too! Except I hate the label ‘cosy’ lol. I’m picky too, so you might want to try out some of my faves! The Donna Leon is a bit more hardboiled than the others, but still on the cosier end of things.

  20. winstonsdad permalink
    June 7, 2010 2:49 pm

    i m just reading on e reader a a milne’s red house mystery ,very good so far ,i alaways like rankin’s rebus series ,all the best stu

    • June 8, 2010 8:13 am

      Very cool! I’ll look out for your review. :)

  21. June 7, 2010 4:18 pm

    The first three Lauren Laurano mysteries by Sandra Scoppetone (I’m not sure how to spell her name) I think they are I’ll Be Leaving You Always, My Sweet Untraceable You and Everything You Have is Mine. Excellent, straight ahead mysteries with a very hard boiled female detective set in New York. Lots of fun. The ones that came after the first three, I didn’t like so much.

    • June 8, 2010 8:13 am

      I’m too much of a wimp for hardboiled! But if I ever toughen up, I”ll keep her in mind. :)

  22. June 7, 2010 4:42 pm

    I just finished God of the Hive by Laurie R. King (I’m a big fan of hers). I also just picked up The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and I’m looking forward to reading that.

    • June 8, 2010 8:14 am

      Isn’t the Mary Russell series the best?! I’m not sure how I’d feel about Hammett…I enjoy some noir movies, but the books I don’t usually like.

      • June 8, 2010 2:58 pm

        I picked Hammett up because he was mentioned in the Russell series and because I found it at a great 2nd hand book store for like, three dollars. Hopefully it will be good. I’m branching out…

  23. June 7, 2010 7:06 pm

    would the nameless green be avocado green or chicken poo green? :)

    I haven’t read a lot of detective series – but I like Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhythm series (he’s a forensic scientist – very knowledgeable and logical – I love how he’d explain he deducted his “solutions” by looking at the evidence alone – have you read or watched the Bone Collector? I believe that’s the first book. ) He has some stand alone books which I don’t like as much. His Kathryn Dance series (she’s a body language expert) is not bad, still like Lincoln Rhythm better.

    I like Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series – but her latest aren’t very good… the early ones are great. She’s a pathologist/medical examiner.

    Tess Gerritsen and Kathy Reichs are a couple I’d read and liked as well.

    I have never read Nancy Drew! I didn’t really start reading English books until I was 14 (lived in a non-western place before that) so my then favorites were Christopher Pike and RL Stine :)

    • June 8, 2010 8:15 am

      lol! Avocado I think. :) I’ve seen the movie The Bone Collector. I was a big fan of the Scarpetta books when I was in high school, but I agree they’ve gone downhill! :)

  24. June 7, 2010 7:32 pm

    I don’t read a lot of this genre. I do read Agatha Christie, but that is about it to be honest. I would love to read some more true old-fashioned crime fiction!

    • June 8, 2010 8:15 am

      Dorothy Sayers! And Ngaio Marsh will probably work for you too. :)

  25. June 7, 2010 8:22 pm

    This is totally not the point of your post, but I grew up outside of Buffalo! We may have discussed this before?

    Anyway, I am not a huge mystery reader. I do enjoy Elizabeth Peters and other historical mysteries…and, of course, Nancy Drew :)

    • June 8, 2010 8:17 am

      I think we have discussed it! :) Have you read Laurie King’s series? Best historical mysteries EVER. lol

  26. June 7, 2010 9:14 pm

    I love a good mystery, both dark or the older more puzzled style and this book has been on my wishlist for a while now.

    I have to give you a shout out for mentioning the BBC mysteries. I only get them on PBS now, but they used to play a lot of them on the BBC America channel. One of the big reasons that I HAD to have a DVR was that I was the only person in my house that watched them religiously. Over the years, they have introduced me to one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth George.

    • June 8, 2010 8:18 am

      I tend to get them from the library! But I do have the PBS Masterpiece things all set to record…sometimes others in the house cancel them. :/ I haven’t heard of Elizabeth George before, but I’m off to look her up now!

  27. June 7, 2010 10:05 pm

    I really, really must read this! I love James. Have you read her dystopian novel, Children of Men? I loved it. Much better than the film version, in my opinion.

    • June 8, 2010 8:18 am

      No I haven’t…I tend to be allergic to dystopian novels. ;) I might make an exception for James, though, once I’ve read all her other books!

  28. June 9, 2010 12:10 pm

    Interesting. I love James and loved Foyle’s War (we rented them all) and could not read No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency (or whatever it’s called) — not even 50 pages. Ugh. And didn’t get into the HBO show either.

    Have you tried Nagio Marsh?

    • June 11, 2010 1:00 am

      I don’t think I even got 50 pages into the Ladies’ Detective Agency book either…it was more like a chapter or two and then I was done. I did enjoy the show though!

      I have read a few Ngaio Marsh books…I like them, but I don’t love them. Does that make sense?

      • June 11, 2010 12:45 pm

        Makes perfect sense! I really liked them but stopped reading the series after a while.

  29. June 10, 2010 5:22 am

    Lovely memory of your mom’s Nancy Drew books! I like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Patricia Highsmith.

    • June 11, 2010 1:00 am

      Thanks! I’ve always thought that Chandler and Hammett would be far too hard-boiled for me, but I am curious about Highsmith. :)

  30. June 13, 2010 6:17 pm

    Thanks for the kind words Eva! I’m so glad you liked this, too. I think I may have to splurge and buy it when it comes out in paper as I had to return the library copy, too! By the way I read somewhere that someone is republishing Kate Ross’s mysteries. I still have the last one to read as I know there will never be any more–though now I should just start from the beginning again. I’m glad they”ll be back in print.

  31. stacybuckeye permalink
    June 22, 2010 2:02 pm

    I love the mystery genre and am adding this to my wish list right now! Thanks for the recommendation :)

  32. June 29, 2010 4:34 am

    I love mysteries too. Of late, I have enjoyed Tarquin’s Hall’s Indian mystery series “The Case of the Missing Servant” and “The Case of the man who Dies Laughing”.

    Good fun.

  33. April 26, 2013 5:03 pm

    Commenting several years too late to say that I finally bought The Beekeeper’s Apprentice because I remembered you really liked it. (I stopped reading mysteries for a few years because of the disturbing factor, so it’s nice to see that other readers of the genre aren’t all into the super dark books. And also, I don’t think Henning Mankell would your thing, he’s a bit too dark.) And another cosy-ish mystery series that I liked is by Louise Penny and is set in a small town in Quebec, where I sometimes wish I could live.


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