Until recently, if you lived in a first world country, you will have become used to living a low risk life. Not one that is totally danger free, but one where you didn’t have an imminent sense of peril when you left your house, particularly in terms of your health. In fact, in recent decades for those of us lucky to lead a relatively privileged life, it’s easy to completely ignore our own mortality without very much effort. What we forgot is that that sense of security is a relatively recent development, and as the emergence of COVID-19 has proven, its one that can still be quickly swept away. We don’t have to look very far back in time to see an age when people lived and died amongst a host of deadly diseases and had to learn to accept the risk. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë are shining examples of what can be achieved when life is limited by circumstance. So, what inspiration can we take from them as we navigate our way through this global pandemic?
As we’re all stuck at home, a little (or a lot) of comfort reading is in order. Not a re-reader? I’ve included some newer books, and hopefully there are some authors here that are new to you as a reader. A great resource, should you want to read whole series in order (and why not?), is Fantastic Fiction. There you can find authors with their series listed in chronological order. If you want to delve deeper, check out Stop, You’re Killing Me, and drill down to finding a series by occupation, location, time period or character name. See what awards your favorite writers have won. These two sites are essential to any reader.
Ever since Nancy Drew met Ned Nickerson, love stories have been a part of crime fiction. Maybe not the main player, but some books have relationships that help define them. Here are some of my favorites.
In the golden age, Patricia Wentworth stands out, as she always foregrounded romance as part of her stories. Unlike some of the other authors I’ll mention, she wrote a series, but the romantic characters didn’t recur or involve the main characters, with one exception: Miss Silver Comes to Stay (1948), where Rietta Cray and Randal March, a former pupil of Miss Silver’s and now a Chief Constable, find slightly late in life love. March is a re-occurring character, and he and Rietta appear in other books, complete with a family to Miss Silver’s doting delight. Love in a Wentworth novel is quiet, intense and somehow dignified.
A list of snowy mysteries to help you enjoy the winter….
First up, of course, Jo Nesbo’s creepy The Snowman (2010), finds Inspector Harry Hole chasing down someone who buries bodies inside snowmen. You may never, ever look at a snowman the same way again. Ignore the bad movie – pick up this great read and be completely immersed.
Camilla Lackburg’s The Ice Princess (2008) finds writer Erica returning to her tiny Swedish hometown when a friend is found dead and frozen in his bathtub, wrists slashed. To process what has happened, she begins a memoir, and finds herself solving a crime. Atmospheric, full of well drawn characters, and yes, creepy as all heck.
If you enjoyed the new film Knives Out, and are craving a bit more fun, check out some of these great titles that have a similar dysfunctional family stuck in a big house vibe, often with a sidebar of humor or satire (or both).
A Fatal Winter, G.M. Malliet. In Malliet’s second novel, the delicious sleuthing vicar, Max Tudor, is dispatched to the home of Lord Footrustle to assist with funeral arrangements, but by virtue of a snowstorm, gets stuck in the middle of a dysfunctional family, all of whom seem to have had a reason for desiring the death of their patriarch. And it’s all the dead man’s fault, really, as the lonely Lord had invited his far flung family members to join him for Christmas. While this novel was written in 2012, it hews closely to the golden age parameters established so long ago, and so enjoyably, by Agatha Christie. While definitely tongue in cheek, Malliet breaths true life into her characters and her stories are wickedly clever.
Reading all kinds of lists about the best crime novels of the past decade, I, of course, being incredibly opinionated, felt I needed to chime in. Looking through this list one of the things that stick out, as far as my favorite reads are concerned, are a very specific sense of time and place. Sometimes place is pre-eminent , sometimes time, sometimes both. These books also contain some of the loveliest writing and most indelible scenes, things that remind me of why I love to read. So in alphabetical order, my favorites of the last decade or so:
At a book club recently, one of the members asked what were my favorite police novels? The obvious answer, Michael Connelly, sprang up, but the writers who drew me in to this particular sub genre were women. One of the true pioneers in this sub genre, Lillian O’Donnell, is one of my favorite writers. My late father in law introduced me to her in the 80’s and I’ve gobbled up everything I could find by this talented and to me, ground breaking writer.
Lillian O’Donnell started her career as an actress, but when her husband asked that she not be on the road so often, she decided to try writing. She wrote and sold her first mystery in 1959, but it wasn’t until 1972 that she created the character of policewoman Norah Mulcahaney. The Norah Mulcahaney books stretch from 1972-1998, finding Norah starting her career, climbing the ranks, marrying, becoming a widow, and along the way battling the sexism inherent in a very male environment.
From Nurse Matilda to Nanny McPhee to Mary Poppins to Jane Eyre, the governess or nanny has proved to be a fascinating character in literature, and mystery fiction has it’s share of them. Interestingly, both Nurse Matilda and Nanny McPhee where created by mystery writer Christianna Brand (1907-1988), beloved by mystery readers for her Inspector Cockrill novels. Here are a few of my “nanny” favorites.
Patricia Wentworth’s sleuth, Miss Sliver, is a former governess, so the lions’ share of governesses come from her pen. While Miss Silver is now a comfortably employed inquiry agent, she retains some of her governessy characteristics and appearance, a great advantage when she aspires to invisibility within a household where a murder has taken place. Two of my favorites are Wicked Uncle (a.k.a. Spotlight, 1947) where penniless Dorinda Brown takes a job as governess to a spoilt little boy. It’s rare to have the governess be the main protagonist, and this is one of the few examples. The suspense is provided by Dorinda’s fear of her “wicked uncle” who turns out to be her new employer’s neighbor. He is so unpleasant he is of course murdered, but this is one of the most charming of Wentworth’s books.
In 1962, a woman named Phyllis James sat down and wrote Cover Her Face, the first Adam Dalgleish mystery. Two years later, in 1964, Ruth Rendell wrote her first Reg Wexford mystery, From Doon with Death. These two women pulled the golden age format created by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers into the present, and as they wrote, they deepened the form psychologically, writing darker, more intense and longer books as their careers progressed. They were the godmothers of what I think of as the contemporary noir police novel, and writers like Jill McGowan, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George and many others have carried it forward.
This wonderful essay comes to us from occasional contributor Nancy Shaw.
The wait is over. The recently-released Maisie Dobbs mystery, The American Agent, puts her in the middle of the London Blitz on ambulance runs, bringing her back to the scenes of wartime carnage that molded her life into “psychologist and investigator,” the job she created after nursing in France in World War I. Jacqueline Winspear makes the trauma of war her major subject through her beloved series. Shell shock lingers in the lives of Brits and pops out in a variety of malignant ways, volume after volume.